Sometimes it’s the forced, extra warm smile. It could be an overtly cordial greeting with disarming jokes. It might mean shirking natural hairstyles. For some, it’s even changing the inflection of their voice. Perhaps it’s intentionally choosing less so-called “ethnic” names for our children or dressing in so-called “non-threatening attire,” all as a means to dial down one’s Blackness for survival.
Earlier this month, Mashable published an article about some Black men wearing suits as “armor” from the deadly perceptions produced from racism. Simply put, some feel the need to dress in formal attire just so police wouldn’t kill them. As a Black man who wears suits fairly often, this piece resonated for a variety of reasons.
I administer programs targeting Black males aged 14 to 24 with a focus on mentorship and empowerment. Part of this involves practice towards dressing professionally as a way to prepare for job interviews and beyond. This is a vital tool for success in the adult world, given professional norms in certain settings. Thus, my programs help provide blazers for our gentlemen to wear once a week and for special occasions.
Immediately, the compliments began once we started wearing them. “Your guys look wonderful.” “They carry themselves differently with those suits on.” This, on its face, may be true. It’s probably accurate that we do “look nice” when dressed more formally and it’s natural, I’d suppose, to walk with a different swagger when wearing fancier attire.
However, what goes unsaid is the adjacent assumption that dressing a certain way somehow highlights or bolsters their humanity. I sometimes wonder: Would these students still get noticed in such a positive way when they’re dressed casually like their peers ― when they are merely looking their age instead of walking personifications of Jidenna’s song “Classic Man”?
We know the “dress nicely and maybe they’ll see us as human and stop killing us” mindset as respectability politics.
Subscribing to this mindset means constantly modulating your own behavior while goalposts continue to move. We also know that it still doesn’t and never will work. The insidious nature of White supremacy seduces its victims into thinking “if I could just do better, look better, _____ better, then I’ll be fine,” while never challenging the system and those who facilitate and benefit from its perpetuation.
The painful truth is that one can dress like Fonzworth Bentley, write like Toni Morrison, and speak with erudition of Michael Eric Dyson and still die from simply being Black and breathing. You can never be “perfect” enough. Being among the best dressed on campus didn’t stop a tall Black male colleague of mine at another institution from being suspected by campus police of being an escaped inmate, despite being a tenured faculty member. Neither my suit nor my degrees saved me from being once assumed too incompetent to have written a program report myself. (Note: I did.)
We know that White supremacy permeates every aspect of society, from our politics, to our criminal justice systems, everyday interactions, and yes, even our most enlightened institutions of higher education. To challenge it, we must stop kowtowing to appease those who will likely find us inferior and subhuman regardless of our speech patterns, hairstyle or choice of attire. We have far too many examples to remind us that no such affectations will save us from racism. With this realization, we might as well live our fullest lives and be our most unapologetically Black selves. This, in itself, is a form of resistance.
With this in mind, the students in my Black male programs will continue to wear their suits, blazers and dress slacks. Not as a survival technique to make themselves seem less threatening, but because they actually want to wear them. I can only hope that they won’t fall under the deception of believing that their nice threads, or speech patterns, or level of education, etc., will render the real “threat” of their Blackness invisible.