Respect seems to be a word thrown around a lot in Black upbringing and culture. And that’s righteous. Respect for others is important. But from what I can tell, only certain people are required to be respectful while others are owed respect.
What is respect? And who is deserving of it? Do we all have to earn it or are we all entitled to it but subject to losing it?
Merriam Webster defines it as:
:a feeling of admiring someone or something that is good, valuable, important, etc.
: a feeling or understanding that someone or something is important, serious, etc., and should be treated in an appropriate way
To keep it all the way real and transparent, the message Black people receive from childhood (and religion) is that only men (as “heads” of households or theoretical protectors) and the elderly are worthy of respect. But everyone else? Not so much. There isn’t a big focus on expecting others to have respect for Black girls and young Black women, especially if she is childless and/or single. What ends up happening is that Black girls are raised to believe that others are owed respect from them but they must prove themselves worthy of respect from others. Like a circus performer doing tricks to earn the crowd’s applause. And that’s an exhausting way to go through life. From childhood, the expectations of respect have been lopsided, demanding that girls and women have blind respect for those in positions of status and power (men, old folks, the “system”) but she should not think too high of herself to expect it to be reciprocated and if it isn’t reciprocated it must be because of something she did wrong.
But yet we wonder why we have an entire crop of Black men who do nothing but disrespect Black women. We are surprised when we run into Black men who can’t name one reason why they respect Black women but can easily give you a laundry list in English, Spanish and Russian as to why they don’t respect Black women. We are shocked that a Black girl can get assaulted by sheer muscle while sitting in her seat and there’s either silence, indifference or justifications from an eerily large amount of Black men (& women, too). Despite showing up to march for Black men’s lives, there’s a new meme trashing Black women popping up every other day or a Tommy Sotomayor character in existence (and popular!) on the interwebs. We run around here calling ten year old boys “kings” and “little man” (without adding on any responsibilities, mind you, just handing over titles) but bestow no similar title of status on the girls as if he’s owed these titles but she has to work for them. The reason being is that there is just an abysmal lack of respect for Black girls and women.
And this lack of respect for women and girls is taught-or otherwise checked- at home. It starts at home, not in the dating world or professional world. It is not a random Black woman’s job to give a man something to respect. It was his mammy and pappy’s job to teach him to respect women as people. Period. Sure, you can certainly lose respect for someone, but when you’re quick to lose respect for a woman and justify mistreating her for so much as breathing incorrectly, it starts to become plain as day that the respect for women was lacking from the gate. And it certainly is not the job of a 15 year old student who is sitting down having a shitty 15 year old girl type of day to give the adults-who are there to teach and protect her and when necessary, discipline her- a reason not to choke her and body slam her or prove that she is worthy of respect to her body and a sense of dignity. She is owed that respect, period. But in a male dominated society, brute force and intimidation is considered an appropriate way to communicate simple requests (See: world history, current affairs, video games, and just about every action movie ever made)
I think we do this because raising Black girls and pushing Black women to be respectful/respectable lets everyone else off the hook from having to do the work of developing those same traits within themselves. What is the incentive to being a better person when you can always count on garnering the respect (really, it’s fear) from a Black woman, who will essentially validate your foolishness, tolerate the mistreatment, forgive it all and give you the benefit of the doubt because that’s what she’s been raised to do? Answer: There is no incentive. I’ve learned in my almost thirty years on this planet that a sizable portion of the population is filled with emotionally lazy people. They don’t really want to be bothered with doing the work of considering about other peoples’ feelings and wellbeing. They would much rather have someone else do the emotional heavy lifting and it’s usually someone they deem to be less important, less valuable, and less likely to challenge them- women and children.
Ideologically speaking, Black culture is rooted in a belief of collectivism but the reality has become much different. We do practice this collectivism in terms of Black economic empowerment, which is vital and we should continue to do so. But I think on a more interpersonal level, we place a large portion of the responsibility of the community’s wellbeing on women, blaming her for just about every problem but rarely rewarding her for its successes. Today, Black men are raised with a grandiose sense of entitlement to do as they please (except when they’re around White folks) without any real communal accountability; so-called “elders” would rather spend time gossiping about younger people, blaming them for everything wrong in the world rather than looking at themselves and asking “how did I contribute to this?” and sit down and impart some PRACTICAL wisdom to help younger ones be their best selves. But Black girls and Black women are raised to keep quiet, don’t be too arrogant or independent, do as you’re told, be submissive to men and old people, don’t question anybody even when they’re clearly a plumb fool, and still hold the responsibility of everyone’s b.s and the entire community’s eff ups. And sadly, Black women are just as guilty of perpetuating this crap, if not more so than anyone else.
And this benefits who exactly?
Well, it’s not benefitting young Black girls and women. I could see if being a “good” Black woman and “respectable” Black girl resulted in wealth, prosperity, blissful fulfillment, or guarantees that the community would always be there for you and defend you but it doesn’t. We are still marching for ourselves by ourselves to have our issues heard, we still make less money than White men and White women and Black men. And we’re still dealing with health issues, like diabetes, infertility, higher death rates of breast cancer, and mental health issues, we still hold in our pain of dealing with sexual and physical abuse trauma since we know that no one will really care that much to even listen to us, much less protect us. And don’t let us have a shit day, we just might get flipped out of a chair or worse, lose our lives.
Knowing how little this world values and respects Black women, it would be helpful to raise Black girls with that awareness and give them tools to survive and navigate the world better. Rather than focusing solely on being “good” and respectful and “wife material”, they also need to know that it is ok to hold people accountable (in a healthy way, of course) for egregious acts of disrespect against them; they should know how to create and sustain meaningful relationships with other Black women, learning to have respect for their own image as Black women, rather than seeing other Black women through the Lens of Low Regard the world enjoys seeing us through. And raise boys to understand that there is strength in valuing Black women and girls as people worthy of respect just like they are. Otherwise, we are required to move forward without them.
“Be not discouraged Black women of the world, but push forward, regardless of the lack of appreciation shown you.“
Amy Euphemia Jacques Garvey, October 25, 1925.