Dr. Brittney Cooper on the ‘Politics of Disrespectability’

Collin Young

The Black Student Union (BSU) hosted keynote speaker Dr. Brittney Cooper, a black feminist theorist and Assistant Professor of Women’s and Gender Studies and Africana Studies at Rutgers University. Her presentation “Beyond Respectability: Black Women Redefining Justice” was held in Golden Auditorium. 

Senior Adrielle Jefferson, President of the BSU, explained the decision behind bringing Cooper to campus.

“In keeping with the Black Student Union’s decision to celebrate #blackgirlmagic this Black History Month, we invited Dr. Brittney Cooper to campus as our keynote speaker,” Jefferson said. “Dr. Cooper is special because she is an academic and an activist, which is a dual role that many of us aspire to [be].” 

Cooper asserted that it was time for politics and tactics to move beyond respectability to what she called “Dis Respectability.” 

Cooper first proceeded to define respectability. She agreed with Higgenbotham’s definition of respectability which held that it, “demanded that every individual in the black community assume responsibility for behavioral self regulation, and self improvement.” She further elaborated that it is due to the pressure of respectability that black females aimed to be overachievers so that stereotypes are not ascribed to them, leading to them becoming performers for the “white gaze.” 

Cooper brought up the example of Mary Church Terrell, who she believed should be celebrated on this year’s Black History Month. She highlighted that though Terrell’s views were slightly skewed, she was the first person to “reposition” the “white gaze.” She explained how Terrell did this by impressing people who assumed that she was white due to the pale complexion of her skin with her intelligence, decorum and acuity first. Having done so, she then revealed that she was black. This act, Cooper argues, repositioned the white gaze by reframing the way that white people thought about black people. 

Cooper then returned to the idea of respectability and discussed why in modern times we have to reject the idea of respectability politics. She emphasized how respectability politics is flawed in the sense that it tends to lean towards homophobia, transphobia and the like. However, she noted that outright rejecting respectability politics is not ideal as one should respect how their ancestors navigated their problems. 

Cooper proceeded to highlight the new kind of politics that she advocates for, that of “Dis Respectability” politics, which she described as the middle ground between respectability and disrespectfulness. She identified two main ways of supporting this style of politics, through a loud and ratchet way termed “Ratchet Radicalism” or through a calm and subtle way. 

Cooper continued to define Ratchet Radicalism as the polar opposite of respectability politics because whereas the latter has to do with putting on a social performance of modesty, the former centers around

exposure to signal vulnerability. 

She cited Beyoncé as an example of a Ratchet Radicalist. To Cooper, Beyoncé’s acts of being unapologetically black, whether it’s in her songs, her concerts or her actions in general, all serve to reposition the white gaze and offers a new path out of respectability politics. 

As for the calm and subtle way of supporting Dis Respectability politics, Cooper identified Michelle Obama as a prime example. She highlighted how Michelle Obama’s “hair vocabulary” is used to express her emotions in a very subtle way. An instance of her “hair vocabulary” in action would be her “thrown together last minute” hairstyle when she attended Donald Trump’s inauguration, which served to convey her extreme sense of dissatisfaction towards Trump. 

Cooper also debuted the cover of her new book, “Beyond Respectability: The Intellectual Thought of Race Women.”

Jefferson was impressed by Cooper’s presentation on the politics of being black in the United States. 

“She was able to talk about the cultural importance of Beyoncé’s Lemonade while offering insight into the complexities of black womanhood, activism and justice,” Jefferson said. 

First-year William Tan found the presentation informative. 

“It was very interesting learning about how Dis Respectability Politics is demonstrated in modern day times; furthermore, I appreciated learning about the history of respectability politics and why it is no longer applicable in today’s day and age,” Tan said.