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The politics of respectability made visible that the only possible reason why a sheriff would snatch a schoolteacher, Mrs. Amelia Boynton by the collar when she tried to register to vote was because she was black (1965)

Irene Gyane
Behaviour Support Practitioner, Sydney, Australia.

Politics Of Respectability and Its Impact on the Mental Health Of People Of Colour


The term, politics of respectability was first introduced by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in the Progressive Era to describe the efforts of the black community through the women’s division of the black Baptist Church to rectify individual behaviour as a strategy for political and social reform (Harris, 2003; Higginbotham, 1993). What began as a strategy enacted by black elites to “uplift the race” by reshaping rife negative notions about black people has become entrenched in our social fabric in a manner that is a burden for black men, women and children (Harris & Winter, 2014). The imposition of a vilified racial reputation that has been centuries in the making has led people of colour to develop a strategy espoused by respectability politics to socially contest for their basic human rights- to exist- in racialised and racially-diverse communities. This article highlights findings backed by research evidence that these behavioural strategies contribute to the known physical and mental health disparities between people of colour and their white peers in societies across the globe.


According to research, there is significant psychological stress with strong indicators of depreciating physical health linked with constant self and social vigilance in preparation for or to safeguard against prejudice and discrimination among black people. For countless decades, people of colour, especially those originating from the African Diaspora living in “racialised and racially-stratified communities like Australia and other predominantly white countries have been engaging in behaviours that reflect conventional white, heterosexual, Judeo-Christian, middle-class values” as a long-standing strategy to navigate these spheres to avoid or at least reduce discrimination (Lee & Hicken, 2016). These anticipated and unwelcome societal responses range from the irksome to the deadly in multiracial settings- the depiction of African Americans’ experiences and those of other minority groups in the United States is a prime public example. The Black experience is often highlighted in the media and empirical narratives portraying this group deliberating and engaging in behaviours to back up their legitimate claim to fundamental rights. That is, the right to live, to access equal education and work opportunities, to move freely (physically, mentally and emotionally) in everyday social spaces. They resort to these behavioural strategies to avoid being looked at suspiciously, spoken to belligerently or deprived the simple right to browse through clothing or food aisle/section without being ‘tailgated’ and thoroughly searched upon entrance and exit while other racial counterparts enjoy a contrary experience.

The Daily Black Experience

‘Tailgating’ is an expression used within the young black community to capture the experience of being singled out as a black person and closely watched, ‘assisted’ or followed around by an employee when visiting a store due to suspicion or to accelerate their shopping experience to facilitate a quick exit (Lee & Hicken, 2016). The word simply captures the experience of ‘shopping while black’. Young black adults between the ages of 22-38 in a recent report about racial issues affecting the black race highlighted restraining their personal sense of self and style to avoid confirming widespread racial stereotypes and to ward off unwarranted attention from the police (Yi, 2016). Hence, dressing visibly in ‘good’ clothes and using ‘proper’ diction serve as a shield that to some extent is effective in signifying one’s difference from the flawed general concept of black people and therefore, generates social responses that differ from that received when sporting a less curated appearance and parlance. It is uncommon for black people living in predominantly white or racially-stratified societies to leave their homes without donning an invisible shield (psychological and emotional) and a visible shield (appearance adjustment and behaviour to align with dominant White norms, dispel Black stereotypes, and avoid prejudice and discrimination) (Lee & Hicken, 2016).

Black Women in Racially-Stratified Societies

Black women are a group that particularly face refractory challenges in efforts to navigate a global society that constantly scrutinises and labels them based on flawed historical sexual and gender constructs. It is a constant struggle for a young black woman, whether educated or not to develop a healthy sense of self, independent of enduring negative historical notions without being psychologically nudged into identifying with either or all of these labels at various points of their lives. Early work done in the late 19th and early 20th centuries by African American feminist scholars explored the impact of politics of respectability on the lives of black women. Like contemporary times, black women are most likely to use and be judged by respectability politics in reference to temperance, cleanliness of person and property, intelligence, frugality, mannerism and sexual purity (Harris, 2003). Moreover, black women were used to represent the concept of respectability whose audience was the rest of the wider racial community who needed to be convinced that black people could be decent and reputable (Higginbotham, 1993). It is worth mentioning that exploration of the politics of respectability has enhanced scholarly understandings of racial politics and the existing interpretation indicates that respectability politics underestimated that the rigid nature of class and racial distinctions within both black and racially-stratified communities (Harris, 2003).

