Toxic black respectability is ruining our institutions — and us.
A degree from a black college has always been a valuable gear in the machinery of America’s class system. Early black college graduates emerged as exceptional models of black achievement and uncommon potential as well as leader-spokesmen of a race historically viewed as an industrial commodity.
It is tradition born out of the early post-slavery days when black women and men who were once reduced to chattel, labored to demonstrate their somebodiness to the white missionary teachers at most black schools, and oddly, to their former owners too. But what was — and arguably still is — a strategic attempt to survive racism and white supremacy, has devolved into a totem of assimilation, separating the “bad” black masses from the “good” black elite.
Black colleges, unwittingly or otherwise, have long been forerunners in the tradition now known as black respectability.
Fast-forward to 2016 and black respectability is an outmoded model, slowly eroding the value proposition of our institutions. Politically-driven, and over-confident boards and presidents are protected from public shame because we can’t afford to call them out — with the latter often being given multiple chances to figure it out on other campuses.
Meanwhile, HBCU alumni debate about the timely efforts of forward-thinking HBCU leaders to cultivate more inclusive environments for persons whose gender identity is transgender or gender non-conforming.
Our relationships are being ruined. It is the fuel feeding the fire of toxic black masculinity, misogynoir, homophobia and transphobia, often in the name of preserving religious traditions and black peoples’ good name.
Protecting black men has always been at the top of the to-do list of black respectability, and with good reason. The historic predominance of lynching and the characterization of black boys like Tamir Rice and Trayvon Martin as thugs-in-training worthy of death sentences, lock-ups and lock-downs within American culture in media, civic policy, finance, criminal justice and public safety is all too common.
But no respectability is good once it turns toxic; and turning a blind eye to the probability that R. Kelly, Bill Cosby and Nate Parker sexually assaulted women is the worst part of this culture of caping. Despite being the banner bearers of respectability, HBCUs are for example, still playing R. Kelly on the yard, on boat rides and at gym parties.
Support for and the defense of Cosby, who was singular in his success to raise the visibility of HBCUs, and who for a very long time had given to HBCU culture its largest individual financial gift, is likewise still commonplace. Many in HBCU culture find it nearly impossible to separate affection for Heathcliff Huxtable and Cosby, his philanthropic alter ego, from the evidence which overwhelmingly suggests a serial addiction to using drugs to impair and rape women.
Parker, who recently founded a film school on an HBCU campus, was acquitted for his role in 1999 sexual assault that ended in a conviction for Jean Celestin, who has a writing credit in his critically acclaimed film “The Birth of a Nation.” The conviction was later overturned on appeal when the victim was unwilling to testify again.
Parker’s biopic of Nat Turner, the man behind the nation’s bloodiest slave uprising, has created questions: what will be the response of HBCUs? Will they host screenings? Will they shuttle students off to movie theaters? Should they?
Whatever you think or feel, a few things are certain. There needs to be more empathy and no judgment for survivors of sexual trauma. Institutions of higher learning have a responsibility to educate every person on campus about consent. Justice is meant to disrupt business as usual — including ending hero-worship of sexual predators — which means we will be made uncomfortable by it.
That’s the point; but this notion that the good of the race is more important than the well-being of the women of the race is as toxic as black respectability gets.
If having these discussions and righting these wrongs constitutes washing of the proverbial dirty laundry, let’s go ahead and keep washing. HBCUs can be beacons for learning, serving, and leading without championing a culture of respectability that is less than respectable.
All dirty laundry stinks. Nobody likes doing chores, but they must be done.