Beyonce, Obama and the Politics of Respectability

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Jesus, Dr. Maya Angelou, and the fictional Clair Huxtable are widely considered to be good role models, those individuals, according to definition, whose behavior, example, or success is worthy of being emulated. Your personal role model might be a family member, a teacher, an athlete, artist, or actor — it’s totally up to you. What makes for a good role model is quite subjective as it depends on what you value and what you would like to achieve in life. That’s why, when people were shaking the table over President Obama’s recent comment about pop superstar Beyoncé I was reminded of what some folks value and hold up as worthy. “[She] could not be a better role model for my girls,” said the President. “She carries herself with such class and poise and has so much talent.”

Let me offer this disclaimer: I am a Beyoncé stan. But although I do dance with abandon to her songs in my full-length mirror and coo whenever even bad-quality pics of baby Blue Ivy are posted online, I am not blind in my fealty to King Bey. I still possess the ability to weigh things pretty even-handedly so this is not just a rally in defense of the woman otherwise known as Sasha Fierce. This is a semi-rant on why people annoy me and how the Politics of Respectability limits us to an extremely narrow world-view.

Respected academics such as Professor Melissa Harris-Perry and Professor Evelyn Brooks-Higginbotham  (who I had the pleasure of escorting once in law school) have written about the politics of respectability which refers to the rules of conduct that are equated with good behavior in the black community. In order to be seen as a valuable and viable member of society, contributing to the racial and social uplift of the community, one must keep these rules. Sexual behavior was and still remains heavily policed by these rules and the community members who uphold their validity, mostly to counteract negative beliefs about black women’s sexuality. Today, the politics of respectability are being used to police the girl in the bodycon dress, the woman casually dating two men at once, and a damn near scandal-free married mom who sells out arenas across the globe.

As soon as I saw someone post a link to an article featuring Obama’s “role model for my girls” quote, I just knew people would be going HAM on the Internets. I even hit up a friend on gChat to ask whether he’d heard the backlash against the President’s comment yet. Affirmative. The comment sections, Facebook News Feeds, and Black Twitter were a-poppin’. I didn’t have to scroll down more than one page through the comments on The Grio’s article on the subject before I saw people claiming that Beyoncé was disqualified from being  a good role model for anyone, let alone a President’s daughters, because she hadn’t graduated from high school. This wasn’t an isolated comment either. Others picked up the refrain and I couldn’t believe it. Is this the message we really want to be sending, folks?

My student loan debt will testify to the fact that I place a high value upon education. As a community, black people view education as the number one pathway toward equality, advancement, and success. So I get that most won’t support messages that run counter to the United Negro College Fund slogan. But here’s where people have it twisted; a role model doesn’t always lay out the exact path for aspirants to follow. Sometimes, it’s about the person’s journey, the obstacles he or she overcame, and ultimate outcome of their life. Many of our leaders have established awesome legacies and achieved so much but cannot boast a high-school diploma. Am I to disqualify my beloved grandmother from role model status because she didn’t graduate high school? Can we discount the positive impact Abraham Lincoln, Albert Einstein, Mark Twain, or Eartha Kitt had because they ended their education to pursue what many would say was their calling and eventual gifts to the world?

I was less surprised but still shaking my head when I heard the chorus of people decrying Beyoncé as a role model because, in her role as an international pop star, she shakes her “jelly” on stage. First of all, I dare you to listen to Bey’s music and not do the “uh-oh” right where you stand/sit! But seriously, a lot of shaming was happening in these discussions and that I cannot abide. So naturally I took my rant to Twitter. One follower of mine couched his slut-shaming in concern for the President’s reelection bid, saying, “still a bad play for Obeezy because you know people are REACHING for any negative connection and Beyoncé does dance like a whore …” I can’t tell you how much “dance like a whore” makes my skin crawl because there’s so much to unpack in that four-word phrase. Suffice to say that people are projecting their own feelings about the ways in which women (particularly black women) are allowed to be sexy, sexual, confident, powerful, aggressive, and seen. Truly, I’d be more forgiving if folks cited the content of her songs as cause for concern rather than the outfits she wears on stage and the performance that accompanies them. The latter just sets off my Politics of Respectability alarm.

As stated earlier, role models are subjective. You decide whose qualities you want to emulate, whose role you aspire to. President Barack Obama seems capable in many areas so I don’t doubt that he’s considerate and discerning in who he counts as his pals, campaign surrogates, and Sasha and Malia’s potential role models. The man cited Beyoncé class, poise, and talent as qualities to be admired and I can’t say that I disagree. She’s one of my role models and look, I’m turning out just fine! I just wish people would check their narrow concepts of what’s proper, worthy, and valid at their own front door instead of trying to make us all adhere to the same set of rules.

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