Transphobia, Racism and Respectability Politics 

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.


Works Cited

Coates, Ta-Nehisi. “Charles Barkley and the Plague of ‘Unintelligent’ Blacks.” The Atlantic. N.p., 28 Oct. 2014. Web.      <;.

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. <>.

Harris, Fredrick C. “The Rise of Respectability Politics | Dissent Magazine.” Dissent Magazine. N.p., Winter 2014. Web. 11 Mar. 2015. <;.

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. <;.

“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. <;.


Mire, Muna. “Unanswered Questions Following Death of Toronto Trans Woman of Colour | VICE | Canada.” VICE. N.p., 26 Feb. 2015. Web. 12 Mar. 2015. <;.

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. <;.


3 thoughts on “Transphobia, Racism and Respectability Politics

  1. Hey Emily, great job. I like how you made respectability politics an overarching theme of your blog and incorporated your other terms into that approach. This was also a great way to outline how a history of intraracial oppression make the instances where black trans women are victims of violence more than isolated events, but part of a long narrative of oppression. One thing I think might have added a little more depth to your analysis would have been considering how interracial, in addition to intraracial racism, plays a part in black respectability politics. You allude to this when you explain that it is clearly wrong to place the blame for racial violence onto members of the racialized black community, and thereby absolve the white community of their own role in oppression. However, I think if there’d been more space to write, it would have been good to give some examples of how respectability politics are also supported by the euro-colonial structure of society. For example, by framing black people as criminals, rather than victims of poverty and a legacy of slavery. This is also something that Lavern Cox does a great job explaining, when she discussed how her black street harrassers are victims of oppression themselves.
    I also think you are right to point out the gender constraints imposed on black men. As you explain, there is an association and an expectation that black men are tough and hyper-masculine. I thought it was interesting to talk about that stereotype as a part of respectability politics because although in some ways the stereotype is conformist, there is also a lot of fear surrounding the danger of black male sexuality. So in some ways I would expect the respectability politics of being a black male to be concerned more with not appearing too insensitive or too dominant. Again, this is a complicated issue that I don’t think the word count of this blog would give you space to tease out. I suppose this dilemma just highlights the impossibility of the task for black men to fit into a society characterized by white privileged. Black men are expected to be dominant, but not to the point that they evoke fear.
    Overall, great job! your blog was interesting to read and it sparked a lot of interesting thoughts in my own mind!


  2. Hi Emily! I really enojyed the way you set up your blog. First giving us the chance to understand Laverne Cox and what she stands for, then giving us statistics and a background into the history of respectability politics. This background information really helped me to understand your ideas around how respectability politics came into play in your analysis.
    I think that you picked out some very important points, ones I did not think of when I read the article. I liked the point about black people feeling as if a black trans individual is reflecting badly on their race because they are choosing not to conform to the confinements of their biological gender. This relates to the history of black people in America. A question that arises from this is will people be able to overlook their views that are based form horrific historical treatment and be able to see the perspective of trans individuals without such harsh discrimination?
    There was also a small sentence at the end of one of your paragraphs, that I think could have been expanded on if the word count allow. You bring up the point about trans individuals being mis-gendered after death. This point brings up the disrespect that many people in society have towards trans individuals. Whether the death was from violence from being trans-sexual or due to illness, the best way to show your respect for their life would be to appreciate who they were even if you are not accepting of their choices when they were alive.
    Overall I think your blog was extremely thought provoking and you definitely planted some thoughts into my mind.


  3. Wow, great job! Alike Meera and Lucy, I also loved the way you framed your blog around the overarching theme of respectability politics, and the way you laid it out was very impressive. I find the topic of respectability politics very interesting. Your analysis really helped to expand my understanding of the topic. The quote that you used by Kelly Miller definitely serves to emphasize your point about how the concept of respectability politics may encourage interracial oppression, especially when it comes to transgender individuals. You did a great job of connecting respectability politics to the enforcement of the gender binary, and relating this to the multi-layered oppression that trans individuals face.
    A question that your blog brought to my mind was whether or not we can apply this concept of respectability politics to other minority cultures? I understand that the concept originated as a way to end racism against blacks specifically. But, could this concept of accepting white supremacy and conforming to what white folks would consider ‘acceptable behaviours’ also be something that is present in other cultural groups? For example, with the recent terrorist events conducted by the Islamic extremist group, ISIS, racism against Muslims has certainly been on the rise. Might this encourage Muslim people to assimilate into ‘white culture’? If so, what are the implications of this on Canada’s multinational reputation?
    This is just an abstract insight that your blog has inspired me to consider, and I would love to hear anyones opinion on this. Overall, you did an excellent job in analyzing Laverne’s speech and the intersectionality of oppression.


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