By Rosemary Bassey, AAA DEI Committee Member
Respectability politics is a rarely acknowledged concept, though a predominant feature in most social and professional settings. It is a term which commonly describes the adjustment of individual behavior for public presentation based on pressures to go against existing negative racial stereotypes placed upon marginalized groups of people 1. The term “respectability politics” was coined by Evelyn Higginbotham in her depiction of women’s movements in the 20th century black Baptist church who employed various self-presentation approaches to disprove racist stereotypes 2. These actions inadvertently caused them to extricate themselves from those of “lower status” through adherence to mainstream middle class standards including dressing style, gender identity, organizational affiliations and behavior 3. The belief was that these impression management strategies and ability to code-switch allowed minority groups to achieve upward social mobility and a sense of safety 3; 4. Interestingly, these strategies are still at play in academic and work settings today, with black, brown and LGBTQIA individuals having to conform to what is considered “professional” by the larger society. Moreover, studies have reported better career outcomes and acceptance in professional circles for members of marginalized groups when they employ impression management strategies of self-presentation 5; 6.
The pressure for underrepresented groups to suppress their individual and cultural identities to appeal to normative sensibilities is however physically and psychologically exhausting. It has led to a state of vigilance characterized not only by prior exposure to cultural and structural racism but by what Lee and Hicken 4 described as “anticipatory stress” – a state of constant apprehension of macro- and micro-aggressions in everyday life, including work spaces. This primarily results in the development of suitable behavioral, cognitive, and physiological coping strategies to deal with it. Nonetheless, the state of constant anticipatory stress may result in the persistent hyperactivation of the hypothalamo-pituitary-adrenal (HPA) axis and consequently high circulating glucocorticoids, which has been linked with a plethora of mental health outcomes including anxiety and depression, and poses a high risk for cardiovascular diseases 7.
The rise and popularity of Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI) offices in many institutions and workplaces in the last decade is a welcome development. The aim has largely been to promote diverse representation, provide diversity-related trainings, and create safe and inclusive spaces for staff and students in an organization. One of the usual trainings organized by DEI offices is on unconscious or implicit bias – learned assumptions, beliefs or attitude towards other races, religion, gender, or sexual orientation. These biases are usually developed over time based on life experiences and information which can skew our sense of judgement about students and colleagues, creating an unhealthy workspace.
Hence, to achieve a safe space where diversity thrives, true inclusivity must be adopted. The challenge here is to unlearn mainstream normative expectations and promote humanism – respect for each other in their individual uniqueness without bias or discrimination.
1 PITCAN, M.; MARWICK, A.; BOYD, D. Performing a Vanilla Self: Respectability Politics, Social Class, and the Digital World: Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication 23: 163–179 p. 2018.
2 DAZEY, M. Rethinking respectability politics. Br J Sociol, v. 72, n. 3, p. 580-593, Jun 2021. ISSN 1468-4446. Disponível em: < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/33410146 >.
3 HARRIS, F. The Rise of Respectability Politics: Dissent. 61: 33-37 p. 2014.
4 LEE, H.; HICKEN, M. T. Death by a thousand cuts: The health implications of black respectability politics. Souls, v. 18, n. 2-4, p. 421-445, 2016. ISSN 1099-9949. Disponível em: < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/29187782 >.
5 ALI, A. A.; LYONS, B. J.; RYAN, A. M. Managing a perilous stigma: Ex-offenders’ use of reparative impression management tactics in hiring contexts. J Appl Psychol, v. 102, n. 9, p. 1271-1285, Sep 2017. ISSN 1939-1854. Disponível em: < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/28447830 >.
6 ROBERTS, L. M.; CHA, S. E.; KIM, S. S. Strategies for managing impressions of racial identity in the workplace. Cultur Divers Ethnic Minor Psychol, v. 20, n. 4, p. 529-40, Oct 2014. ISSN 1099-9809. Disponível em: < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/25090148 >.
7 HERMAN, J. P. et al. Regulation of the Hypothalamic-Pituitary-Adrenocortical Stress Response. Compr Physiol, v. 6, n. 2, p. 603-21, Mar 15 2016. ISSN 2040-4603. Disponível em: < https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27065163 >.