How Respectability Politics Led Men to Complain about Black Women Twerking
Women are rewarded for their bodies and sexualities, and they are punished for them too, in equal measure (Clark-Flory, 2014).
Twerking became a nationwide dance revolution popularized in New Orleans during the 1980s. At block parties, people danced to the backdrop of Hip-Hop and Bounce music. They heard the beat drop. Then women ran to the dance floor to pop, lock, and drop it. While twerking reflects uninhibited self-expression, many men assume women only twerk for the male gaze. Respectability politics leads men to complain about Black women twerking.
This theory implies that Black people should rise to a particular moral caliber worthy of respect. Their approach assumes that Black people have lower moral standing than other groups. Respectability politics becomes particularly troubling when Black men use public ridicule to punish Black women for exhibiting nonconformist behaviors.
True Kitchen + Kocktails is a restaurant owned by a Black restauranteur in Dallas, Texas. They serve an eclectic take on classic Southern soul food. On the Sunday following the Thanksgiving Holiday, the restaurant appeared packed with family and friends, enjoying some downtime.
Hip-Hop music played in the background, creating a lively atmosphere as customers enjoyed their meals and drinks. At some point, women started leaving their seats, joining in a full-on shake session. Black women wobbled, sending the owner into a verbal tirade.
‘So how can I tell men to respect themselves when you all are twerking on glass? If you want to do that, then get the f*** out of my restaurant. Because I did it for ourselves and I did it for our culture’. The crowd gasps, but Kelley continues: ‘Don’t do it again. I don’t want to hear it. If you don’t like it, get out because I don’t need your money’ (Edmonds, 2020).
The owner implied that asking Black men to respect themselves relied on the behavior of Black women. However, seeing women dance does not generally cause Black men or any men to disrespect themselves. His statement was a shadow threat, implying that women only deserve respect when they adhere to a particular social code of behavior.
He insinuated that twerking reflected a lack of self-respect. This misogynoiristic critique reveals just how dangerous respectability politics has become in American culture.
Since I spent eight years working as a French Quarter restaurant manager, I understand that managing customer behaviors can sometimes feel like herding cats. However, there are much better ways to handle undesirable behaviors by intoxicated customers. He could have discretely asked the ladies not to dance on the furniture and offered them a complimentary dessert to smooth it over. A little bit of kindness and consideration goes a long way in the hospitality industry.
‘I invested a lot of money into buying this building and developing this concept so Black people can have somewhere nice to go to,’ Kelley begins, raising his voice at the crowd. ‘Somewhere we can feel good about ourselves as a — stop the music!’ he suddenly shouts, silencing the DJ to get the room’s full attention. ‘Real talk. All this twerking and s***… don’t bring it here because we’re a restaurant,’ (Edmonds, 2020).
Kelley spoke loudly, using profanity. He demanded these Black women stop twerking, at one point asking them to leave his restaurant. The restauranteur seemed incredibly flustered, forsaking professional decorum. He bragged that he did not need their money, which is insulting since twerking does not mean these women did not intend to pay their bills. This approach displayed a reluctance to deal with these women in a discrete, personal way. Like many affluent people, he drank from the well of respectability politics.
This incident sparked a robust debate within the Black community. Some claimed that twerking has no place in a restaurant. However, they should consider that a DJ played in the background as they enjoyed their meals. These Black women responded by dancing, twerking like the women in the music videos.
Comedian Jessie Woo chimed pushing back at Kelley, saying ‘How you mad at women twerking in your restaurant while having a DJ playing ‘Body’ by Meg Thee Stallion on full blast in your establishment?’ (Edmonds, 2020).
My experiences growing up in New Orleans showed me just how alcohol, music, and people mix well. When Black women hang out, sometimes twerking happens, usually with lots of blushing, laughing, and smiling. Dancing reflects joy and freedom. Unfortunately, many view twerking as a threat to virtue.
Kelley claimed he created this restaurant so Black people could have a place to feel good about themselves, but apparently, Black people do not include Black women. They did feel good about themselves, but respectability politics insists that only self-loathing people participate in nonconformist behaviors.
These women did not hurt anyone by dancing. Yet, the owner treated them as undesirables. He loud-capped them in front of the entire restaurant. Kelley’s words seemed to echo the sentiment of Willie Layten.
S. Willie Layten, a movement leader, said, “unfortunately the minority of bad Negroes have given the race a questionable reputation; these degenerates are responsible for every discrimination we suffer (Starkey, 2016).
