Beyoncé and the End of Respectability Politics

Beyonce performed at the 2018 Coachella Valley Music And Arts Festival.

Beyoncé is at the pinnacle of her career. At the Coachella festival in the Southern California desert on Saturday, she showed that there’s nothing this mother of three can’t do. But she didn’t just kill the performance; she also rewrote the book on black respectability politics. She could have decided to play to the majority-white audience with a show that made it easier to forget cultural differences. Or she could be herself. Beyoncé chose the latter.

In putting on a show that celebrated the diversity of black people, she conveyed that no matter how much fame or money she has, she will refuse to divorce herself from black culture, even the parts that are underappreciated, disrespected or misunderstood by white people. Beyoncé was performing her music, but she was also saying that the performance of respectability — the policing of black people’s behavior and appearance to better appeal to white people — is an oppression we don’t need in our lives.

Black musicians in particular have long been told how they should look and perform to sustain their success and be marketable to a larger audience. That often meant that black artists distanced themselves from the things associated with black culture, especially the things that might be coded as not-respectable.

Whitney Houston famously struggled under this weight. At the urging of her mentor Clive Davis and others, she wore glamorous clothes, sang pop-driven songs instead of R&B and obeyed other unwritten social norms that circumscribed how she could live her life and express herself.

Michael Jackson, Oprah Winfrey and President Barack Obama have all been accused of staying aloof from black culture to gain more power and be more relatable to a wider, whiter audience. It is a common belief among black people that the more successful we become, the more we should keep away from black culture — especially when white people are looking. And especially at work.

Members of Beyoncé‘s audience at Coachella.

Beyoncé’s mother, Tina Lawson, echoed this sentiment before her daughter’s performance: “I told Beyoncé that I was afraid that the predominately white audience at Coachella would be confused by all of the black culture and black college culture because it was something that they might not get,” she wrote on Instagram.

But Beyoncé assuaged her fears. “I have worked very hard to get to…

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