An Interview with Melissa V. Harris-Perry

Melissa V. Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. Her first book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. Professor Harris-Perry is a columnist for The Nation magazine where she writes a monthly column titled Sister Citizen. She is a contributor to MSNBC, and regularly provides expert commentary on U.S. elections, racial issues, religious questions and gender concerns for Politics Nation with Reverend Al Sharpton, The Rachel Maddow Show, The Last Word with Lawrence O'Donnell. Harris-Perry is author of the well received new book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (Yale, 2011) which argues that persistent harmful stereotypes—invisible to many but painfully familiar to black women—profoundly shape black women's politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena. In this interview, Harris-Perry discusses some of the major themes and findings from the book, and how they affect politics and popular culture.

Henry Louis Gates, Jr.: Perhaps the most important feature of your latest book, Sister Citizen, is its use of conversations and monologues taken from focus groups comprised of black women. Were there any discussions that took you completely by surprise, perhaps even to the point where you had to rethink some of the main assertions you were making with this book?

Melissa Harris-Perry: The book employs a lot of different sources and it is always interesting for me to learn what people find most compelling. I would be interested to know why you found the focus groups most engaging. I hope this means I captured, at least in part, how extraordinary these women are. The women who took part in these conversations were consistently serious, engaged, and careful as they addressed issues of race and gender. That alone was very surprising and gratifying for me as a researcher. Surprising because they had little to gain from their involvement- just a small payment for participation-but they willingly gave so much of themselves for my work.

And yes, there were moments that took me by surprise. Many younger African American women were unwilling to define themselves as strong—it was a term they reserved for other black women, but not for themselves. It was fascinating to listen to them discuss their mothers, aunts or friends as strong but to say they did not personally feel as though they embodied strength. Typically, their reluctance to identify themselves as equal in strength to their female role models was rooted in their own sense of vulnerability, or sadness, or failure. They could see that they did not embody the stereotype, but seemed to lack imagination that their mothers or grandmothers might be more fragile than they let on in public. I felt like I was watching a kind of double masking, where the women in my groups seemed to want to believe other black women were impervious, even as they recognized that they themselves were only human.

HLG: Sister Citizen's description of the major stereotypes of black women culminates with the "strong black woman" archetype, which may be the most complex. After all, it seems that almost every woman you quote in the book embraces this image, despite some of the inherent problems with it that you point out (namely the tendency among such women to endure hardship rather than address the sources of that hardship). I'm wondering: what kind of resistance, if any, have you encountered from women when you have leveled this criticism? I imagine that at least some of the people in your focus groups would argue that being a strong black woman is their best option, and that anything else is somehow inauthentic.

When I first started presenting this research in lectures, long before it was a book, I would begin by talking about "the myth" of the strong black woman. Almost always a sister would raise her hand and say, "That is not a myth, that is a fact." Many women tell me that there is no alternative to strength as a defining feature of our lives. I have learned to be careful in my presentation and writing about this issue so it doesn't seem that I advocating simply giving up in the face of hardship and struggle. I try to frame this as empirical rather than normative. I am not saying that black women should or should not be superhumanly strong, I am just pointing out that we are not superhuman. We are just human.

I'm fascinated by the resistance to being labeled "just human." I suspect that African American women are so consistently degraded as less than human in popular culture and political discourse, that we need the strong black woman narrative to offer balance. It is as though saying we are just human is not enough to counter the powerful negative stereotypes, but I am convinced the strong myth can be as psychologically and politically damaging as the more overtly negative characterizations.

As I mentioned before, black women in the focus groups had an all-encompassing view of other black women as "strong" but didn't feel that way themselves. This is because we know that we cry, we know that we hurt, we know that we get tired, we know that we don't have all the answers, but we mask that vulnerability because the stakes for ourselves, our families, and our communities are so high. The danger is that even though we know we are masking, we often accept the mask when we encounter it on other black women. I am not advocating for weakness, I am asking for us to cut ourselves a break so that we can demand more resources and opportunities, not fewer.

HLG: Your book focuses on some of the psychological or institutional factors that exacerbate this stereotype of the strong black woman. Are there any egregious, overt examples of people in positions of power exploiting this stereotype that you can discuss, and that everyone should be aware of?

MHP: Two examples that I find very useful: the domestic family court system and the medical system.