Respectability politics makes conformist Black people angry at those who embrace their independent path, insisting that their moral depravity leads to systemic inequities. However, this theory implies that Black people must comply with Eurocentric behaviors or become part of the problem. Their critiques fit into white supremacist ideology since the whole point is to live rent-free in Black people’s minds, controlling their behaviors.
During this summer, the Black community faced a reckoning about the harmful impacts of systemic racism. While this moment reflected unity, a culture war over Cardi B and Megan Thee Stallion’s hit song WAP quickly revealed a schism. Many conservative men insisted women should not speak about sex in their music even though the Hip-Hop industry’s success would not be possible without the consistent use of Black women as video-vixen props.
The conversations about twerking in restaurants reflect a continuation of a discussion about tone-policing Black women. While the conversation revolves around respectability across the board, Black women are usually the only ones chastised for their public behaviors.
Many men fall into the trap of evaluating Black women through the lens of white femininity, which comes with an entirely different set of social expectations and behaviors.
Twerking comes from a long history of Black femininity. We can trace this American dance revolution to the shores of West Africa, where Mapouka originated. Women participate in this dance by turning their backs to the audience and shaking their bodies, often bending over. Mapouka predates colonialism; it had no attachment to a low moral caliber.
Respectability politics is an attempt to tone-police and justify discrimination against Black women. Each person deserves respect, and twerking does not nullify the social contract to value Black women.
Respectability Politics is a Lost Cause
Many Black people harbor a pathological preoccupation with how whites regard the group (Starkey, 2016).
Throughout American history, Black people often debated the best way to overcome systemic inequities caused by colonialism. Many affluent Black people argued that respectability politics provided an opportunity to overcome disparities. However, respectability politics is a lost cause because changing yourself does not protect you from discrimination. Even wealthy Black women like Michelle Obama and Oprah experienced racial discrimination. Thus, acquiring numerous degrees or accolades does not serve as the remedy for racism.
Respectability politics assumes that Black people are the cause of their disenfranchisement. Thus, proponents of this theory insist that Black people change their clothing, tame their kinky hair, and abandon Ebonics for Standard English.
Because white supremacy makes Black people feel powerless, many try to convince white people to accept them. Respectability politics is a popular method of trying to convince white people of the righteousness of Black people. This movement failed because it lacks accountability from the white-dominated system.
Adapting Eurocentric cultures does not save Black people from discrimination. The current system is derived to obtain power, not change the culture. Colonists enslaved Africans because they wanted free labor to create a new country, not because Black people lack moral clarity. Modern research shows that most white people demonstrate implicit and explicit bias upon seeing Afrocentric faces. Thus, making physical and behavioral changes does not change how white people feel about Black people.
He added: ‘When we talk about advancing the culture, I’m mindful of how we all look… I’m very steadfast in making sure our guests carry themselves in the right way of this restaurant’ — Kelley, Owner of True Kitchen + Kocktails (Edmonds, 2020).
The restauranteur spoke about how “we all look,” referring to how every Black person’s actions reflect the entire community. This preoccupation with adjusting behaviors to fit the white gaze reared its ugly head during the incident. The tension was thick enough to cut with a knife. Customers felt shocked at the owners’ statements, but the responses online were mixed, representing those on both sides of the spectrum.
Respectability politics furnished no cure (Starkey, 2016).
Black people should not change their behaviors to satisfy white people. Nor should Black women alter their behavior to conform to Black men’s perception of femininity, which relies heavily on Eurocentric standards. Before the wars and tragedy that ripped Africans away from their homeland, women danced in this same way.
The introduction of discriminatory practices like redlining and the failure to make advances in criminal justice and educational reform issues demonstrate the failures of respectability politics.
Black people have been in an abusive relationship with America since its inception. Respectability politics insist that Black people should behave a little more, and then the abuse will stop. This technique leads to a dead end since Black people never deserved poor treatment in the first place. Thus, changes in their behaviors would not improve their condition.
Even if Black people spoke with the utmost precision, groomed themselves using Eurocentric beauty standards, there would be a fresh set of hoops to jump through.
Black people are already trying their best and to insist otherwise feeds into negative stereotypes. Instead of faulting ourselves for the inequities in our communities, Black people should focus on changing the system that mistreats us. Concentrating only on personal responsibility gives a free pass to federal and state governments that disproportionately harm Black people. It also justifies racism, insisting that cultural differences are justification for discrimination.
Our politics must be responsive to ourselves, not whites. It must flourish from our brilliance (Starkey, 2016).
Twerking provides health benefits
While the critics have a lot to say about twerking, this dance is here to stay. Twerking enhances women’s confidence, relieves stress, benefits mental health, and provides a boost to women’s sex lives. Some women prefer to twerk in private, while others will engage in public shake sessions. Nevertheless, twerking offers long term health benefits.
