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Call Me By My Name: A Word on Respectability Politics.

reflections, identity, identity politics, respectability politics, two girls, water, asian, patterns

Around 2016 I happened across the term 'respectability politics' in an article about Beyoncé's hair. The writer was referring to how black female celebrities feel pressure to pander their looks to 'whiteness' in order to be respected and accepted widely. It was the first time I found a term to describe the whitewashing and compromising of self that POC often do in order to 'belong', be 'taken seriously' in their careers and avoid micro-aggressions or unwanted attention.

Odochi Ibe explains it for in Playing the Game of Respectability Politics, But At What Cost? as: Pressure to present 'correctly' in order to be accepted and treated with respect. 'Correctly' in this term means as white as possible. This applies to accents, cultural practices, ways of dressing, slang used (or not) and yes, hair, among other things. It is specific to first and second gen people, as well as minorities.

The term dates back to 1993 (pre-Beyoncé times) and was first coined by another woman, Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, in her book, Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church. Where did the phenomenon originate? Ibe hypothesizes as a result of slavery and colonization, where black African people were forced to adopt white Western religions and customs and do away with their traditions and spiritual beliefs. The message was: be like us and you will live a better life. It was a matter of survival and success.

"We do this to show non-POC we can 'behave or conform'"

Today the same connotations prevail. It is still about that but survival now means acceptance and success now means validation. And it's all around you; How many times have you heard someone speak in an 'accent' and then switch to a 'normal' voice when they answer the phone? Do you ever catch yourself talking with slang with friends and then changing your tone and inflections in a more 'formal' setting? Have you ever heard a friend (or yourself) apologize for your 'embarrassingly' traditional relatives?

The way we present depends on who we are with and to a degree that is just basic human behaviour: to mirror our environment. But the question is: for whose benefit is it?

Higginbotham stated that respectability politics happens for two audiences: "African Americans, who were encouraged to be respectable, and white people, who needed to be shown that African Americans could be respectable." When we do this to show non-POC we can 'behave or conform' or to fit into non-POC-friendly spaces and discourage unwanted or unfriendly attention' it comes from a place of shame, belittlement and disempowerment. It comes from a place of internalised racism and prejudice within us and between us, that says we are not 'good enough', they are 'not good enough', unless we are all white enough. And that is incredibly eroding for our self-esteem long-term.

Say My Name

One example of respectability politics in my life has been the pronounciation of my name. This is common for East Asian people who choose what we call 'white names' that are 'easier' and attract less negative commentary (read: ridicule). I knew a Chinese woman who went by the name of Katherine all her life and then one day decided: fuck this 'Katherine'. Ofcourse I don't know if she actually said that, but knowing her I feel like that was the vibe. Who is this 'Katharine'? The only people who called her that were her non-Asian friends and colleagues. She decided that now, in her late 20s, she was done pandering and was ready to give herself permission to exist authentically. A beautiful thing to witness.

This is a poem by artist YunYoung Ahn (@afrasia) who had a similar epiphany:

제목 Title(Here To Stay-call me by my name 내 이름)

Allow me to re-introduce myself,


Ahn Yun Young

A name my grandfather gifted me with. I

t is my past, present and future.

It is who I am, who I’ve learned to see and who I am re-learning to know for the past 3 years.

It is who I was not for 21 years because it was not given energy enough to hold space.

It is Pronounced Y(oo)nYoung.

Not 윤 Yun.

Not 영 Young.

Both letters capitalised.

Both words, two-gather as one.

윤영YunYoung: Rooted in Brightness.

Pleasure meeting you, 내 이름은 my name is 안윤영 Ahn YunYoung.

I am-Here To Stay.

To me, this is a crazy concept. To simply call yourself what your name is and for it to be seen as brave. I know that it is brave because I was unable to do it myself. For many years I did not correct people who called me 'Zoey' even after reading my name multiple times, or hearing it from others, or just being told directly what it is. I already explain it thoroughly as 'Like Soya with a Z' and yet that's still often not enough. The worst part of it though, is that when my name is mispronounced I would often be embarrassed and say nothing, while my friends would look pointedly at me - but say nothing either. It was too much effort I would say to myself and them, brushing it off after. But no, the truth is, I was too embarrassed, too tired and I didn't want to be rude. I didn't want to embarrass them.

IMAGINE. Someone gets your name wrong constantly, can't take the time to say it correctly, and you are too scared to be rude to them by correcting them.

The Courage to Own Your Identity

Respectability politics happens to all POC, because it is not outrightly self-deprecating and the rules it plays by are not outrightly spoken. They are whispered, 'must they speak so loudly', they are seen in rolling eyes and exasperated sighs when a Chinese tourist group walks into a restaurant, they are felt when you sense a tenseness and feel a sinking in your stomach the minute you walk into a room. You do not belong here, unless you act, sound or look like us, it tells us.

"I had the unique experience of performing both my Asian-ness and whiteness for white people"

In my case as a biracial person, respectability politics has played out both ways. I don't mean that I tried to play up my 'Asian-ness' for Asian people. If you don't speak the language or know the ways, that's pretty much a moot point in general. I was much too white for that and that was established early on. I spent my time trying to fit into whiteness rather, like most biracial people. At least, initially. However, because of my career as an actress and model, I was often expected to play up my Asian-ness in a white-friendly, Western-media-approved way. I had the unique experience of performing both my Asian-ness and whiteness for white people and yes, other POC, yet accepting that I would never be enough of either. In this way I - and other biracial people- understand respectability politics' double standard M.O.

Let me explain. With modelling, there was no debate- the bottom line is: You are Asian. Who is going to buy you as white? My hair is naturally light brown and I quickly realised that that was too ambiguous. If I dyed it black or bright I learned I booked more jobs. With brown hair I didn't look 'fully Asian' (or like a ‘real’ Asian but we’ll get there!)

I was once told at a casting by the director that I didn’t look 'Asian enough' before the recording. I didn’t really know what to say to that. But he let me do my bit, and said in relief once I was on camera, ‘Oh, nevermind, you look more Asian on screen’.

"Ask yourself why you are performing or conforming, if you catch yourself doing it"

Even though this is all very problematic, it did open my eyes to ways that respectability politics could work for me. My modelling career was my first experience where being Asian was something to play up and not something to play down. I didn’t mind using and enduring the tokenism and nice racism (we'll get to that too) in modelling for my own benefit because for once I was benefitting. But there have been many times it's been necessary to put my foot down and say I am not comfortable with something that pushes a harmful stereotype.

So, is there a dignified way to perform for white people and POC who have internalized whiteness/Western ideals? I can't tell you a yes or no. That is an individual decision of cost vs benefit. I would encourage you to ask yourself why you are performing or conforming, if you catch yourself doing it. If it is for the benefit of those around you then it's not worth the self-loathing and self-doubt. But if it is for your gain, have the last laugh if you like. As for me, I am practicing speaking up sometimes when I get called 'Zoey' instead of 'Zoya' - but as time goes on, so are my peers and this gives me courage to do it more and more.


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