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Warning: Respectability Politics May Be Hazardous to Your Health

Pull up your pants. Straighten your hair. Hold a funeral for the n-word.

Black Americans have long been told that there is a “right” way to act in order to secure racial equality and individual promotion in the United States. Often times, these recommendations are made by other Black Americans attempting to mute certain cultural aesthetics in order to make White Americans feel comfortable in their presence. I recently attended a lecture where a middle-aged Black American man explained that he yearned for the days when Black men “had grace.” He posted a picture of Black men circa 1940 in Tuskegee, Alabama in a cotton field with pressed white shirts and suspenders.

Journalist Aurin Squire explained that black respectability presumes that “systematic oppression can be overcome if we’re clean, mild, moderate, and economically successful.” In a time when Black men are nine times more likely to be shot and killed by the police and people still protest those who point out police brutality, policing the appearance of Black Americans is, at best, beside the point. A central tenet of the Black Lives Matter movement is that “respectability will not save us” from racism, particularly in the context of interactions with law enforcement. But it isn’t just that respectability is irrelevant. New evidence suggests that there may be negative health consequences associated with respectability-based beliefs that health care practitioners should, at the very least, carefully consider.

According to the Journal of Behavioral Medicine, attributing success to personal characteristics instead of biased structural systems may negatively impact health outcomes for Black Americans. Nao Hagiwara and her colleagues at Virginia Commonwealth University were interested in seeing whether the “just world” belief—the belief that the world is a just place where people get what they deserve—would influence the relationship between perceived discrimination and health consequences for Black middle-age adults. The psychologists found that Blacks who both strongly believed that the world was a just place and reported experiencing high levels of discrimination were more likely than other Blacks to suffer from a greater number of chronic illnesses and increased blood pressure. Why? Because respectability politics tells Black Americans that what is happening to them in this country is their (our) fault. That the 9.5 percent unemployment among Black Americans and police who fatally shoot unarmed Black men at disproportionate rates and teachers who are expecting less academic success from Black students—that all of that would go away not through changes in systematic discrimination in almost every sector of American life, but if only people pulled their pants up a little higher and turned their music down a little lower. That the world is just, and so injustice experienced in it is our fault.

The thought is literally making people sick.

Health care and mental health practitioners with Black patients should first educate themselves on the current status of racial issues in the United States. They should also encourage their patients to reframe how they look at their experiences so that the individual accountability of negative experiences is supplemented with a more contextual assessment of the event. This reframing could alleviate the stress associated with believing all experiences—including negative experiences of racism—are the result of individual behavior.

By seriously considering the social systems and racist encounters experienced by Black Americans, health practitioners may help their patients better assess their experiences and select tailored methods for health improvement. Those charged with caring for black lives should be among the first to treat them as though they matter.


Veronica Y. Womack is a Social Psychologist and Research Associate at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine.