Wearing a Suit While Black: Is Respectability Politics a Thing?

The short answer is yes.

Yes, after a year in which so many of our Black brothers and sisters were slain, I am willing to bet that a great number of Black Americans still hold fast to the idea of respectability—the notion that if you ‘act right’, you can avoid the discrimination and injustice that befalls so many of us.

The problem that most people have with respectability politics is that it assumes that only the majority’s idea of what is right, innocent, and familiar deserves respect. Moreover, RP grants us license to ignore the systemic racial problems that our country continues to face and suggests that, “if only [Trayvon, Tanisha, Mike, Martese, Sandra, take your pick] was behaving appropriately, s/he could have avoided his/her fate.”

Photo via  Glamour

Photo via Glamour

Suits have been closely linked with respectability politics over the past 150 years. RP’s leaders and paragons have all worn suits (see Booker T. Washington, Bill Cosby, Barack Obama), and it is no surprise that suits are also common attire at black churches. Numerous other writers have linked RP to the black church. (As a matter of fact, a lot of other great writers have written about RP recently. Check them out here, here, here, here, and here.) If we consider the idea that white slave owners imposed Christianity on black slaves to enact a spiritual leash of sorts on their behavior and life outlook, a critical thinker could reasonably associate dressing in a suit with attempting to gain acceptance and respect from white people.

In fact, I recently engaged in a dialogue with a critic of Dapper Black Box who argued that our business was pushing a similar RP agenda. DBB is indeed linked with a ‘Western’ style of formal wear. Yet in our conversation, I tried to reason that the real mission of our company is to encourage investment into black businesses and that fashion was just one avenue that we chose to pursue this mission. However, my critic’s conversation made me question whether the business was clearly emboldening black people or the ideology of our oppressors.

Therein lies my true critique of the black men in suits as respectability politics metaphor. I agree that simply wearing a suit to protect oneself from oppressive discrimination in America is a bit shortsighted and incomplete. Yet, I think that our company’s mission speaks to a more effective method to gain respect that doesn’t carry such a negative connotation as respectability politics.

By encouraging investment into black businesses, we are perpetuating a kind of respectability politics that argues for independent sustainability on the part of African Americans. Instead of dressing or acting “better,” we are fighting to get our brothers and sisters to think and spend better. I think that building our own economy is likely to earn the ultimate respect from outside communities and the best part is, if it doesn’t, then we can still sustain our own communities through economic development.

It’s true and understandable that Black Americans have a contentious relationship with respectability politics. It has been used to justify countless killings and mistreatment of thousands of our brothers and sisters. It perpetuates the idea that only certain types of lifestyles are worthy of respect. Should we even have to deal with RP? In a perfect world, no. But since we live in a world where respect (or the lack thereof) is the root of severe racial injustices, we are forced to take a closer look at the type of respectability politics we adopt. 

Aaron Barnes is a marketing doctoral student at the University of Illinois and the founder of Dapper Black Box—a monthly subscription service that sends its subscribers high quality men’s accessories exclusively curated from black owned companies. He is as avid learner and tries to match his (sometimes externally imposed) deep thinking with decisive actions that positively impact those around him. Read more about him here and more about Dapper Black Box here.

IG: @aaronjbarnes_ & @dapperblackbox

Twitter: @aaronjbarnes & @dapperblackbo