Can We Speak? When Speech Has Color: Aphonic Speech and Respectability Politics
By Sharon Jacob and Leonard McMahon.
The current hostility among representatives on both sides of the aisle sheds important light on the relationship between respectability politics and speech. It is sadly yet another experiment where people of color (POC), who historically have relied on their voices to communicate grievance, can test whether the right words can truly effect change.
The term ‘politics of respectability’ was coined by Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham in her book Righteous Discontent: The Women’s Movement in Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920. Respectability politics, as it has come to be known, refers to the ways marginalized communities (have been taught to) adjust their behaviors and appearances to earn respect from the majority. Quite often it is insiders from marginalized communities who offer these suggestions or friendly advice on clothing grooming, sexual assault, or even police violence. The point being that if only marginalized people behaved better, they would be treated better by the majority. We would like to propose an analytical shift in respectability politics from behavior to speech. Respectability in speech suggests that if people of color just learned to speak in the language of the dominant group, their concerns would be listened to in an effective manner. And yet, those who live at the intersections of race, gender, class, citizenship, sexuality, and so on still find their speech falls short. Are POC inhabiting predominantly white spaces, be it the halls of Congress or academia, rendered ‘mute’ even though we are still speaking? What happens when respectability speech falls short? Do we need to find new ways of speaking, new ways to communicate? Is such a shift even a possibility? Two scenarios from recent Congressional history prompted this reconsideration.
Democratic congresswomen Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ayanna Pressley, commonly referred to as “The Squad,” are notorious among conservatives and subject to political attacks by their Republican counterparts. Elected in 2018, this group expanded in 2021 to include Cori Bush and Jamaal Bowman. The subjectivities of these congresswomen intersect intimately with gender, citizenship, race, and religion and are often fodder for potential violence from conservatives. Last November, Paul Gosar, a Republican congressman from Arizona, posted an anime video which he edited to showcase his killing Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and attacking Joe Biden. Responding to the video, Ocasio-Cortez asked a simple but pertinent question, “What is so hard about saying that this is wrong?” Although her scathing remarks eventually led to Gosar’s censure and his being stripped of his committee assignments, only two Republicans voted to punish him. While such a meager vote is not surprising given the current political climate, it is crucial to note that her almost ten-minute response to the violent video elicited a meaningful response from only two Republican members. What does this mean in terms of respectability politics in speech? It is troubling to see powerful, articulate women like Ocasio-Cortez continue to go unheard. Did she speak, or did respectability politics in speech render this woman of color, a congresswoman no less, aphonic?
Similarly, Lauren Boebert’s reprehensible White Christian fundamentalist rhetoric, which implies that Ilhan Omar could be a terrorist because of her religion, is another example of aphonic speech in respectability politics. In November of 2021, while at a campaign event in her home state of Colorado, Boebert recounted an incident claiming she ran into Ilhan Omar in an elevator and was scared because she wondered whether Omar was carrying a backpack, implying that Omar could be carrying a bomb and was a terrorist. Such an unsubtle comment about Omar’s Muslim faith is a firm suggestion that her race, gender, religion, accent, and, most importantly, immigrant status, interrupts the White Christian nationalist self-image as sovereign in American culture. However, when Omar demanded a public apology from Boebert in a phone call, the congresswoman from Colorado doubled down on her toxic claims and Omar was forced to end the conversation. Omar has repeatedly reminded her colleagues in Congress that Islamophobia is real, not funny, and that comments like Boebert’s have real consequences. Although requests have been made to censure this congresswoman for her Islamophobic attacks and to strip her of committee assignments, no consequential action has been taken. As was the case with Ocasio-Cortez, Omar also spoke and communicated her concerns for both her safety and the safety of the Muslim community; however, her speech continues to remain aphonic. Once again, if respectability politics in speech is the only way for women of color and Muslim women (in this case) to communicate our concerns, and yet nothing results from it, can we say with assurance that these women have truly spoken?
Aphonic speech in respectability politics, we argue, does not mean literally being mute, but rather refers to the act of speaking without being heard or acknowledged. It is when speech is nullified and prevented from having an effect as it speaks into the centers of power. It is speech that is mediated and regulated in any way: no matter how compelling a person’s speech might be or how activated she feels when delivering it, we claim she is not free if she feels in any way subject to the regulation of another person or persons. Our claim more closely resembles a neo-Roman view of liberty: it is not the presence or quality of servitude that matters but the potential for it. The Romans considered slavery to exist when the potential for the regulation of one human being by another was in effect, whether de jure or de facto.
One might be tempted to think that because the women of The Squad are saying words into a microphone they are still somehow ‘speaking.’ But this would be an Enlightenment-liberal view, a modern conceit—and deception—that asserts freedom and subservience are matters of codified law. Our view of the ancients is ironically closer to the actual experience of people of color today. If someone has the power to turn Ocasio-Cortez’s microphone off, to ignore her while she is speaking, and she must concern herself with this power and attempt to mitigate it via respectability politics, then she was never truly speaking in the first place. She was thus rendered, in an everyday and not abstractly liberal sense, aphonic.
