The Contours of Modesty Politics on Relationships & Self-Identity

A few months ago, I was in Houston for my line-sister’s wedding, and I was catching up with one of my home-girls who congratulated me on earning my master’s degree. I smiled casually; my lax hand waved as I coolly responded, “Thanks… It took, like, two extra years of school.” We continued to cackle and catch up about the minutiae of our lives. It was a quick, ordinary, and seemingly innocuous exchange.

I was lying in bed later that night and OUT OF NOWHERE my inner voice, who I’ve affectionately named “Shego,” gave me a salubrious slap of self-actualization. "The f**k you mean, ‘it took LIKE two years?!’" Shego sounded like a Black momma who you accidentally referred to as a pronoun. I was reminded of the two years of GRADUATE course work, no summer vacation, no car, no money, no family or friends for most of it, and not to mention ALL THOSE DAMN STUDENT LOANS. Shego presented me with the classic Black girl bravado and motto, "what you aint gone do..." I keep revisiting that moment thinking about the ways that I shrunk myself and undermined my own accomplishments.

 Why would I say that? Why would I belittle such a big achievement? I suspect that I was attempting to remain humble, but it was actually my ever-humbling self-doubt whispering, “if I can do it then anybody could do it. There is nothing special about me.” Maybe I even felt a little guilt around my own educational privilege.

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Women are taught employ a "modesty is the best policy" lens as we navigate throughout the world. Long are days of ankle cut dresses, but we still move throughout the world mindful not to show too much—too much intelligence, too much confidence, too much pride. We are reared to be maternally modest, from the ways we dress to the ways we communicate, from the ways we give feedback to ways we accept compliments. We, thus, navigate the world to perform Modesty Politics, which are deeply gendered and highly problematic for ourselves and others. (For my academics, I am nuancing Modesty Politics from it’s umbrella term, Respectability Politics, to illuminate how I experience & internalize racism and sexism.)

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I’m sure you can relate. Think about the time that someone complimented your outfit, and you felt compelled to explain how you found the blouse in the bargain bin. Think about the time someone called you pretty, and you recalled your latest addition to your makeup collection. The time someone complimented your hair, and you detailed your hair regimen. We can’t just be pretty, just be stylish, or just be smart. It's like we ALWAYS have to give a reason for our talents and grace.

We shrink ourselves to explain our existence. It’s almost like we aren’t supposed to “be” so we give reason to explain why we “are.” These experiences represents the contours of Modesty Politics on our relationships and self-identity.

Modesty politics have us all out here over-compensating just to accept a compliment. Have someone ever complimented you and you replied, "Oh my gosh;" "Thanks soooo much;” “I really appreciate it;” “That means so much to me;”—even when it doesn’t mean much at all? Feeling the need to perform enthusiasm by inserting a caricature of a superficial gesture? This caricature offers a satirical buttress easing the anxiety of simply accepting the compliment.

 

What would it mean and how would it feel to overcome Modesty Politics and reclaimed our self-worth? I wonder what it would be like to go back to that moment with my home girl, and simply say, “thank you.” No need for explanations or performances.

—Natasha M. Lee