Laverne Cox’s account of her own experience with street harassment is a reminder that nothing exists in isolation. Cox’s speech is deeply personal. She begins with an anecdote about an incident where she was harassed on the street and her persecutors were debating whether to call her a racial epithet or a sexist pejorative. Although Cox recounts this story while laughing at the absurdity of the situation, her mood quickly becomes somber when she outlines the depressing statistics of trans women who are often murdered simply because they are trans. Her emotional and thought provoking description of the systemic discrimination against trans women of colour, clearly demonstrates the necessity of an intersectional approach when discussing this deep-seated societal issue.
Seven black trans women have been murdered already this year (Starr; Mire). 67% of LGBT homicide victims murdered in 2013 were trans women of color (“LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL” 1). These statistics beg the question: Why does hate violence disproportionately target black trans women? The answer to this question is multi-faceted, but intraracial discrimination due to respectability politics is certainly a contributing factor to this epidemic of hate violence.
Respectability politics originated in America in 1900 with the birth of the Woman’s Convention, Auxiliary to the National Baptist Convention (Higginbotham 187). This group consisted of black Baptist women who wanted to fight racism and end the ostracization of blacks in America. Instead of challenging the ubiquitous white supremacy in America, the women proposed to reform black attitudes and behaviours so that white folks would consider them to be respectable. They decided to try to assimilate and align their goals and behaviours with those of white Americans, instead of fighting for recognition of black people as individuals who are worthy of acceptance regardless of their different culture (Dolberry). Respectability politics puts the onus on the black community to adapt to the mainstream culture and completely absconds the predominantly white society of any responsibility for racism. Crusaders for black acceptance emphasized “manners and morals” (Higginbotham 189). The Women’s Convention believed that if black people dressed, spoke and behaved as if they were white, then racism would come to an end. In 1899, the African American mathematician Kelly Miller said, “It is not sufficient to say that ninety-five out of every hundred Negroes are orderly and well behaved. The ninety-five must band themselves together to restrain or suppress the vicious five” (qtd. in Coates). This quotation illustrates how respectability politics serves to segregate black people into groups. ‘Respectable’ black people were encouraged to repress the ‘brutish’ black people so that they did not reflect badly on the race as a whole. More than 100 years later, the concept that respectability is a panacea for racism still lingers. In 2011 Philadelphia mayor Michael Nutter gave an eerily familiar speech to a group of black Baptist churchgoers. In reference to a recent violent flashmob, he told his audience that the black youths “made shame on our race” (qtd. in Harris). Respectability politics is damaging because it places the blame on black individuals for their own oppression and it encourages black people to police each other. Taken to extremes, respectability politics can result in intraracial violence against black individuals who do not fit the prescribed definition of ‘respectability’.
The concept of respectability politics is not only problematic due to its effect on race relations but it also serves to reinforce the gender binary. Trans individuals do not fit into this mode of binary thinking. When the Women’s Convention first embarked on their mission to be accepted by white people in America, they did so with a very gendered set of ideals. To be respectable, black women are expected to be delicate, genteel and submissive. In contrast, black men are expected to be hyper-masculine, strong, insensitive and dominant. Transphobia is especially rampant in black communities because there are still vestiges of respectability politics which police black sexuality and gender identities (Kacere). MTF transgender people are considered to be effeminate men who are perverting the gender binary by giving up their valuable status as a male and choosing to identify as a woman. Again, this ties back to respectability politics. Some individuals believe that it is their duty to harass and repress black trans women so that they don’t reflect badly on the race. Violence is often justified because victims are ‘freaks’ who somehow brought it upon themselves. To add insult to injury, these victims are largely ignored or even derided by mainstream media after death. Misgendering trans individuals after violence has been committed against them is an unfortunately all-too-common occurrence.
Racism, sexism and transphobia intersect to make trans women of colour one of the most marginalized groups in society. However even in the face of adversity, Laverne Cox seems optimistic. She doesn’t show hate for her oppressors, but love and understanding. She realizes that respectability politics leading to intraracial discrimination does not stem from a place of hatred, but one of fear. Respectability politics originated as a way for black people to try to overcome racism and white supremacy. She recognizes that people are often oppressive to others because they themselves are first oppressed. Cox ends her speech with a quote from American intellectual Cornel West that says “[j]ustice is what love looks like in public”. In order to love others, we must first love ourselves. Only then can there be justice for transgender people in the world.
Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Charles Barkley and the Plague of ‘Unintelligent’ Blacks.” The Atlantic. N.p., 28 Oct. 2014. Web. <http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2014/10/charles-barkley-and-the-plague-of-unintelligent-blacks/382022/>.
Dolberry, Maurice E. ““I Hate Myself!”: What Are Respectability Politics, and Why Do Black People Subscribe to Them?” A Line in the Sand. N.p., n.d. Web. <http%3A%2F%2Falineinthesand.com%2Frespectability-politics%2F>.
Harris, Fredrick C. “The Rise of Respectability Politics | Dissent Magazine.” Dissent Magazine. N.p., Winter 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <http://www.dissentmagazine.org/article/the-rise-of-respectability-politics>.
Higginbotham, Evelyn Brooks. Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1993. Print.
Kacere, Laura. “Transmisogyny 101: What It Is and What Can We Do About It.” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 27 Jan. 2014. Web. 10 Mar. 2015. <http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/01/transmisogyny/>.
“Laverne Cox Explains the Intersection of Transphobia, Racism, and Misogyny (And What to Do About It).” Everyday Feminism. N.p., 07 Dec. 2014. Web. 07 Mar. 2015. <http://everydayfeminism.com/2014/12/laverne-cox-intersection-what-to-do/>.
LESBIAN, GAY, BISEXUAL, TRANSGENDER, QUEER, AND HIV-AFFECTED HATE VIOLENCE IN 2013. NATIONAL COALITION OF ANTI-VIOLENCE PROGRAMS 2014 RELEASE EDITION. Web. <http://www.avp.org/storage/documents/2013_ncavp_hvreport_final.pdf>.
Mire, Muna. “Unanswered Questions Following Death of Toronto Trans Woman of Colour | VICE | Canada.” VICE. N.p., 26 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.vice.com/en_ca/read/unanswered-questions-following-death-of-toronto-trans-woman-of-colour-497>.
Starr, Terrell J. “Living on Borrowed Time: 6 Young Trans Women of Color Have Been Murdered in America This Year.” Alternet. N.p., n.d. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <http://www.alternet.org/civil-liberties/living-borrowed-time-6-young-trans-women-color-have-been-murdered-america-year>.