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Issa Rae Frees Black Women From The Restraints of Respectability

Aida Osman, Jonica Booth, KaMillion in HBOMax's "Rap Sh!t"
Aida Osman, Jonica Booth, KaMillion in HBOMax's "Rap Sh!t" By Courtesy of Warner Bros. Pictures
By Victoria A. Kishoiyian, Contributing Writer

In Issa Rae’s HBO Max comedy series “Rap Sh!t,” Miami-based rapper Mia Knight (Alju Koby Jackson aka KaMillion) challenges the condemnation of female rappers who embrace their sexuality. She says to fellow rapper Shawna Clark (Aida Osman), “We’re in the middle of a Bad Bitch Renaissance. Have some fun.”

When Shawna replies insisting that she wants to resist the male gaze and stimulate listeners intellectually, Mia’s response is a startling yet pointed articulation of the Black woman’s paradox: To receive respect Black women must express intellect and practice “polite” mannerisms, but to secure success Black women must sexualize or simplify themselves.

“You lettin’ these niggas control you! You’re saying that there’s no way that a Black girl can have fun and be winning?” she retaliates.

Reflecting on this scene, I realized that the debate between the rap duo is emblematic of a greater discussion about misogynoir and respectability politics — and similar commentary pervades other comedy shows created by Issa Rae like “Insecure” and “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl.”

In “Righteous Discontent: The Women's Movement in the Black Baptist Church, 1880-1920,” Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, a professor of African American Studies at Harvard University, coined the term "politics of respectability" to characterize the work of the Women's Convention of the Black Baptist Church during the Progressive Era. She specifically referenced the push within Black American communities for temperance, cleanliness of person and property, thrift, polite manners, and sexual purity to achieve social equity. The politics of respectability called for "reform of individual behavior as a goal in itself and as a strategy for reform."

Respectability was a key component of racial uplift ideology in the era of “the Negro Problem” which persisted from roughly the 1880s to 1914. It had two audiences: Black Americans, who were encouraged to act respectably, and white people, who needed proof that Black Americans could be respectable.

Black elites like W.E.B. Du Bois, Class of 1890, and Booker T. Washington reinforced this rhetoric by declaring that Black intellectuals must reform the character of the community (Du Bois) and that education would lead to societal acceptance (Washington). This endorsement of respectability further validated anti-Black stereotypes by echoing the dominant perception of Black Americans as culturally depraved and backward.

When “the Negro Problem” era ended, respectability didn’t exit society alongside it. Respectability politics continue to govern society and remain especially harmful for Black women who additionally experience misogynoir, a term conceptualized by feminist scholar Moya Bailey, which describes the juncture between the racist and misogynist oppression Black women experience.

Respectability and misogynoir shape the way television writers write Black women. Portrayals of Black women as sassy side characters like Helen (Yvette Nicole Brown) on “Drake & Josh” or angry agitators like Olivia Pope (Kerry Washington) on “Scandal” are manifestations of both concepts, as they imply that Black women are only needed as comedic relief or are inherently aggressive — a remnant of the Brute Caricature myth which asserted that Black people are innately savage and deserving of punishment. The reliance on these stereotypes in popular shows damagingly encourages reductive perceptions of Black women.

Showrunners like Shonda Rhimes also cater to the confines of traditional respectability by only depicting Black women as “professional” and powerful individuals. Despite any good intentions, this is far from a revolutionary demonstration of Black feminism or diverse representation. Instead of subverting stereotypes surrounding Black women, this depiction affirms the misconception that Black people must achieve a certain social status to be worthy of media representation and respect, resembling the beliefs of Booker T. Washington.

But as a Black woman who grew up glued to the television screen, I wonder, is there still value to this misrepresentation? Should you be grateful to look like a character even if you do not recognize yourself or your community in that character?

My reckoning with representation is filled with concessions and negotiations — and I will contend with my complicated relationship to the Black women characters who shaped my childhood throughout this column. However, in this installment, I’ll discuss why Issa Rae’s work replaces my disillusionment with hope.