Many judges in domestic family courts seem to rely on the myth of the strong black woman when adjudicating cases involving African American families. For example, when a black woman is battered by her male partner she often presents the facts in court by saying that they were "fighting" rather than she was being "beaten." This language emphasizes her sense of agency and her unwillingness to present herself as a victim to either the courts or to the assailant who is with her in court. But once she has characterized it as "we were fighting" rather than "he was beating me," attorneys and judges are more likely to assign joint blame for the altercation and therefore less likely to use all the resources of the courts to offer the woman protection. Black women are more likely than their white counterparts to be victimized by domestic violence, but less likely to be seen by the courts as truly victims. Instead they are often assumed to be feisty, combative, and equally implicated in matters of family violence.

Many doctors and nurses appear to believe that black women are uniquely able to endure pain and discomfort. Medical research shows that black women receive significantly less pain medication than their white counterparts even when they rate their pain equally on a scale from 1 to 10. In other words, a black woman who says her pain rates a seven will receive less palliative medication than a white woman who says her pain rates a seven. It seems the medical community is reproducing its long history of treating black bodies differently than white bodies. During slavery, for example, black women were assumed to have no pain during childbirth. The continuing practice of offering black women less pain reducing medication is a contemporary example of that continuing assumption.

HLG: Your research suggests that black women are not necessarily made happier by their reliance on religious faith, and that many employ an increasingly "womanist" interpretation of Christianity. Did you also see any evidence of women abandoning faith altogether? There are more and more African Americans "coming out of the closet," so to speak, as atheists, agnostics, and skeptics; how does this relate to your findings? What do you think the consequences will be?

MHP: My research suggests that religious belief does not necessarily make black women feel happier or more satisfied with their lives. I found that to be a bit of a counterintuitive finding given that black women display some of the highest rates of religiosity. But I am not sure I think black women are increasingly employing a womanist worldview. Quite the opposite, black women theologians have offered these challenging and important interpretations of Christian texts and practices, but very little has penetrated to black church life. I suspect part of the reason Christian belief is not as uplifting for black women as it has the potential to be, is precisely because womanist interpretations remain at the margins of black church life.

As for black women abandoning faith, I must be honest that this never came up in the research. Among my friends and colleagues who are black women writers, professors, and journalists there is a vocal cohort of skeptics, agnostics, and atheists. But the women I talked with in focus groups, studied through surveys, and read in fiction are committed to the Christian project even if it is a critical engagement with it. Your point about "coming out of the closet" is well taken. I found that religious identity is largely constitutive of racial identity for many black women. It is a part of the authenticity claim of black womanhood. If you don't love the Lord your racial identity –and possibly your sanity- are questioned.

HLG: We have already seen in this current election cycle the use of the term "food stamp president" in reference to Barack Obama, along with other examples of what your book describes as "shaming" tactics directed at African Americans. How do you think these stereotypes of black women will influence both the tone of the election and the behavior of voters? Will movements such as Occupy Wall Street and the efforts to recall anti-labor governors have any effect on how this rhetoric is used?

MHP: I don't want to predict this one; I just want to watch it. I am extremely excited to be hosting a weekend political television show on MSNBC during this election. It gives me an opportunity to highlight when moments like the "food stamp" president are used to shame and silence the needs of vulnerable Americans. Unfortunately, I predict the Occupy Wall Street and the Midwestern recall efforts will have little influence on the power of racial and gender stereotyping in electoral politics. When we say "unions" we still imagine hard working, white men in overalls. Despite the fact that unionized workers are more likely to be black women teaching third grade than a guy on the assembly line. So, when we fight for workers, we may actually be fighting for black women but we are imagining white men. It is hard to say "worker" and get someone to picture a woman. But say "welfare" and black women pop immediately to mind. This asymmetry is exactly why stereotypes are so powerful and remain so powerful over time.

HLG: Your opinion of the film The Help, and of the work of Tyler Perry, is well known: you recently live-tweeted a viewing of The Help (and it wasn't pretty), and Sister Citizen criticizes Perry's film adaptation of Ntozake Shange's play for colored girls. How do you explain—and how do you react to—the continued popularity of these works among African Americans? We have seen you discuss this on television; have you had any memorable exchanges about this with other black women?

MHP: Ha! Sisters really do go to the movies to see Tyler Perry, don't we? I end up getting drawn into conversations about my critique of The Help or of Perry's work pretty often. I have never had a bad or uncomfortable experience in my "culture conversations" with other black women, even if and when they disagree with me. I assume many people dismiss me as overly professorial when I start doing movie analysis. Typically I have women tell me, "Hey look, I get your point. But I just like the movie. It is fun. Can't you be a little less serious about everything?" It is a fair point, but usually my answer is no, I really do take these issues very seriously.