Melissa Harris-Perry on Black Women Stereotypes

Scholar and Media Personality Discusses Her Book Sister Citizen

You might recognize Meslissa Harris-Perry’s iconic braided hair from MSNBC where she appears regularly on the Rachel Maddow Show and sometimes guest-hosts for the cable news network’s talking heads. At home offering political or cultural analysis — she has devoted much airtime recently to excoriating The Help’s facile portrayal of race relations in the South — Harris-Perry is a political scientist by training and teaches at Tulane University in New Orleans. On Tuesday she stopped by the Walter H. Capps Center for the Study of Ethics, Religion, and Public Life at UCSB to speak about her new book, titled Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America.

Melissa Harris-Perry

In this book, she explains how three tenacious stereotypes of black females shape their relationship to the American body politic. These stereotypes — the asexual Mammy, the hypersexual Jezebel, and the angry Sapphire — which date back to slavery, have constrained both the public’s perception of black females and their ability to respond. Harris-Perry’s tour of the black female American landscape makes stops at Hurricane Katrina, the Duke lacrosse scandal, Michelle Obama, and Sex and the City. In the following interview with The Santa Barbara Independent, she speaks about the process of composing Sister Citizen and her second life as a media personality.

One of your central arguments is that the seemingly positive stereotype of the strong black woman counterintuitively is not positive at all. Could you explain a bit to our readers how you came to that conclusion?

I’m not sure I would say she’s not positive at all. The strong black woman is kind of a resistant strategy. Her role as a myth is an internal community-created concept of who black women are, and it’s meant to push back against historical negative images like the Jezebel, the Mammy, the Sapphire. In that sense, she is positive because she is self-naming, she is self-created. She is sui generis.

The problem is the extent to which this myth becomes a personal racial imperative. So there’s nothing wrong with being a strong, black person, and, particularly, a self-reliant individual. In fact I would put American individualism or self-reliance as a self-concept that many Americans have. But when it becomes a racial imperative, and particularly when it’s linked to having few resources but a responsibility to meet inequalities in a very active way, what I found is that there are actually some political consequences. The political consequences are that if you can’t work up a sense of giving yourself some room to fail, then you also find it difficult to work up a sense that other people have the right to fail politically. And it can make you more punitive in your policy attitudes.

That raises the issue of shame. As you point out in your book, there’s a psychological definition of shame that undergirds your argument. So I have two questions about that. One, when did you first start thinking about cognitive psychology and melding it with your social scientific approach? Two, can you talk about how shame is something that is much bigger than an emotional response?

My first thoughts about cognitive psychology and political science were in grad school. One of my dissertation advisors was a political scientist named Karen Stenner. She is a brilliant researcher of authoritarianism. As a grad student I worked on her research about the authoritarian personality. Authoritarianism as a personality trait has enormous political consequences. If you are afraid of new experiences, if you think there is one right answer, if you think that people should follow the rules, the impacts that has on our political views is pretty stunning. And I was convinced by the way that Karen studies authoritarianism.

So my first work on shame, race, and gender was while I was [a professor] at the University of Chicago. I first encountered shame researchers doing work around gynecology. So looking at how the psychological experience of shame can have a physiological effect on how much pain women experience in the context of gynecological exams. They were looking at how black women, poor women, women with low literacy skills, all of those various categories, when they encounter physicians who are usually white, male, and have very high literacy skills, that they can experience shame that then can make simple things like an exam more painful. I thought, wow, if that’s happening in the relatively small clinical world, what other things are more painful when we are encountering them across these differences that are meant to be shameful, these identities that are regularly seen as “less than.” That’s where that hypothesizing started.

I was telling a coworker about your book today. She’s a black woman, a strong black woman, I’d say. She asked me if she could borrow your book, and I said sure. She told me she didn’t want to be seen buying a book about black women. I thought that was kind of ironic, and maybe something your book spoke to.

There are definitely ways that thinking about black women as a meaningful political category is still surprisingly rare. We certainly think a lot about race in this country, particularly over the past four years in a new way, with the campaign and election of Barack Obama. Twenty-first century versions of race talk are still pretty standard. But I don’t think we have been as careful in thinking about how race is intersected by gender or class. In the book I talk about Hurricane Katrina a lot. That’s a perfect example where race, class, and gender were all at work, but the [media] storyline is a race-only storyline.