Like every dance form, twerking provides the human body with exercise. If you want to twerk, no one has to know. It can be a secret between you and your mirror or romantic partner. This dance is not easy, but anyone can learn. Big Freedia, the Queen of Bounce, critiqued Miley Cyrus for her poor form. It requires doing squats and requires muscle control.
Twerking involves squatting down low and popping your butt back and forward in a strangely hypnotic motion. Twerking strengthens muscles in just about every part of your body (Adekanye, 2019).
For those looking for an exercise routine they can stick with, twerking can add some fun to an otherwise arduous workout routine. Women have effectively capitalized on this dance form’s benefits by creating classes for women to learn how to twerk. Women of all shapes and sizes can enjoy this dance form, which focuses on toning and flexing muscles.
What the critics fail to understand is twerking makes women feel good. Despite the restauranteur assuming that women who twerk lack self-respect, the truth is twerking increases the likelihood of women enjoying their bodies. Imagine the confidence it takes to start popping your derrière. The excitement can lift women’s spirits, enhancing their self-esteem.
When you twerk , it improves the body structure, this can boost your self confidence and make your body curves more obvious (Adekanye, 2019).
Women who twerk improve their balance and flexibility. While some imply twerking over sexualizes women, assuming that moving the body invites sex is the problem. Society needs to recognize that Black women are humans, not sexual creatures. Thus, when they move their bodies, no one should assume they do it for anyone other than themselves. If people feel pleasure from seeing them dance, that is okay, but it is not always the point.
Twerking for your partner is as equally arousing for the giver as it is for the receiver (Adekanye, 2019).
Some women participate in private twerk sessions for their romantic partners. If you are looking for a great way to surprise your significant other, learning to twerk can be the unsuspecting element your love life needs. Still, you do not have to share your twerking skills with anyone. When you do, it reflects confidence and comfortability with yourself and the people around you.
The benefits of twerking are long-lasting and can even decrease the chance of mental decline as people age. Because twerking requires innovative movements, it stimulates brain function.
According to research, twerking is also a workout for the brain and has even been shown to reduce the risk of dementia (Adekanye, 2019).
With all of the benefits from twerking, it can be easy to see why many women join this dance revolution. The concept of respectability requires that someone outside of you respects you. However, people should not shape their decisions entirely on the opinions of others. Eurocentric etiquette should not come before health, wellness, and joy. Valuing yourself is much more important than what other people think.
Where do we go from here?
Respectability politics feeds into a dangerous notion making respect conditional. Historically, this approach derives from affluent Black people’s desire to free themselves from their low socioeconomic status by pandering.
Abolitionists spoke to blacks, telling them to demonstrate their worthiness of American citizenship by proving their intellectual ability, religious virtue and habits of work (Starkey, 2016).
Twerking does not devalue Black women. On the contrary, it opens the door for them to express themselves freely. Women that twerked on that fateful Sunday afternoon did not expect to be publicly humiliated for having some fun. However, respectability politics encourages men to tone-police Black women’s behaviors.
American society gives women a hard time. The same people who put them on a pedestal for their beautiful bodies show complete outrage when expressing themselves independently from the male-gaze.
Black women will continue to twerk at home, on the dance floor, in parking lots, in supermarkets, and on their front yards because they get to control their bodies. Twerking is part of Black culture, and it is high time men stop trying to shame women for expressing themselves.
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Adekanye, M. (2019, August 20). Some benefits of twerking you might not be aware of. Retrieved December 09, 2020, from https://guardian.ng/life/some-benefits-of-twerking-you-might-not-be-aware-of/
Clark-Flory, T. (2014, October 23). Feminists can twerk too: What Annie Lennox misunderstands about Beyoncé. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.salon.com/2014/10/22/feminists_can_twerk_too_what_annie_lennox_misunderstands_about_beyonce/
Edmonds, L. (2020, November 30). Black restaurant owner tells women to ‘get out’ and scolds them for twerking inside his business. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-9002969/Black-restaurant-owner-tells-women-scolds-twerking-inside-business.html
McDonald, S. (2019, May 02). Everyone’s adopted twerking from Big Freedia, ‘Queen of Bounce.’ She’s already moved on. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/morning-mix/wp/2014/06/12/everyones-taking-their-cues-from-big-freedia-queen-of-bounce-whats-next/
Starkey, B. (2016, December 12). Respectability politics: How a flawed conversation sabotages black lives. Retrieved December 07, 2020, from https://theundefeated.com/features/respectability-politics-how-a-flawed-conversation-sabotages-black-lives/