As a student at an elite university, I am no stranger to the term “Black excellence.” Every time one of my classmates or I accomplish something new; it’s not rare to see the phrase in the comments section on Instagram and Facebook. Many would think that as I am pursuing higher education I would take pride in the phrase, but on the contrary, I can’t help but cringe every time I hear it. This overwhelming belief that I am somehow better than the average Black woman because I am soon to have a college degree not only saddens me but it also ignores underlying privilege. To me, it’s all aimless competition. So many times we hear arguments defending Black elites, saying that they deserve to be considered Black and are not sellouts and shouldn’t be told that they “talk white.” But not nearly as much energy is devoted to being there for Black people–specifically women–who live on the other side of the train tracks.
We don’t give the Shaniqua’s of the world enough recognition. Between name and outfit shaming, hairstyle mocking and the everyday tasteless comparisons to more worthy women, the hood rats of the world not only have to deal with institutional inequalities, but sloppy respectability politics as well. Black women have to deal with a lot. Racism and sexism alone are enough to disturb the best of us. However, lower income Black women have to deal with classism on top of that. This means being teased for shopping at Rainbow and Forman Mills instead of Nordstrom and Saks Fifth Avenue. This means hurtful weave jokes, too. And ultimately, this means that we are not here for our women like we may believe we are.
When a Black woman with a unique name gets turned down from a job prospect, we as a community tend to blame the woman, instead of the racist practices that judge someone’s work ability by the distance their name has from Becky or Sarah. When a Black woman decides to wear brightly colored hair, she is ridiculed and assumed to be uneducated. Societies beauty standards continuously put Black women at the bottom of the totem pole, never being uplifted to newer heights. We tend to look past the fact that “ghetto” women, just as everyone else, are multi-faceted and complex beings, not one-dimensional caricatures to be humiliated for variance from the status quo.
And what makes a Black woman “worthy,” anyway? Her ability to code switch? The amount of money she makes in an hour? The size of the house she lives in? These narratives are beyond tired and are ready to retire to the land of nonsense.
Black elite or the “talented tenth” as Du Bois coined, do a lot every day, both consciously and subconsciously, to distance themselves from being seen as ghetto. The respectability politics ingrained in these actions causes us to ignore bigger themes of marginalization by race, gender, and in this case, class. And for what? Corporate America still sees Black as Black; no matter where you come from or how you speak or what your hair looks like. Respectability politics are backwards and have no place in our fight for social justice. To share a post on Facebook about Black representation in the STEM field, yet turn around and put down your cousin who speaks African American Vernacular English (AAVE), shows just how much “justice” you actually want.
Newsflash: before we decriminalize Blackness, lets take a step towards decriminalizing ghettoness. Speaking traditional English and having a degree makes someone no better than anyone else. I attend a prestigious institution because I had the resources and privileges–going to a good school where there were opportunities for college prep–to help me get there. Not because my brain functions any better than the woman working at McDonald’s. In other words, it’s still misogynistic to degrade the Nicki Minaj’s of the world, no matter how much you applaud the Lauryn Hill’s. Black women are not homogeneous and will never fit any cookie cutter mold handed to us on a respectability plate.
A friend of mine recently said, “Ghetto people are the most generous, humble people there are. The kind of people that are the first to give you their last.” I can’t help but to agree. So, this one is for the hood rats. The women who get told far too often that they are not worth it. That they need to change to be acceptable. That they just don’t quite reach the bar. This one is for you, and I’m here for you.