Consider Mia Knight and Shawna Clark of Issa Rae’s newest show “Rap Sh!t.” Their debate about professionalism, sexual agency, commercialism, and body reclamation is representative of something all too rare in television: explorations of the inner workings of a Black woman’s mind. Externalizing Black women’s internal thoughts and intellectual identity is something television writers rarely dare to do. And, on the occasion that writers endeavor to do so, the woman is always an “outlier” within the Black community: Positioned as uniquely smart, strikingly focused, professional, exceptional, respectable.

But Issa Rae isn’t consumed by exceptionalism — she writes about people that you know and love. Mia is a single mother and aspiring rapper who works as a makeup artist and OnlyFans creator. Shawna works as a hotel attendant during the day and writes lyrics at night. Both women are in their early 20s and neither hold a college degree.

Black women — beyond those typically deemed “professional” — are not usually depicted as multidimensional people evolving in their understanding of blackness, engaging in intellectual conversations, and rejecting respectability, so the inclusion of Mia and Shawna indicates a cultural shift towards accurate representation. Because, truthfully, how often do you see a character from the projects depicted with dignity or dimensionality? How many television shows quickly reduce young, poor Black women hustlers to “hoodrats?”

“Rap Sh!t” is not concerned with racial uplift or respectability. It is a refreshingly real representation of the absurdities and contradictions of being an aspiring rapper, of survival, Miami, and girls from the hood. But it never belittles or diminishes the characters for their circumstances, ambitions, persona, or actions.

Issa Rae’s older shows, “Insecure” and “The Mis-Adventures of Awkward Black Girl,” are equally defiant and revolutionary. Both disrupt and dismantle stereotypes surrounding Black women's emotions through comedy. Issa Dee (Issa Rae), a character on “Insecure” and a semi-autobiographical version of Issa Rae, navigates her insecurities, anxieties, struggles, and job frustrations through freestyle mirror confessional raps that are introspective yet hilarious.

We watch Issa Dee face frequent microaggressions at her job at a predominantly white-led community-based youth organization, navigate romantic relationships, and ride alongside her as she spends her nights working as a Lyft driver. Issa Rae’s authentic depiction of awkward everyday life offers viewers a unique insight into the psyche of a Black woman figuring it all out.

Mainstream media generally refuses to cover the awkward, insecure, and anxious Black woman, and this exclusion upholds the Strong Black Woman archetype which describes Black women as selfless, emotionally-restrained, self-reliant, and unwaveringly resilient. This strips Black women of their right to be human and respond to harm. The Strong Black Woman archetype or “superwoman schema” is confronted by Issa Rae with care and complexity. She realizes that to be Black, introverted, and anxious is considered contradictory. But she knows that this is a common combination in real life, and that Black women are entitled to a space where their insecurities and discomforts are intimately explored, hilariously captured, and socially normalized.

In Issa Rae’s work, Black women move from the margin to the center; her characters reclaim their sexuality, embrace vulnerability, welcome growth, face anxiety, and express their individuality. Because of Issa Rae and the Black women creators who preceded her, television includes Black women characters who exist beyond stereotypical or palatable personas like the angry, sassy, or “professional” Black woman.

She does not exclude the hustling mom, the sex worker, the aspiring rapper, the youth worker, the awkward girl, or all the other beatifully complex forms a Black woman can come in which are oftentimes disregarded by television writers. Instead, Issa Rae reimagines representation and writes a world where Black women are free from the restraints of respectability.

—Victoria A. Kishoiyian’s column, “If You’re Not Invited to the Party, Throw Your Own: Sitcoms on Black Womanhood Written by Black Women” aspires to capture, commend, and critique sitcoms centering Black womanhood while emphasizing the diversity, dimensionality, and dignity of the creators and characters. Her twitter is @victoriaksrq and she can be reached at

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