Sisters and Citizens, Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry

Sisters and Citizens, Part 1: An Interview with Melissa Harris-Perry

RECLAIMING A FEMALE AGENDA: Scholar, author, and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry.

For several years, I’ve been particularly interested in what’s happening with women, specifically Black women, especially Black Christian women. And so I have been exploring what it means to occupy each of those spaces, a unified identity that I call BCW (Black Christian women).

Questions of identity, markedly so for women of color, are critical because they fundamentally answer many of the determinative inquiries of our lives. For example: Whom do we love and who loves us? How are we able to live out our commitments to family, friends, and faith? What ideas become our focus spiritually, economically, politically, and professionally? How do we communicate and deal with our unmet needs and desires? Similarly, movements like Black Girls Rock! and the Spelman protest against misogyny in the rap industry are concerned not only with mass-marketed stereotypes and public perceptions of Black women, but also with how the manufactured persona affects how our families, co-workers, lovers, and fellow congregants view us.

These things matter not just for us who are already of full adult age and experience, but also for those younger and future generations of Black Christian girls (BCG) who follow. What will they learn from us about what it means to serve God wrapped in deep brown, café au lait, or bronze skin?

I will explore these questions and others in this series. Given that this is an election year, I thought it appropriate to examine BCW identity first through a political lens. I conducted an interview with Dr. Melissa Harris-Perry, professor of political science and founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South at Tulane University, and author of Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. She also is the host of a new eponymously named weekend news show on MSNBC. What follows is an excerpt of our discussion, specifically related to the impact of stereotypes on the political involvement of Black Christian women; and the role of the gospel in our politics. The context for our conversation largely centered on reproductive issues, as these have dominated political discourse as of late, and provide an interesting perspective from which to consider larger issues of identity.

This excerpt from our discussion was edited for clarity and conversational flow.

CHANDRA WHITE-CUMMINGS: Over the years, Black women have been portrayed in various unflattering ways by society. There’s the “Jezebel,” who’s promiscuous and sexually undiscerning, and the “strong Black woman,” who’s resolutely independent and often viewed as almost masculine in demeanor. How do you think these sorts of stereotypes play out for Black women, and Black Christian women, in reproductive politics?

MELISSA HARRIS-PERRY: As much as it is the thing that can get women riled up in the public sphere, the fact is our reproductive lives are only one part, one relatively short part of our long lives as women. But they shape so powerfully how people understand who women are. So this is a relatively brief part of our overall life, but the choices we make: whether or not we choose to ever have children, how many children, whether in marriage or outside of marriage, whether as teenagers or older women. Every single reproductive choice you make, to the extent that other people know about it, ends up being a potential source of judgment, criticism, and shame. I think that is particularly true for African American women. Part of that is the Jezebel stereotype, part of it is the broad sense that so many different groups of people feel they have every right to weigh in on the choices that Black women make.

Obviously there is an element of this that goes back to the legacy of slavery where Black women’s reproduction was to the financial benefit of those who owned them, owned their bodies, and therefore owned their children. But it is also part of the discourse of the 1980s about the so-called welfare queen. The whole world has a right to speak about whether Black women have children. There’s almost no part of American culture and political life where there isn’t some group that feels it has the right to speak about Black women and their reproductive choices. So all of those negative stereotypes then weigh in on us as we’re trying to make decisions as autonomous individuals about our own lives, and all those criticisms are very loud in our heads.

CWC: It seems one of the true dangers of the stereotypes is that they are not only placed upon us by others but we also use them to limit ourselves. For example, once we’ve made a certain choice, there’s always the interminable second-guessing. Then if we feel any sense of regret, disappointment, or self-examination over the decision, the stereotypes and shame hit us again because we don’t feel at liberty or like we have permission to get help to deal with what we’re feeling. Do you think that’s the case?

MHP: Absolutely. You hear critics of abortion say that all women regret their abortion. But all women also regret their children. There’s no reproductive choice that you ever make that isn’t one part regret and one part happiness. We’re complicated, we’re not automatons. So do you regret an abortion? Sure, you feel like, What if? But at the same time, you might ultimately think it was the right decision for you. Similarly, do you love your children? Absolutely, every second of every day, but sometimes you just wish they would go to sleep and leave you alone! So there’s no choice you make that isn’t complicated. But I think that’s part of what happens in the way that we talk about women, almost as though they’re not human and can’t have complicated relationships to all of the adult choices that they make. The single biggest issue in shame is not that it’s just about the judgments others make of us, it’s about the judgments we make of ourselves that then limit our ability to seek help, to vocalize our own experiences, to claim our right to have complicated feelings about it.

CWC: Given the fact that African American women have such a close identification with faith and with the church, why do you think that image hasn’t become part of the stereotype about us?

MHP: I think it depends on the circumstance. Undoubtedly in the context of policy-making we normally hear about the negative version of who Black women are, but I also think there’s this whole thing of how Black church women are depicted on TV. I hate depictions of Black church on TV because they make it seem like a show instead of worship. For example, the number of times they show a Black woman at church in the throes of ecstatic religious passion, but without any understanding that it’s not a show or a dance to be performed; it’s an act of worship.

So I do think it’s a part of our stereotype, but one that is largely misunderstood — one that is assumed to be in a lot of ways almost funny. I also think it’s an interesting counterpoint to the Jezebel stereotype. On the one hand you have this vision that Black women are sexually lewd, lascivious, loose hip-hop hoochies, and then on the other hand that we are these church ladies. So I think it’s all about what is useful for the people who are developing the stereotype.

