After the Civil War Black women like Ida B. Wells adopted “respectability” centered in clothing, coiffures and careers. They gladly shed the attire and pursuits foisted on their mothers when held in slavery. But, being a lady didn’t truly change their status, as Ida learned when she was forcibly ejected from the “Ladies Car” and told she could only ride in the car for Blacks.
Mikki Kendall explains the ”respectability” requirements for Black woman today. They entail “a nonstop remodeling of body language, wardrobe, and hairstyles so as to be seen as nonthreatening, engaged, and somehow ready to join the broader world.” This “respectability” is demanded to access even the least desirable jobs.
Like Ida B. Wells ejected from the “Ladies Car”, respectability doesn’t protect Black women as it protects white women. The Institute for Women’s Policy Research reports that Black girls are more likely to be suspended from school than other girls. Black women are subject to higher rates of abuse – humiliation, insults, and coercive control. Abuses continue in the workforce, where Lean In notes Black women are paid 20% less than white women. Black women with higher degrees continue to earn less than their counterparts.
If “respectability” earns Black women few gains, where might the answer lie? Perhaps in a world where Beloved Community is more than a phrase, where the assumptions and effects of racism have been confronted and overcome, where you and I work as anti-racists implementing the 8th Principle.