Sister Citizen ranges across multiple disciplines such as literary analysis, ethnography, psychology, and political science. I suppose interdisciplinarity is a trend in academic writing now. But at the same time your book is extremely so. On the other hand, The Souls of Black Folk, the foundational work of black scholarship written by W. E. B. Du Bois in 1903, is an extremely interdisciplinary work as well. So I was wondering whether, when you wrote your book, you saw yourself as breaking new ground or following in a historical tradition.

Well I basically am in love with you because you put my book and The Souls of Black Folk in the same sentence. Pretty much from there, whatever. [Laughs]

I’d say a couple of things. This is my second academic book; I already achieved tenure with the first one [Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought]. So I had a lot more freedom writing this one. Obviously, I wanted to be well-received by my colleagues, but I could really write the book I want. And the fact is, I was an English major in college. My college advisors were Maya Angelou and Dolly McPherson, who are African-American women who introduced me to black women’s autobiography, Southern literature. I read Faulkner and Annie Dillard. There’s a part of me that, in terms of epistemology, will always love literature as a basis for understanding the human condition. It just doesn’t take a lot to convince me that we can find in our fictional work nearly everything that we need to understand human interaction.

That said, I’m a trained empirical social scientist. That’s a very different epistemology. Part of what happened for me is that I started writing in the more standard statistics, econometrics, experimental way. But there literally isn’t enough political science research for me to ground it. So I started moving out into sociology and then a little bit into history. But, ultimately, for example, queer studies has done some brilliant research around shame and politics and identity. There’s been some political science about national shame in Germany during the interwar period. There just wasn’t anything that was doing shame around women of color, except, of course, Toni Morrison, who had done it in the 1970s [in Bluest Eye]. I felt I can’t ignore that it happened, that she actually laid out all of these processes. It’s just that she did it in the context of a fictional study. So I had to go hang out in her work a little bit. So I don’t know that I was actually trying to break ground. This book took a long time to write, and this is just sort of about where it went.

Another question about methodological influence. Zora Neale Hurston plays a really important role in your book. You talk about her as somebody who articulates a black female political identity. But she’s also a researcher, an anthropologist. You conducted focus groups with black women around the country for your book and you return to the women who participated in these groups throughout Sister Citizen. Was Hurston an influence on that aspect of your work?

She was. She’s both a huge influence on me in terms of the anthropological work both in this book and the previous one, the participant-observer work. She’s also a morality tale. She’s a lesson in how to be careful about it as well, because Hurston has a problem very similar to mine, which is a class and position problem vis-à-vis our subjects. So, on the one hand, we share the identity of race and gender. On the other hand, we are both relatively privileged, me probably more so than Hurston in the sense that she relied heavily on individual white patrons. I rely on the institutional white patrons of the Ivy League and that sort of thing. But both of us rely for our income, our livelihood, on wealthy communities that are not the people we are studying. So we find ourselves in this odd bridging where you are trying to have conversations both ways, and you are in it but not of it. I studied both Hurston’s literary and anthropological work a lot. She’s a huge influence.

Did you find you faced some of the same struggles she did in a work like Mules and Men where she attempted to collected black folk tales in the South? Being accepted and being taken seriously by the women you were researching and talking to?

It’s hard for me to tell whether or not I was being taken seriously. [Laughs.] I suspect, for example, that television means I both am and am not taken seriously just because television is such a quirky medium. The women who were parts of the groups that I was conducting for the most part did not engage with me. I literally was sitting behind a two-way mirror most of the time watching all of it. In two cases I was in there with my hair pulled back in a ponytail pretending to be a graduate student who was taping. It was my attempt to be part of it and making sure I was catching all of the nuance, but to be as careful as I could be that my hypotheses were not directing the conversation. Lisa Gaines, who actually conducted the focus groups for me, was blind to my theories. She knew that we were studying these general topics, but she didn’t know what I was hypothesizing about it. As much as possible I was trying to create a little bit of researcher’s distance.

And what did you learn from the focus groups that you didn’t learn from scholarly texts?