The Health Consequences of Vigilant Behaviours

The health consequences of vigilant behaviours or living in a fight or flight mode among black people living in racially diverse settings are evident in national and global statistics. Research indicates that a significant proportion of black people report no less than three chronic health problems compared to their white counterparts in the United States (Centres for Disease Control and Prevention, 2018). Furthermore, a recent study about the mental health risks of young African migrants living in Australia indicated that this group is ten times more likely to develop psychosis than Australian-born youth due to either the challenges of adapting to a new country, the experience of seeking asylum or discrimination (Orygen, 2020). It is also crucial to be aware of how race intersects with other social constructs: gender, ability, class, age, ethnicity, sexual orientation, marital status to further reinforce discrimination and increase health disparities against black people, particularly, black women. Most of them, particularly young adults and black women resort to coping strategies that may either make to mar the trajectory of their lives such as overeating, indulging in alcohol and overworking in their professional lives in order to avoid poverty, gender-related oppression, to rise through class ranks or to prove their respectability to the wider racial community.

Previous studies also provide strong evidence linking vigilance and wellbeing determined by rates of hypertension and sleep disorders (Hicken, Lee, Ailsshire, Burgard & Williams, 2013; Hicken, Lee, Morenoff, House & Wiilliams, 2014). Moreover, evidence-based research indicates that engaging in vigilant behaviours and thoughts is frequently linked with poor physical and psychological health commonly manifesting as cardiovascular problems, depression, anxiety and insomnia and psychosomatic illnesses.

Considering that vigilant behaviours are upheld by proponents of respectability politics but likely practiced by the majority of the black community, it is recommended that discussions on the topic of respectability should reflect on the health impacts of navigating everyday racially diverse spheres as a black individual or person of colour. Findings also propound that consistently living a fight or flight existence may be a key factor of the enduring racial/ethnic health inequalities that exist around the globe. Hence, considering that most black people frequently practice social vigilance which constitutes a severe health risk, it is likely that they play a role in the disproportionate rates of health problems between black communities and white ones. In other words, commitment to vigilant behaviours may be considered a race-related stress trigger leading contributing to the health disparities between people of colour and non-people of colour, black women and the white and non-white peers.

Discrimination and the Media

For decades, the media has been inundated with numerous incidents of police violence and discrimination against unarmed, ‘properly’ dressed, educated black men, women and children on which social media has only recently cast more light. These incidents highlight the reasons for, and additional steps black people have to take to safeguard against negative, unfair treatment (both minor and life-threatening) in the external world. Concurrently, these incidents give rise to the question of whether these strategies are at all helpful or effective in evading discrimination, disrespect or harm (Hicken & Lee, 2016).


In line with existing research and statistics, there is a significant percentage of black people living with numerous chronic health issues including mental health conditions reflecting the health inequalities that exist between people of colour and white populations across the globe. It is also substantiated that a main contributory factor to the disproportionate health gap is the constant fight or flight existence that most black people engage in to avoid or at least reduce negative social reactions to their presence in everyday social spaces, deflect baseless police attention and to safeguard against harm from radical racist individuals and groups. Proponents of respectability politics, policymakers, social workers, academics, businesses, families and individuals have a critical role to play in dismantling the unwritten social dynamics that plague the lives people of colour in their societies and spheres of contact. It is unfair to allow distorted historical notions to persist in the contemporary world and to leave young black people and women today to carry the burden of having to strive twice harder and to socially contest for their fundamental human rights.

Again, each individual is capable of creating positive change in this regard, and it cannot be recommended enough.


Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2018). Health, United States, 2018 – Data Finder. Retrieved from https://www.cdc.gov/nchs/hus/contents2018.htm?search=,Black_or_African_American
Harris, F.C. (2014). The Rise of Respectability Politics [Blog post]. Retrieved from https://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-rise-of-respectability-politicsHarris, P.J. (2003). Gatekeeping and Remaking: The Politics of Respectability in African American Women's History and Black Feminism. Journal of Women's History 15(1), 212-220. doi:10.1353/jowh.2003.0025
Hicken, M. T., Lee, H., Ailshire, J., Burgard, S. A., & Williams, D. R. (2013). “Every Shut Eye, Ain’t Sleep”: The Role of Racism-Related Vigilance in Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Sleep Difficulty. Race and Social Problems, 5(2), 100–112. https://doi.org/10.1007/s12552-013-9095-9
Hicken, M.T, Lee, H., Morenoff, J., House, J. S., & Williams, D.R. (2014). Racial/Ethnic Disparities in Hypertension Prevalence: Reconsidering the Role of Chronic Stress. American Journal of Public Health (1971), 104(1), 117–123. https://doi.org/10.2105/ajph.2013.301395
Higginbotham, E. B. (1993). Righteous discontent the women's movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Harvard University Press.
Lee, H. & Hicken, M.T. (2016). Death by a Thousand Cuts: The Health Implications of Black Respectability Politics. Souls (Boulder, Colo.), 18(2-4), 421–445. https://doi.org/10.1080/10999949.2016.1230828
Orygen. (2020). Psychosis and young people. Retrieved from https://www.orygen.org.au/getdoc/b4aa1982-62aa-4844-b827-3cea33c0caf5/Psychosis-and-young-people