On July 16, 2009, Henry Louis Gates Jr. was arrested at his home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The officer, Sgt. James Crowley, was responding to a 911 report about a man breaking and entering into the house. Crowley arrested Gates outside his own home after he was shown both Gates’ Harvard ID and local driver’s license. The arrest was not for breaking and entering, however, it was for disorderly conduct.
In 2015, Steve Locke, a visiting assistant professor at the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, was racially profiled and subsequently detained by Massachusetts police because he “fit the description” of a man who attempted a break-in. Locke had his faculty ID around his neck, and he showed the officers his license. Still, the officers made him sit and wait. When they finally let him go, they offered a comment of “sorry for screwing up your lunch break,” and they went about their merry way.
In each of these instances, Black men deemed respectable in terms of education and job security faced discrimination because of the criminality often mapped onto Black men’s bodies. They were identified as possible trouble makers even though they were just trying to get into their homes or get some lunch. The cloak of respectability didn’t save them, and this is what I thought about as I watched the first few episodes of Hulu’s Woke.
The term, politics of respectability, was coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham to discuss how Black church women distanced themselves from the stereotypical and “disrespectful” aspects of the Black community. The goal was to embody a public image that garnered respect, one that uplifted behavioral decorum, neatness of appearance, and sexual constraint. As Lori Patton stated:
“the politics of respectability allow African Americans to revise themselves in ways to ensure that they are constructed in a positive light and deemed worthy amidst a cadre of images and discourses that counter their humanity.
Enter the protagonist of Woke, Keef Knight, a Black male cartoonist who just wants to draw cartoons without including any racial subtext to his work. He’s a respectable guy because his proximity to whiteness has allowed him to revise himself as “not one of those negroes.” This is most prominently shown in a conversation between Keef and his employer, where the man notes that he’s not even Black and the woman pulls out a chart noting his crossover appeal, or his amenability to white audiences. It’s also shown in a scene where he finds a white woman’s wallet on the ground. Although his roommate cautions him from returning the wallet because of the possible questions that could result from a Black man holding a wallet that was not his, Keef holds firm, noting that they are just being good, respectable citizens. His sunny disposition changes, however, when he is accosted the next day by police officers because he fit the description.
Before Knight is pulled to the ground, several police have their guns trained on him as they tell him to drop his weapon (a stapler). The camera work in the scene makes tangible Keef’s disorientation and fear, and we see that bewilderment continue after the cops realize they have the wrong person and let him go. He traverses the next few scenes in a state of confusion — how could the cops treat him this way when he has always been so respectable?
Once home, Keef tries to process the event by talking to his roommates. He tells them that he knew about all the racial injustice happening in the world, but he never thought it could happen to him. Confused, Clovis, his Black roommate, asks him who he expected it to happen to. Keef says, “you.” This comment is pertinent. Clovis could be classified as non-respectable because he is loud, indulges in drinking, and lies to women to get dates. Keef, on the other hand is quiet, has a girlfriend, and wants to be honest. As the respectable Black person, Keef thought he’d be protected from the wrath of racism because people like Clovis are the ones who experience it. He believed respectability would provide a cloak of invisibility. It did not.
Dr. Gates, Dr. Locke, and even Keef Knight are respectable by the standards outlined in the politics of respectability, but they were unable to run from the racism that pervades Black life. No matter how respectable they became, there was no way to save themselves from fitting the description (whether that description accurately described them or not).
Some people have noted that the politics of respectability serves as a means to build community. Some describe it as a way to exclude certain Black people. Some describe it as a survival tactic. No matter how it’s used, though, it’s important to understand that no matter our degrees, our annual income, our location of residence, our dress, our ways of speaking, etc., respectability won’t save us, so we must always be on guard.