A few things. One, I don’t think I would have felt confident saying that black women themselves see this menu of stereotypes as the relevant ones had I not heard them name them without prompting. The scholarly research has Mammy, Jezebel, angry black woman, etc. You can’t really enter into black feminist texts without seeing that. But it’s typically the literary scholar and historian posing it that way. But when I heard women say, “Oh, they think we are all hot to trot” or “They think we are all Aunt Jemimah” — they usually don’t use the word “Mammy” — those were moments that were very helpful to me in knowing that they had a sense of awareness and constraint about these stereotypes.

Also, in New Orleans, the fact that people called themselves taxpayers and citizens in their claims about why they should have been rescued for me was the critical connection about Katrina. So I’m watching it as a political scientist and seeing all of the issues of state power. But you don’t know if people are experiencing it that way on the ground in the context of a disaster. When you have Phyllis Montana LeBlanc [in Spike Lee’s documentary When the Levees Broke] saying this feels like slavery to me, in her own words, that’s confirmation that I’m heading in the right direction with these hypotheses.

So you mentioned the work you do for television. You also write a column for The Nation. How did you first get into journalism? Was it a conscious choice? What can you do as a journalist that you can’t do as an academic?

It was an absolute accident, and it is all Barack Obama’s fault. In 2004 I was living in Chicago teaching at the University of Chicago, living in Hyde Park, and had just published my first book which was about African-American political ideology, specifically the diversity — the idea that not all black people think alike. Some are conservative, some are Democrats. This sounds nuts, but this is what happened. The head of the University of Chicago media outreach wrote a press release that said, hey, there are two black guys running for Senate. One’s a Democrat, one’s a Republican. This is historic. And guess who has the national scholar capable of talking about this? I was actually an untenured faculty member in my fourth year or something. But I got picked up on all the local press. It turned out that I have a knack for it, that I’m good on camera, that I don’t look like most professors look, that I can speak in language that is a little more accessible. So I just spent all of the 2004 election cycle on air in Chicago, which is simultaneously a local market, but a big one.

I had this regular spot on the WGN morning show. I would go on at 6:30 in the morning and I would give political analysis about the presidential election. And then the next segment would be a dog in a tutu because it was morning news! [laughs] which is a pretty lonely start in a lot of ways. So then I came to Princeton in 2006 and the next thing you know this guy Barack Obama, whom I have established myself as a media scholar capable of talking about, decides to run for president the next year. And there I am within driving distance of the New York studios. So basically I had a track record and I ended up just going forward. Probably the single biggest thing is that Rachel [Maddow] used to have me on her radio show all the time and when she went over to TV she gave me a shot on the TV show, and it just sort of went from there. So the story is: me and Barack. If Barack had never run and I hadn’t been living in Chicago when he ran, probably none of it would have happened.

When I think about what I can do, I guess there are a couple of things. The biggest is that I can reach so many more people so quickly. I do find the four-minute segments where I am just answering questions to be pretty frustrating. There is never a time when I leave the set after doing one of those where I feel satisfied. I feel like I missed nuance, or I didn’t get a chance to answer the third question, or there was a little more history or a citation that I wanted, but at least I can put ideas out there. But when I get to guest host, man, that is nice! Basically, I’ve spent a decade going around the country and giving these lectures and a couple of times I’ve literally just given my lectures. Okay, this is from Intro to African-American politics, week two, class four. We’re going to condense this into TV speak and we’re going to do this on television. I got to do that with the wealth gap. I had given that wealth gap lecture 150,000 times, but when I gave it on television, the number of people it reached in a matter of minutes was pretty amazing considering I’ve given that lecture with my little slides hundreds of times to classes of 35 students at a time.

Is it tough to balance teaching and all your media responsibilities?

Not teaching. Teaching, grading, meeting with students: that all fits. It’s the other part of professorial life. It’s the faculty meetings and the thousand and one emails and the making sure you have lunch with your colleagues. When I think about how my life is different now from when this all started, that’s the part I’m missing. And I really miss it. That’s where you get your ideas. It’s talking to your junior colleague who just finished his PhD who has read five years of the journal you haven’t been reading. I really do miss that part.


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