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Respectability Politics And Bonnets

BY Simone Nicole

I love being Black. Full stop. It is the most enriching, beautiful, nuanced, exciting experience. Being Black comes with a lot of privileges, but it also comes with many responsibilities. From a young age, we are taught many unspoken languages that are designed to get us through life. Some of those languages are about survival, but many others are less high stakes than that. When I was growing up, it was relentlessly drilled into my head that I was not to leave the house without looking put together. My mother didn’t care if I was going to school or to the gas station. I was never to look “a mess” as I was a reflection of her. Moreover, I was a reflection of the black community as a whole. 

It’s crazy to think about as an adult, but from as young as 8 years old I was aware that my life and decisions were not my own. In my head, if I left the house in pajama pants and a bonnet, people wouldn’t look at me and think “she looks a mess”, they would look at me and think “look at that ghetto little black girl.” Writing it out sounds preposterous, but I’ve lived enough life to know it’s not. When you are around someone that is “other” to you, that “other” becomes the representation of all the other “others.” As much as we’d like to believe that everyone understands that no one group is a monolith, the history of this country would beg to differ.

My ancestors realized this, and developed a set of unwritten rules to counteract monolithic judgment. Those unwritten rules, turned into one of our many languages and it now has a name: Respectability Politics. Respectability Politics is a set of rules that all “good blacks” should follow. You should speak well, conduct yourself with respect, never lose your cool, and, most importantly, you never leave your house looking anything less than put together. The generations that came before me were trying to do ANYTHING to get our people to be seen as equal in the eyes of white people. At a time in history that meant everything, down to your very survival. 

I will never leave my house in a bonnet. I could be running out to my car for 3 seconds, and I’ll still throw on a hoodie to cover my head. At my big old age of 25, I still believe that the person that sees me with it on out in public would look at me and think: “Look at that ghetto black girl. Why do they think it’s okay to leave the house looking like that?” Why do they. 

I wear a scarf and a bonnet to bed every night, and sleep on satin pillow cases. I have a head full of curls to take care of, so I have to do what I have to do! But sometimes, that scarf and bonnet fall off and my wash and go is ruined the next day. Or maybe I paid $300, a very common price, for a silk press and it’s raining outside. Or maybe I paid $500 to get a wig installed, again not a crazy amount to pay, and I don’t have the humidity lifting the lace on my wig. Am I justified in wearing my bonnet outside? In my opinion, no. I would rather put my ruined wash n go that I spent an hour in the shower working on, up in a slick bun. I would risk the rain hitting my hair and reverting it back to curly. I would let the lace lift. I cannot be a “they” in someone’s head. I cannot be a bad representation of my people, ever. 

It is insane to me that the “messy bun” is emulated for fashion shows, but a scarf and a bonnet make you a second class citizen in some people’s eyes. I love being Black, yes. I love my skin, I love my body, I love my hair. The Black experience is so nuanced. Speaking all of our unspoken languages is like walking a tightrope. And some fall sometimes. The next time you see a Black woman looking less than put together, give her grace. We juggle so many roles on a day to day, and sometimes something’s got to give.