When a tree falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it, does it make a sound? This old query is apropos here, encouraging us to ask: when a woman of color speaks and yet her speech results in nothing significant, has she really spoken? Who decides what speech matters when? Skin color and cultural style, including Omar’s headscarf (hijab) and Tlaib’s traditional Palestinian gown (thobe), often serve, in our televisual culture, as indicators of difference and therefore do the work of either diversity or derision. But voices are political, in the classical sense, in that they require responses, demand consequences, and influence actions. In both the Greek agora and Roman forum, only the never-mediated voice, from the throat of one originally free, could realistically be considered that of a citizen; and only those deemed worthy of having the unregulated power to change the course of society were granted such unmitigated honor. The distinction we are drawing is subtle yet critical. Only those originally with power, and perhaps those who aspire to such status, whether today or in antiquity, would celebrate any appearance of or opportunity for social mobility. For those of us on the margins, however, such ‘mobility’—the idea that one can get out from under another’s influence—is just work. We argue that the work of respectability has not been as effective for people of color as collectively hoped. If influence, the authorized ability to effect change, has been a hallmark of democracy from the beginning, what does it say about our society when a democratically elected woman of color speaks, and nothing changes? It says she is rendered aphonic, and therefore apolitical, in that the only difference she is permitted to effect is symbolic. Any real, political, disruptive difference she might make is either ignored or imbued with menace and incompetence.
Surely, the counterargument goes Omar can organize with other marginalized persons to make her voice heard. Yet, there are two reasons why such activism remains apolitical in the sense we mean here, that is, without direct influence. While their speech may have indirect influence, our focus remains on the inability of POC to exert direct influence or generate political change even when they occupy seats closest to the centers of power.
One, marginalized people, under the tutelage of the dominant gaze and voice, can wield significant prejudice amongst ourselves and diminish our collective influence. We should not pretend, for the sake of some imagined solidarity, that Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib, and Omar are somehow equal in status. Intersectionality cuts along the margins, and Omar’s blackness, for example, is short-circuited by her accent and her not-only-immigrant-but-refugee status. Note that Tlaib does not have an accent and therefore would not likely be subject to the same vitriol. Boebert, we can imagine, likely passed Tlaib on her way to the elevator and said nothing. This is not to say woman-of-color solidarity is impossible, only that it is not automatic by virtue of some shared quality.
Two, such activism further proves our above mentioned point that presently, without powerful patronage, those on the margins remain uninfluential. Changing the climate of public opinion might draw the attention of those with the power to change society, but unless these elites act on that attention, mediating our speaking and activism via their influence, women of color will consistently be rendered dependent, ineffectual, and aphonic. The very fact that women of color must tailor their speech according to the promise they will be heard demonstrates they are not the dominant voice. And the very fact that these respectable congresswomen of color, at the apex of power, are made uninfluential reinforces our point about the limits of respectability politics.
Marginalized communities have been trained to think that if we are educated in the “right way” in the “right institutions” we can speak to the majority in ways that will be comprehensible and effective. However, as we see, when congresswomen who would be considered closest to centers of power find that their speech continues to fall short, then what hope is there for those who find themselves standing on the margins, folks unable to access the respectable institutions of education? Are we to consider them mute even before they have begun to speak? Mikayla Tillery writes, “generations of Black people would be subjected to this same belief — that to be fully worthy of citizenship, of respect, of basic human rights, we would have to conform to white society. This is the foundation of modern respectability politics.”
Recent events make it obvious that respectability politics in speech is no longer working if it ever truly did. The notion that if people of color communicate in the language of the dominant, their voices will be heard and racial progress will manifest, is a fantasy. Respectability politics in speech continues to give people of color the false hope that if we speak in the right (read: white) way, we will be listened to. However, the truth is that respectability in speech or learning to speak in the language of the dominant has rendered us aphonic–we speak, our lips move, and our language is ‘correct,’ but our visibility continues to be preferable to our voice in the eyes and ears of white audiences. Perhaps it is time we in the margins see this reality for what it is and craft a new way of speaking that aspires not to assimilation but influence –speech that is no longer aphonic but vocalized, political, and uninhibited.
Sharon Jacob is an Associate Professor of New Testament at Pacific School of Religion. Sharon earned her Master of Divinity from Lancaster Theological Seminary and Masters of Sacred Theology from Yale University. She earned her Ph.D from Drew University. Her research interests include gender and sexuality studies, feminist theory, race and whiteness theory, and postcolonial theory. Her publications include a monograph entitled, Reading Mary alongside Indian Surrogate Mothers: Violent Love, Oppressive Liberation, and Infancy Narratives. She has also co-authored an essay entitled, “Flowing from breast to breast: An Examination of Dis/placed Motherhood in Black and Indian Wet Nurses,” in Womanist Biblical Interpretations: Expanding the Discourses published by Society of Biblical Literature Press. Her essay entitled “Imagined Nations, Real Women: Politics of Culture and Women’s Bodies. A Postcolonial, Feminist, and Indo-Western Interpretation of 1 Timothy 2:8-15,” in Handbook to Asian American Biblical Hermeneutics was published by T & T Clark earlier this summer. More recently her essay entitled, “Jezebel and Indo-Western Women: Nation, Nationalism, and the Ecologies of Sexual Violence in Revelation 2: 20-25” in Ecological Solidarities: Mobilizing Faith and Justice for an Entangled World (World Christianity) was published by Penn State University Press, 2019). Sharon is also a regular contributor to the Electronic Feminist Studies of Religion where she has written several blogs on various topics. Some of her latest blogs are, “Jauhar, Mass-Suicide, and the Spectacle of Death: A Reading of Mark 5:1-20,” and “When the Subaltern Speaks! Why Caste Must Matter in the Case of Hathras.” In addition, she has also authored blogs on topics of Whiteness and White Supremacy, and Caste Supremacy in the Indian context. Here are few examples of her latest works, “White Incredulity and Why it Matters? Distrust, Disbelief, and the Immigrant Experience,” “Not Loved Back! George Floyd and Rohith Vemula: Race, Caste, and their Intersections.”
Read Sharon’s FSR Blog posts.
Leonard McMahon is pursuing his PhD in political theology at the Graduate Theological Union. He is the Founder/CEO of Common Ground Dialogue, a political diversity consultancy that specializes in making political, racial, and cultural difference work for companies and organizations, and may be reached at cgdialogue.org and [email protected].