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Posted under: Community Submitted

When Clothing Equals Respect, The Cost Of Fitting In Is Higher For Black Kids

'Atlanta' spotlights the danger that comes with respectability politics.

As a black male who has navigated the respectability politics of public schooling as a student and now as an educator, the latest episode in the smash hit series ‘Atlanta,’ titled  “FUBU,”  was unexpectedly real.  

The episode opens with a scene of middle school-aged Earn and his mother shopping at Marshalls. While there, Earn discovers a bright yellow FUBU jersey.  Because designer names are everything in the arena of respectability politics,  Earn sees this as an opportunity to be viewed as cool amongst his peers, so he begs his mother to buy this unlikely discounted yellow FUBU jersey. His mother acquiesced and just like that, Earn was about to experience validation and acceptance in a way he’s presumably never experienced before- or so he thought. 

Like most instances in life, things never go as a planned and Earn’s respectability campaign is quickly washed when his classmate Devin walks into their homeroom with a similar yellow FUBU jersey. Their peers quickly note the difference - Earn’s jersey has two stripes with no patch while Devin’s has one stripe with a patch. One of them obviously had to be fake, and his peers quickly aim to expose the fraud. What started out as validation and acceptance quickly morphed into an entire school day of bullying and humiliation, as both Devin and Earn try to convince the rowdy mob that the fake isn’t in their possession. 

If you’re an 'Atlanta' series regular, you're aware of Al’s reputation for getting Earn out of tight spots. So, right on character Al swoops in to save his cousin, convincing the students, that Earn’s jersey is real and Devin’s is fake. 

Unbeknownst to the mob, Earn and Al, Devin’s parents were going through a messy divorce and he was subsequently dealing with a difficult home life. The intense bullying and the inability to cope with the issues he was facing at home, caused Devin to kill himself. As Earn and Al’s mom lectures them on the importance of appearance for black men in America (respectability), the cousins are reminded of Devin’s death as the episode fades to credits. 

Donald Glover has an uncanny ability to highlight the obsession black communities have with materialistic things.  However, within the context of this episode—intentionally or unintentionally, he masterfully highlights the culture of respectability politics black students, specifically black boys, have to navigate inside the social constructs of America and its public education system(s).    

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