"Baltimore doesn’t give a damn, and this is the free-est I’ve ever felt to be my Black-ass self."

-Hess Stinson

by Hess Stinson

Unpacking respectability politics is a journey. Right now, I’m at a point in my journey where I can sit on the bench and catch a breather, but I know that soon I have to get up and keep on walking.

I used to take most steps with my “best foot,” trying to hop into the benefits of a curated image. After moving to Baltimore, I realized how much I policed my own Black-ass joy, how much I denied myself catharsis, and how much I had become mentally and physically sick while living amongst the violence of white suburbia. Baltimore has placed my footsteps alongside and among folks who don’t expect me to behave like a tolerable negro.

Living here feels like “anti-respectability politics” immersion school. It isn’t sink or swim. It’s realizing that I was drowning in the first place. This city is home to some of the most unapologetic Black folks on the planet. Abstract thoughts of Black expression outside of colonized cognition come alive here.

Pushing back against white norms is a risk-filled form of resistance. Black Baltimoreans subconsciously put their livelihoods on the line to be their truest selves. Some say that’s foolish—to not participate in the exhaustion of code-switching during an interview. or to say “nigga” around white people in broad daylight. I say it’s free. These people know that they stand to lose more than just the respect of white folks, and they are their Blackest selves anyway.

The creature comforts of assimilation are few and far between here. Failing schools, boarded up houses, crimes of economic opportunity, malnutrition, resource scarcity, and all the things that are “not supposed to” happen in the melting pot of America happen here. Desegregation has killed once-booming areas like Pennsylvania Avenue and turned them into the places HBO series are made of. You can’t go a block without being face to face with the reality of systemic anti-Blackness and how much things have changed just to stay the same, no matter much we try to get (and stay) on the “good” foot.

As I walk, it doesn’t matter if I have green hair, say “nigga” thirty-two times in a five sentence monologue, or speak in ways that white tourists would deem unintelligible. Baltimore doesn’t give a damn, and this is the free-est I’ve ever felt to be my Black-ass self.

Coming from suburban Maryland, arriving here made me realize how naked I felt when I couldn’t lean on white measurements of worth. It made me realize that the people I seek refuge in lean on those same measurements. Black people that are “pleasant enough” to be worthy of my freetime. We can be Black together, but not niggas together. Because we all believed those things are mutually exclusive. Many of us that are consumable to mainstream gaze keep our circles the same way. We look for freedom in the embrace of Black folks that are as socially chaste as we are. And it’s a sham.

Respectability politics are an invisible fence we hold around each other. An expectation to always behave as if massa is watching or else we’re all finna get into a heap of trouble. They hold true as a paper bag test for behavior, to make sure you’re not acting too niggerish.

It’s the thought that the more we assimilate into white behavior and western societal conventions, the more we can overcome anti-Black systemic oppression. For Black folks, respectability politics are congruent with “the American dream,” where everyone has a mountain of debt just to have a house, two cars, a white picket fence, and a dog. When we police each other and ourselves, we don’t realize we’re asking for us to all become like the mediocrity of whiteness that measures worth in material possessions.

Keeping our heads down, making our dismay eloquent, and putting forth as if white Jesus is watching us at all times has not gotten us anywhere. We’re still killed by the police more often than Black folks were lynched during Jim Crow. All these things do—the efforts to be docile negroes—is alienate us from one another, making us into with brown-skinned shells of folks who don’t realize how sunken their authentic self is. And it’s hard to do collective healing or liberating work with people who only put forth three-fifths of themselves into the world.

We start showing up in totality when we grapple with the whitewashed versions of ourselves and declare the Blackest one the winner. We do this not only by being around people that embody behaviors that are direct opposition to any formation of whiteness, but in making ourselves a person that defies whiteness at any turn.

Before Baltimore, I offered false intimacy to the people around me—an obstructed view of myself that barred me from walking into an unapologetic Blackness like the kind I witness here daily.

Respectability politics imprisons us, gets us to work as guards to our already caged humanity. Its proposed “benefits” cannot be sold around these parts. We’re all walking through the troubled water of truth. There is no salvation in colonized conventions of authority, worth, intellect, or hospitality. And so, I have to keep on walking.

Hess Stinson is a community advocate based in Baltimore. In her free time she collects cookbooks and yells on the internet about intersectional feminism. You can find their work on Roaring Gold, Brown Girls Out Loud, and Medium.