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Respectability Politics doesn’t Protect Us

“After all the work I’ve done, after all the work our people have done, they don’t want us?”

Those were my mother’s words the morning of Trump’s immigration ban. My mother is a chemical engineer who has greatly contributed to the field of wood pellet size reduction for their use in renewable energy. I couldn’t turn to my mother and say this, but I thought to myself: such is the failure of respectability politics.

Throughout 2016, both Canadian and international news sources ran articles on the Hadhad family, who had fled war in Syria and continued their chocolate-making business in Canada. While those articles tracked the progress of this family, the CBC named a recent piece “Sweet Success: How the Hadhads went from refugees to employers in 1 year.”

The language used in this subtitle reflects the general liberal attitude towards refugees. It suggests a praiseworthy progression from refugee status to respectable success, as though these things are mutually exclusive. The CBC’s rags-to-riches spin on the Hadhads’ experience shows how Canadians treat refugees: we value and respect them only insofar as they are able to achieve economic prosperity, that is, ‘usefulness’ to society.

In another classic feel-good example, a video shows a white man in the United States who used to “hate Muslims” tearfully confessing his respect for his new Syrian neighbours: “…in three months, they all had jobs, cars, their kids were going to school…”

It is important to celebrate the accomplishments of our neighbours such as the Hadhads, who, in the face of so much adversity, were able to build an entire business in one year. And for the American Syrians to have cars, houses and children in school after only three months in the country is a remarkable feat. But we should be wary of assigning value to ‘successful’ immigrants, and we should be aware of how the stream of ‘feel-good’ refugee and immigrant narratives may seem humanizing, but can actually have the reverse effect.

Of course, valuing economic success and defining respectability as capitalist productivity is nothing new. These neoliberal standards of humanity aren’t applied exclusively to immigrants, and we all hold each other to them. In “The Rise of Respectability Politics,” Frederick C. Harris notes white America’s focus on the potential economic benefits of black inclusion, rather than the humanity of black Americans, and shows how this kind of thought is entrenched in American history.

Immigrants and refugees, especially those who are undocumented, are placed in a unique situation, since they must constantly prove their economic productivity to society in order to be accepted as people. Yet respectability politics are also ingrained within Middle Eastern and South Asian cultures, as suggested by my own mother’s response to Trump’s Muslim ban. As an act of protest, a group of Iranian doctors at Harvard posed for a photo. Venture Beat released an article showcasing the impact of Iranian immigration in the development of US technology. Respectability politics is perpetuated not only by Western media, but our own cultures and ways of thinking as well. We need to let go of our entrenched biases that those who hold certain jobs and positions are more deserving of respect and compassion, and to halt the narrative of respectability politics. It won’t protect us, and only places our brothers and sisters who pursued different avenues and careers as somehow less deserving.

Similarly, during Trump’s campaign, many academically high-achieving students revealed that they were in fact undocumented in retaliation to Trump and his supporters’ rhetoric of vilifying undocumented immigrants. The media covered all the stories: ‘local high school valedictorian with a 4.0 GPA reveals in her speech she’s undocumented’! Liberals loved it. Are average-performing students or trade workers who are undocumented immigrants less deserving of remaining in the country? Are they expendable?

Such is the failure of respectability politics. We, as people deemed ‘temporary’ citizens no matter our citizenship status, deserve the right to mobility only when we are economically useful to the majority, and oftentimes only when we excel according to standards set by the majority. As soon as xenophobic sentiments build and our contributions are no longer enough to keep them at bay, we are disposable.

The continuous output and circulation of these sometimes feel-good videos and sometimes acts of resistance only add to this flawed perception of all minorities ‒ not just immigrants, refugees, and those who are undocumented. We need to be having conversations that focus on our humanity and not our contributions to society. Because although our accomplishments and impacts are immensely important, they only create a hierarchy of value within our own communities, and they ultimately don’t protect us.