Respectability is a means of distinguishing who has worth in society and who does not. It suggests that in order to gain respect, some of us have to act differently from how we act amongst our own people.
In his examination of black respectability politics in America, Herman Gray proposes that the politics of respectability “establishes normative desires and sets the preferred terms of social engagement and access to the dominant culture.” To identify as a respectable black subject, Gray argues the individual must follow the appropriate morals and manners of hetero-normativity and distinguish oneself from the non-normative practices of the working class and poor. According to Fiona Lee, these normative rules that determine respectability conform to white middle class values. What is essentially a reflection of class and culture takes on the form of moral respectability. Thus, ethnic minorities, whose manner of speech, behaviour, and dress do not conform to white middle class values, are often overlooked or deemed as lesser than.
We might wonder, then, what are marginalised writers doing when they include swear words and graphic sexual references in formal writing?
In the afterword of Mercedes Eng’s long poem Mercenary English, “Echolocation: In Conversation with Fred Moten”, she is asked whether she is concerned about the formal problems presented by the use of the word ‘motherfucker.’ To which she replies, “I see a poeticness to the word ‘motherfucker.’” In utilising expletives and vernacular in her poetry, Eng and many other marginalised writers repurpose the English language as a tool for surviving colonialism, performing what can only be deemed as an act of “creative political resistance.”
Eng presents sex work both in and outside the parameters of respectability in her poem “post hooker micro.macro”. She writes about her departure from sex work, and her pursuit of an education in creative writing and poetry. Under the section “II. My Affective Labour”, Eng affirms the mutuality of sex work and writing by deeming them both acts of a mercenary nature, which require an exertion of emotional labour to produce or modify one’s emotional experiences.
‘now my body of intellectual work
with my body
so I’m selling
with my body’
Although conventions of respectability might present this narrative as one of moral progress, where one leaves a degrading profession in pursuit of respectable work, the embodied nature of both sex work and writing in its use of the mind and the imaginary is illuminated. She validates the legitimacy of sex work as a commercial activity that is equal to writing in its mercenary pursuits.
By drawing on graphic sexual references and asking unsettling questions, Eng speaks to the manner in which respectability is also defined in gendered terms.“post hooker micro.macro” sees Eng recall an experience with a client named “Charlie” and wonder, “is it bad that I can’t remember the exact alley? / Should it be burned into my memory, just like my clean date? / I can’t remember that shit either.” She mocks the parameters of respectability that only see sex workers as victims of hard consequences and therefore in need of saving. We are urged to ask: what are the conditions of being visible? And what does it cost to be recognised or worthy? To make visible is an exercise of power. Where the poem rejects the normative powers that determine the boundaries of what is acceptable and unacceptable behavior, it also speaks of a refusal to erase the unsettling, yet real experiences of diasporic communities.
When our erasure is lived, and our bodies are the frontier zone, what lives on from the violent loss of marginalised individuals? For ethnic minorities, the English language can be repurposed as a tool for surviving colonialism. We can re-map lost historical connections by reshaping public imagination and voice, and make visible the overlooked experiences of our diasporic communities that exist outside parameters of respectability.
For Eng and many other marginalised writers, it is in our rejection of moral respectability, formalism, and the values of dominant white culture, that we can take back our bodies. It is in our provocation of unsettling feelings, shock, or offence upon encountering expletives and graphic sexual references in our embodied work, that we can take back our visibility.