CNN’s Don Lemon recently sat down with artist Pharrell Williams to discuss the slaying of Michael Brown and the events in Ferguson:
Around the 1:20 mark, Lemon mentions the Facebook campaign to get black men to pull up their pants and wear them around the waist. Pharrell responds by asserting that no one can tell him how to wear his pants. He goes on to say that saggy pants aren’t a “black thing” bc white people also sag their pants. For the Facebook campaign to be mentioned in the same breath as the events in Ferguson skirts dangerously close to victim blaming. It’s an example of ‘respectability politics’ (which Lemon is quite agreeable to):
On Saturday, Don Lemon listed five steps the black community must require black men to take to become respectable: Stop sagging their pants, stop saying the n-word, stop littering, finish high school, and have fewer children out of wedlock. If black men do those things, they will show that they respect themselves, and then, you see, things will be better. (On Sunday, Lemon welcomed LZ Granderson and Ana Navarro on the air to pat his hand while he groused about the negative response to his comments.)
But in order to become “respectable,” the targeted group is always encouraged to change. And the changes always, always require the targeted group to become more like the dominant group. If black people act more like white people, or women act more like men, or gays and lesbians act more like straight people, they’ll all see the same outcomes. But the underlying goal of this is to stop being “different.” Act “normally,” and you’ll be treated normally, but if you step outside those boundaries, it is your fault and your fault only.
Of course, the problem with respectability politics is even if they sound good, they don’t actually mean all that much for real people.
What respectability politics assume, though, is that any bad outcome for black people is the fault of and can only be solved by black people. More importantly, anything black people do that the arbiter of “respectability” doesn’t like is also a black problem requiring a black solution.
Respectability politics alienate their target from the rest of society. They make their targets uniquely bad and irresponsible in a way that other groups aren’t. White dropout rates aren’t the problem of the white community. White men aren’t lectured as a group about the 627,541 out-of-wedlock births to white mothers in 2010. The only response respectability politics has is to treat the black dropout or the black out-of-wedlock birth as a black failure rather than a societal one. Not only are black people somehow uniquely and voluntarily flawed, all of them are responsible for the failures.
If you dress right, you’ll fit in.
If you carry yourself correctly, you’ll be allowed in the club.
If you act in the manner that the majority deems acceptable, you won’t be shot and killed.
This is at the heart of what Lemon is talking about. Respectability politics shifts the responsibility for the oppression and discrimination faced by a marginalized group from the shoulders of the oppressors onto the shoulders of the oppressed. It works by telling the oppressed that they can get by and get ahead in life (or not be killed) if they’ll subsume themselves to the desires of others. You can exist, just not on your own terms. If you choose to exist on your own terms and not do what we say, we can’t be responsible for what befalls you-that’s on you. That’s what “sagging pants” represents. The mere mention of the campaign pushes the idea that black people can be more easily accepted into white culture if they pull their pants up and act in a manner white people approve of.
As Pharrell rightly states, no one should be dictating to others what they can or cannot wear (this isn’t a discussion of parents telling their child what clothes to wear). I do wish Pharrell had taken a different tack with his response. Yes, no one has the right to tell him how he can dress. But the problem with bringing up sagging pants in a discussion about Michael Brown’s death is that it, somewhat subtly, makes the point that if black people would alter their behavior to make white people more comfortable they won’t get shot and killed. That’s victim blaming. Instead of Lemon excoriating the actions of Darren Wilson, he chooses to mention the no saggy pants Facebook campaign. As if it’s relevant to the discussion of the slaying of Michael Brown. To Don Lemon, it’s relevant because he feels that too many black Americans don’t “act right” or “dress right”-and if they started doing things “the right way”, they would be more accepted. That’s a great message there Lemon- ‘Act White. Stay alive’. Except not only does it not work that way, it shouldn’t work that way. Black people should expect to be able to express themselves as they see fit and white America should accept them on those terms. We don’t exist for the approval of white America. Yes, we live together in this country. Yes, we need to get along with each other. But that does not mean we need to lose our individuality or our culture. It doesn’t mean we need to alter our identities so that white America is more accepting of us. That’s not equality. That’s assimilation. As I said before, fuck that noise. The people who need to change their behavior are the Darren Wilson’s of the world. They are the ones who aren’t acting right. They are the ones continuing to deny black people the right to exist on their own terms. They’re not only NOT acting respectable, they’re acting reprehensibly. Don Lemon needs to wake up and recognize this and call them out.