“Never judge a book by its cover” As often as we repeat this phrase to children, it’s ironic how often we don’t follow it. And although the reader may insist they do, I have the intention showing you how you’re lying - no offense intended, I doubt you’re the only one.
Evidence of this falsehood can be found in the usage of one of America’s favorite adjectives: ghetto. Gold teeth, sagging pants, brightly-colored hair and tattoos are just a few of aesthetic choices attached to this term. While I personally find these all beautiful forms of art and fashion that are unique to Black culture, ask your local Black elder about this and they’ll likely have nothing nice to say. You might say the same.
While we would want to believe that we fulfilled Dr. King’s vision by judging people on their character, this is a lie. We often label and attack those of unconventional appearances, not even giving them an opportunity to show their character. The Black community has followed a social litmus test of respect: those who appear as we say they can are valued. We insist on never judging appearance, but the local man with freeform dreadlocks or face tattoos can attest that this is far from the truth.
Not only is it humiliating how we fail to follow a simple childhood saying, it’s disgusting how we allow this prejudice - yes, that is a prejudice - to have a place within activism. How do you intend to speak up for the average Black man when you associate his image with a lack of value? Your tapered Banana Republic suit and thirty dollar haircut won’t do anything for our community. Although it may make it easier to blend into white society, I’d personally consider you a lost cause if that’s your life goal. Activism and politics is not intended to be a beauty contest. If you intend to stand for Black people, do it for all. Not just for the black men with shiny curls and luxury suits, nor just the black women with freshly bumped press-and-curls with skirts right beneath the knee. But, for all black people.
This attitude focused on respectability politics was more understandable in previous eras, when the black community had weaker footing and assimilation was the most feasible option. However, when times change, so should our attitudes. We are no longer surviving, but thriving. We are in an era of exploration, no longer assimilation. We are allowed to be human, and explore whatever that means to us.
Never judge a book by its cover, never judge a man by his fashion, never judge a woman by her sexuality and never judge a person by the accent they speak. These are just a few ways to apply that idea, but don’t let it stop there. We can not speak up against hierarchies while creating hierarchies among ourselves.
Just as we tell children “its the inside that counts”, let’s try to reflect that. We are in this together, don’t let superficiality stop that.