Senior year of college was my “hair year.” Perhaps it was the uncertainty of the future. Perhaps it was the knowledge that whatever that uncertain future held, it would probably require dress pants. It could have been a reaction to transitioning to natural hair, which I had started the school year prior; the more I let go of the stress of a bi-monthly relaxer schedule, the more freedom I felt to explore new hair horizons. The fact that Rihanna was in her Unapologetic-era probably didn’t hurt.
For whatever reason, that year I made two drastic hair changes: an undercut in the fall 2012 semester, and a bright red streak in the spring of 2013. An impulsive decision during a keratin treatment, I wasn’t exactly thrilled with the results of the streak—I remember thinking it clashed with my undertones on the drive back from the salon—but as someone who had spent most of their life performing the safest version of rebellious with their aesthetic, it felt kind of liberating.
It was also very on-trend. Tumblr and Pinterest were flooded with images of young women, mostly white, with long, pastel waves. Kylie Jenner had begun her foray into experimenting with color (one that would ultimately lead to her claiming she “started wigs”). And a Bangerz-era Miley Cyrus, sporting a partly-bleached undercut and space buns, would soon grab headlines for grinding on Robin Thicke at the MTV Video Music Awards.
When I returned to my summer job after graduation, one of my supervisors responded to my new ‘do thusly: “You have to be careful. On white girls, it’s fun and edgy; on us, it’s ghetto.”
I thought of those words one morning a few months ago as I pulled out my curls, temporarily colored a vibrant red courtesy of a pigmented curl cream. What struck me then—and, honestly, now—is that she wasn’t necessarily wrong. As a person with marginalized identities—in my case, situated at the intersection of Black and woman—I found myself doing a mental calculus as to just how much self-expression I could afford with my fashion, my makeup, and my composure. Going even slightly over felt like it could throw my entire social standing in flux.
My supervisor was engaging in respectability politics, a term coined by historian Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, Ph.D., in relation to the middle and upper-class Black civil rights activists of the 20th century. These activists believed that adhering to a strict moral code, extending to “cleanliness of person and property” (think of all the suits and ties at Dr. King’s March on Washington) would inspire white people, many of whom saw Black people as biologically inferior, to view us as equals. Respectability politics requires “impression management” around white and other non-Black people, like code-switching, and policing the behavior of other Black people who don’t conform to mainstream middle-class values. And respectability politics is very much alive and well today: A study from 2018 discussed the ways in which young, upwardly-mobile people of color “manage impressions online by adhering to normative notions of respectability,” doing so by presenting a “vanilla” self.
Even as I stood at that mall cash register ruminating on my supervisor’s comment, I knew that respectability politics were misguided and unfair. They’re also ineffective—a Black Harvard professor, no matter what clothes he wears, can still get arrested for trying to enter his own home.
Yet still, up until that point, I had never actually challenged respectability politics within myself. I didn’t (and still don’t) have a good grasp of AAVE; throughout high school, I eschewed hip-hop for post-punk and made sure everyone knew it. At my public university I prided myself on going full hipster, standing in direct opposition to the largely conservative, Kate Middleton-esque aesthetic that dominated my campus—but through a subculture that was still heavily coded as white.
In hindsight, even my commitment to staying very thin during this time was, in part, a commitment to not being that kind of Black. In Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fatphobia, author Sabrina Strings argues that modern fatphobia has its origins in the Enlightenment era belief that fatness is associated with “savagery” and racial inferiority. By the 20th century, fatness as a sign of moral, intellectual, and racial inferiority was fully codified and can be seen in everything from mid-century magazine weight loss tips to the troublingly frequent occurrences of male actors donning drag to play modern versions of the mammy trope.
While respectability politics require Black women to stay in a very specific lane to be treated with, well, respect, the inherent linking of whiteness with “cleanliness of person and property” means that white people are afforded more room to express themselves—often doing so through the appropriation of Black culture.
In a way, Miley Cyrus’s aforementioned 2013 VMAs performance—and how she would reflect on it years later—perfectly encapsulates the relationship between race, culture, and who is afforded the freedom to experiment with their look. She followed in the footsteps of many a child star before her, shedding her wholesome image and replacing it with one heavily influenced by Black culture. She sang about “homegirls here with the big butts / shaking it like we at a strip club” while surrounded by twerking Black backup dancers, wore grillz, and generally spent the year trying to prove to everyone that she was no longer Hannah Montana: she was a grown-up, sexual woman. That Halloween, she even dressed up as one of the most iconic representations of colorful hair and overt sexuality: Lil Kim at the 1999 VMAs. What better way to convey sexuality and deviance than to adopt that which is associated with Blackness?
And of course, four years later, as she returned to country music—finished with her tour of transgression—she disavowed hip-hop. Not unlike, as writer Richey Collazo noted, how Christina Aguilera went from "Dirrty" to a pin-up, or Justin Timberlake’s transition from soul crooner into a Man of the Woods.
In a perfect world, there would be no problem with exploring different styles on the path to self-discovery. But we don’t live in a perfect world, and in the world we do live in, some people are allowed to dip in and out of an aesthetic whenever they feel like it, using it as a temporary form of transgression or taking pieces here and there for a little bit of color. Carrie Bradshaw can wear her "ghetto" gold jewelry because on her slender white body it’s trendy, not trashy.
On my Black body, every fashion choice carries more weight. Which is what my supervisor was trying to convey all those years ago. I wish I could say that I now dress and style myself for no one but myself—that I live my own politics, refusing to adhere to a system that exists to oppress people that look like myself. Whenever I can, I try to challenge people, of any background, to examine why they think an outfit looks “trashy” on one person and trendy on another; why they can only appreciate Black cultural elements when they’re not on or by a Black person. But in my day-to-day life, I often still find myself adhering to elements of respectability politics. After all, they're ingrained in the very fiber of American culture, from the images of Civil Rights activists marching in their Sunday Best that appear in history books across the country to the ways in which the first Black president would address mostly Black audiences. So while we are re-examining, we've still got a long way to go. Not everything washes out as easily as pigmented curl cream.
Wolcott VW. Remaking Respectability: African American Women in Interwar Detroit. Univ of North Carolina Press; 2001.
Pitcan M, Marwick AE, boyd danah. Performing a vanilla self: respectability politics, social class, and the digital world. Journal of Computer-Mediated Communication. 2018;23(3):163-179.
Strings S. Fearing the Black Body: The Racial Origins of Fat Phobia. NYU Press; 2019.
Henson, Ukiya C., "THE MAMMY RELOADED: African American Men Portraying The Updated Caricature In Contemporary Films" (2013). Research Papers. Paper 345.