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  • by Katrina Mitchell

Respectability Politics, Pt. 1

“Your respectability won’t save you.”

A young black man in Boulder, Colorado was held at gunpoint by police, for picking up trash outside of his home. Zayd Atkinson, 26, was profiled despite the fact that he was a college student and presented his school ID to the officer. In an interview with Good Morning America, he noted that the reason he might have been targeted was because he was a black man, with dreadlocks, a beard, and “raggedy clothing”.

In effect, he is (at least in part) blaming the fact that he wasn’t looking respectable at the time. When it comes to police killing black people, it’s a common refrain. Trayvon Martin was a thug because of the hoodie he wore. Recently, following the murder on Nia Wilson on a BART train in Oakland, pictures of her on the news had her holding a gun, neglecting to mention that it was actually a phone case. It’s almost like they deserved to lose their lives because of the clothes they wore or accessories they had.

Wait a minute, is that right?

Unfortunately, the way you look or present yourself to the world has no bearing on whether or not you will be respected or even allowed to live. As an African-American, my early life was filled with lessons about how to carry myself properly, how to dress and talk-- not just because it was a good or right thing to do, because they hoped it would save me from some of the evils in the world that I might have already been exposed to because of the color of my skin. A woman who wore short skirts or strapless tops, who wore tight clothes or was overtly sexy in any way was disrespecting herself and asking to be raped. She wore what she wore to get attention from men, but she was bound to attract the wrong type of attention.

I was taught to protect my reputation-- if people thought I was “fast”, then no man would want to marry me. I would be devastated whenever I heard rumors being spread about me by the girls I went to school or church with. At the same time, I wanted to be cool, and wear what the cool girls wore. That didn’t mean that I wanted or deserved to be assaulted.

As I grew older, I learned that people who want to hurt you don’t need permission from your clothing to do something to you. A woman in a long skirt and a shirt buttoned up to her neck can be attacked just as easily as a woman leaving a club at 2 am. We unfairly place the burden of preventing rape on the victim by asking silly questions like “What was she wearing?” or “What was she doing going out at that time?” instead of asking the relevant questions like “Why doesn’t the attacker have any concern about the humanity of their victim?” or “Why would they think it was okay to rape anyone?”

It would benefit everyone if in our sexual education classes, we taught that each person deserves respect for no other reason than because they are human beings, no matter what gender, race, ability, or other group they may be a part of or represent. It would be a benefit for us to teach that when we violate another human being, we are causing damage not only to the victim, but to ourselves. And it would definitely benefit everyone if we let go of the idea that being respectable will keep you safe, instead of holding the attacker accountable for their deeds alone.

Being respectable doesn’t save you-- not from sexual assault, not from domestic violence, not from police brutality, not from random street attacks. Let’s stop looking to respectability politics, and instead acknowledge and honor the humanity in all people.

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