Once again, J. Cole is making news - not for his music, but for his violations of respectability politics. Previous discussions surrounding his ‘untamed’ hair reveal tensions at the intersection of Black hair and biracial identity. Check out that post here:
And with his recent visit to the White House, conversations are once again emerging around his failure to uphold tenets of Black authenticity and (respectable) Black masculinity.
The image below that is circulating on social media show a few of the invited guests of the White House to discuss the on-going inititiave associated with “My Brothers Keeper,” a program that invests in dismantling barriers that many disadavantaged youth face diminishing their access to adequate opportunities.
Those in attendance include Talib Kweli, Busta Rhymes, Nikki Minaj, and DJ Khaled. Unfortunately, those sharing this image express discontent for J. Cole’s attire. A few of those tweets are below:
Keep in mind, Jermaine Cole was invited to the White House not for his contributions to fashion, but because of his intellectual ability to propel conversations and reach a large audience.
J. Cole was invited to the White House, and J. Cole is what the White House got.
While it is impressive that J. Cole continues to express his individuality, what’s even more important is that he has reached the pinnacle of consciousness that keeps many of us imprisoned to hegemonic ideology that forces the ideas of how we should dress, act, and behave. And any deviations of that are punished (as J. Cole often is).
No one expressed discontent with Lin-Manuel Miranda, creator of the Broadway musical Hamilton, wearing jeans.
The coolness of freestyling with the President mattered. J. Cole is unbothered by these comments – dude was at the White House with the first Black President of the United States.
I can relate on so many levels to the politics of dress in professional spaces. As a professor who wears flip-flops, t-shirts, and yoga pants every day, even to meetings with the Provost of my University, I find it distracting that the focus is always on what I have on and not what I contribute intellectually. We must begin to unplug ourselves from this respectability matrix and begin valuing contributions and alternate expressions of identity.
I grew up hearing the phrase “dress for the job that you want.” I hated that phrase because I knew at a young age what that meant. It meant that my poor body wasn’t appropriate enough for certain spaces. “Dressing up” is a way to conceal reality. It’s an illusion. And it’s a dangerous one that has many in our hardest living communities trapped to want more and more. You have children talking about name brands and many engaging in illicit behaviors to wear the latest fashions (selling drugs for Jordan’s). This is a direct theme present in J. Cole’s music – to begin valuing and appreciating yourself. There is beauty in the struggle.
We should all aim to emulate J. Cole. Labels and brand names don’t matter. Dressing up to ‘impress’ doesn’t matter. What does matter is what you have filled your mind with leading to what you can offer intellectually.
Kishonna Gray, PhD is an Assistant Professor in the School of Justice at Eastern Kentucky University and affiliate faculty in Women & Gender Studies and African/African-American Studies. She is also the Director of the Critical Gaming Lab. She researches and blogs about identity, intersectionality and digital media. Follow her on Twitter @KishonnaGray and visit her blog and website at www.kishonnagray.com.