Cleaning Out My Closet of Respectability Politics

We have so much work to do.

I have so much more process to complete.

So I am going to pick up here, in the deadly never-ending desert of respectability for black children masqueraded as education. You know, my career and my calling. Because I am still being delivered from these generational layers of self hatred reflected in the cold glare of whiteness as the best and (sometimes only) identity worth having, I still shock myself at how respectability rises up like bile when I am working to center black children.

How I encourage them to avoid the “school to prison pipeline” by following the “school to debt” pipeline of higher education instead when their passion is in the arts and sports and entrepreneurship. How I subtlety disdain their richly complex lives and neighborhoods by letting slip the thought that who they are and where they are from are places that they can escape with a good academic foundation. How I plainly and sincerely state that their talents can forge a way to the great American quest of higher education and that they can rise above their terrible lives into the ether of Americana if they just pass one more test.

I sometimes fail to tell them how proud I am of my mama and grandmama who are just like their mama and grandmama, working hard jobs with terrible shifts to make ends meet. I always fail to mention the scary mountain of debt I have incurred chasing the brass rings of degrees in places where I wasn’t welcomed or wanted, to the detriment of my psyche. I never explain how I live paycheck to paycheck because degrees don’t always translate for black folks into upward mobility or wealth building. I don’t tell how I’ve had WIC and Food-stamps and Medicaid, too, because the jobs I put hours and hours into didn’t pay enough for me to survive. I don’t mention how despite my pride in having managed to stick with the father of both of kids I don’t have a real relationship with my daddy either just like them.

Because. You know! Respectable.

The older I get, the harder it is to affix the mask of black respectability to my face due to the tears corroding the mask and the semipermanent scowl that has taken over my face. Scowling because this life some bullshit when it comes to being black and tears because reconciling the drugs I’m currently selling (of freedom through education) to reality is a kind of dissonance that hurts my soul. The truth keeps slipping out my mouth more and more and more, and I find myself behind closed doors in dark classrooms whispering to these kids, these reflections of me:

Listen. LISTEN. You don’t HAVE to go to school to be great. You just gotta have a plan.

Listen. The only thing wrong with your neighborhood is that all of you need to take pride in it.

Listen. You are already intelligent and gifted and capable. You just gotta figure out what you want to pursue and do that.

Listen. Listen. Listen.

I prayed for forgiveness today, for walking in hidden shame and disdain for those who have not chosen the path that works for me. For silently judging those who by choice or chance had children before they could get degrees or travel or whatever I deemed a life well lived. For pressuring children into being what the world considers “safe black”.

I’m sorry. Your children—my children deserve freedom born of self value and uninterrupted self discovery. They deserve people in their lives willing to tell them that their lives matter in whatever iteration of life they choose and to help them realize the dreams that make them keep going. They deserve someone who builds their capacity for self validation in a world that tells them that how they are and who the are makes them unworthy of good and they have to change and fit.

I promised God that I would do the unthinkable hard thing and love them until they loved themselves enough to know that they are just fine, that the important lessons are not found in obscure mathematics or whitewashed history books or standardized tests but in their character and integrity and tenacity to face a world designed to kill them in every way. And so God keeps laying me bare, throwing sand on the warped lenses I wear to make me take them off. So that I can see what God sees in these whom He has fearfully and wonderfully made.

I am cleaning out my closet. The ideology in which I have been clothed just does not fit anymore.


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