EOF and CCDC empower students to reject respectability politics

Respectability politics may not be something that most people are familiar with or understand, but Tanadjza Robinson-McCray and Miranda Garcia want to change that, especially for students of color on Ramapo’s campus.

Robinson-McCray, the Educational Opportunity Fund student development specialist, and Garcia, the graduate assistant for the Cahill Career Development Center, teamed up to offer this educational discussion last Thursday in honor of Black History Month.

They started by sharing some ground rules with the group, including being open-minded, actively listening, considering intention versus impact and acknowledging privileges.

“Somebody may say something that makes people uncomfortable. We’re asking you all while we’re in this learning space, in this environment, that you lean into discomfort and start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable,” Robinson-McCray said.

They then showed a TEDx talk from Sarah Kelsey Hall to introduce the concept of respectability politics. In the video, Hall discusses what respectability politics is and why it is ineffective.

“Respectability politics is a tactic used by marginalized groups to subvert or avert racism and stereotypes,” she said in the video. Hall identifies two issues with it: it is a logical solution to the illogical problem of racism, and it destroys people because it puts the burden of an entire racial group’s success on an individual’s shoulders.

Following the video, the event moved into a discussion with the attendees where they shared their thoughts on the subject.

“Practicing respectability politics… in most cases, you’re not being authentic to yourself because… you talk a certain way at home and then when you’re out in different places, you kind of have to code-switch,” an attendee said.

We’re asking you all while we’re in this learning space, in this environment, that you lean into discomfort and start getting comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

– Tanadjza Robinson-McCray

Attendees shared personal experiences about how in classes they often feel like their professors pay more attention to the white students or how they are often treated as the spokespeople for a certain racial or ethnic group.

“It does play into respectability politics because now it puts the pressure on you to show up in this space as perfect or a person who knows it all, and that’s not fair to you,” Robinson-McCray said.

She then asked the group how they navigate daily trauma, microaggressions and stressors on campus and in the workplace. Attendees focused on how they don’t feel comfortable speaking up when they are mistreated.

“We were taught these behaviors because if we react or say anything, we’re an angry Black woman… If I say something, then that’s just gonna play into the stigma already surrounding us,” an attendee said.

To conclude the discussion, Robinson-McCray shared tips on how to challenge respectability politics and take care of oneself, such as challenging negative internalized beliefs, connecting with a positive community and affirming your unique self.

She also emphasized the Office of Equity, Diversity, Inclusion and Compliance as a supportive resource. She said they are open to students who want to report incidents of bias or simply need to have a conversation about it.

Robinson-McCray assured the attendees that she and Garcia validate all of the experiences that were shared. They acknowledged that students may be struggling with these experiences but are unsure how to process or express them.

“This is why it is important for us to provide these opportunities and spaces of learning, so you can be able to call a thing a thing,” she said.

Garcia agreed with this sentiment. “The hope is that as we continue to have these conversations, they become more normalized, not just among our communities but amongst the greater society,” she said. “Hopefully, people will begin to recognize that we need to change.”



Featured photo by Rebecca Gathercole