Race, Gender, Respectability, and Knowledge

The stimulating blog Black Perspectives has published an online roundtable on Black Women and the Politics of Respectability that includes two posts clearly relevant to the history of knowledge. Instead of exploring the link between education and respectability that is familiar, for example, in European social history, these pieces scrutinize the special role played by respectability in African American communities as part of what W.E.B. Du Bois called “this sense of looking at one’s self through the eyes of others.”1 One response to this acute awareness of scrutiny in a racist society were “pedagogies of respectability,” produced for and circulated via black periodicals and films in the early twentieth century. See Jane Rhodes, “Race, Media, and Black Womanhood in the Early Twentieth Century” for more.

In Sara P. Díaz, “Zoologist Roger Arliner Young [1899–1964] and the Politics of Respectability,” readers encounter an accomplished scientist and selfless social activist. Each of these roles led to conflicts mediated by the politics of respectability in social configurations that produced both academic recognition and unemployment. This “daughter of a coal miner and a housekeeper” negotiated a variety of milieus, “from the violent segregation of the Jim Crow South, to the black middle- and professional-class societies of Washington, D.C. and Durham , to the elite white laboratories of the biological sciences.” To succeed, she needed to be able “to assume the postures and gestures of a ‘respectable’ woman. But, what counted as respectable varied widely across the spaces she moved through and across her lifetime.”

  1. Quoted in Ralina L. Joseph and Jane Rhodes, “Black Women and the Politics of Respectability: An Introduction,” Black Perspectives, April 24, 2017, http://www.aaihs.org/black-women-and-the-politics-of-respectability-an-introduction.