CWC: Great point, because another way that the faith stereotype often manifests is in this idea that says, “Black women are supposed to be some of the most devout, the ones who hold their religion most closely, so why is there so much pathology in your community, why isn’t that piety being reflected?” What’s your response to that? Is our Christianity lived deeply enough so that it’s truly transformative?

MHP: I suppose I have a different experience of what the supposed transformative aspect of the gospel is. When I think about what I mean when I call myself “Christian,” it really is about living in a state of grace, and knowing in a very powerful way that my human failures are not the end of the story about who I am. It doesn’t mean I take them lightly or that you can behave any way you want. For example, I know some devout Christian women who curse like sailors, but they are also the people that would take their last egg and cook something for someone on the street. Or they stay on their feet late at night cooking for church events and barely get a thank you for it. Similarly, I know women who have one or two children out of wedlock but are profoundly and devoutly religious people. And I don’t experience that as their moments of morally failing God, quite the opposite. I see it as part and parcel of their Christian faith.

CWC: Given how pervasive and longstanding these stereotypes are, what are effective political resistance strategies for Black women? You make a reference early in your book to a need for the creation of “new forms of politics.” Is that what you consider an effective political resistance strategy?

MHP: More than anything, what I’d really love to see us doing politically is putting ourselves at the center of our own political agendas. This is particularly true for women in Christian communities. We often internalize the message of the self-sacrifice of Jesus. Don’t get me wrong; I don’t think we shouldn’t internalize that message. It’s obviously an incredibly important lesson, but we internalize it in a way that no one else in the church does. So other people are perfectly happy to put us on the cross. For me, the goal of the Christian narrative is not to turn Black women into additional sacrificial lambs, but that the liberation of the Cross is meant for Black women as much as it is meant for every one else. We have a right to say when something isn’t good for us. But instead, what we’ll often say something like, “It’s not good for me, but it’s good for Black men. And so I’ll take the hit on this one because I want to do what’s right for Black men.” I think the new model is the one that goes ahead and puts Black women and our politics at the center.

CWC: Why do you think the political involvement of African American women hasn’t continued on an upward trajectory after the civil rights movement?

MHP: I think that we romanticize the moment of the civil rights movement in certain ways. Part of it is a visibility question. When we had a reason to vote, like we did in the 2008 election, we showed up and did. So if you ask why do I think involvement has fallen off, I believe it’s in part because we haven’t seen active mobilization on the part of political parties and organizations saying Black women matter so let’s go out and make sure they are engaged. When it did happen, we were right there and organized and prepared to go into it.

Subsequent parts of this series will consider several of the ideas brought out in this interview.

The Breast Cancer Reality Check

The Breast Cancer Reality Check

The truth of the matter is that I’m an anxious person, and my anxiety manifests itself in various ways — some comical and others not as much.

For example, I’m a bit of a hypochondriac. If I happen to be in front of my computer when someone on Good Morning America is describing the disease du jour — from West Nile virus to celiac disease, I always fire up Google to make sure I’m not exhibiting any of the symptoms. I haven’t slept in complete darkness since I was in the fourth grade (unless I’m not the only person in the room), which is when I discovered scary movies. And I am an avoidance perfectionist, which essentially means that I sometimes avoid starting on a task because I’m scared that the end result won’t be all that good. (Some call this procrastination, but I like to keep it complex.) Deep, huh?

As I’ve gotten older, though, my anxiety seems to be loosening its grip on me. So far a random mosquito bite or a bite of bread, for instance, hasn’t killed me. The bogeyman hasn’t scooped up me from my bed as I slept. And slowly but surely, I’m discovering that “not perfect” is sometimes just fine.

But no matter how I spin it, the truth of the matter is breast cancer is a scary disease, and not just in and of itself. It’s also scary that, according to recent studies, one in eight women in the United States will develop invasive breast cancer over the course of her lifetime. This is not a random condition that fits into a singular episode of a morning news program. It is not some phantom that disappears in the light of day. Breast cancer cannot be avoided, even if you try. It’s a bomb whose blast will eventually be felt in our lives, or in the lives of people we know.

In the course of my 38 years, I can recall many brave women who have had to battle with this ugly disease. I recall a woman at my church who was diagnosed with breast cancer when I was a little girl. I remember her saying she just wanted to live long enough to raise her children, who were close to my age. Her breast cancer eventually went into remission. I found it courageous yet tragic that this woman was able to raise her children before ultimately succumbing to the cancer after her kids reached adulthood.

I remember the editor of a small community newspaper I worked for after college. A former member of the U.S. Army, this tall woman intimidated me with her “take no stuff” orders and her “colorful” language. When she was diagnosed with breast cancer, she took it on in the same way she managed the newsroom: with courage and a determination to do it her way in spite of what others thought or said. She shunned traditional cancer treatments for a while because of the side effects and searched for alternative options. Although she eventually lost her battle with the disease years later, I was encouraged when I learned at her funeral that my former, irreverent editor had become a Christian. Before her death, she had faithfully attended and became an active member of a little Baptist church in the country.

Despite knowing these women, the prevalence of breast cancer did not truly enter my consciousness until I discovered that one of my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority line sisters was diagnosed with breast cancer when we were in our late 20s. I mistakenly thought only older women got breast cancer. I was shocked when the disease took her life in 2005.

I cannot pretend to know why God allowed these and other women who have suffered from breast cancer to die. But I am determined, particularly as this month is National Breast Cancer Awareness Month, to remember these and other brave souls who passed away and honor those who are surviving.

Another one of my Delta Sigma Theta Sorority line sisters, Lola Brown, is one of those survivors. She is a two-time breast cancer survivor, though she is not even 40 years old yet. She says battling breast cancer has enabled her to develop a personal relationship with God that might not have happened otherwise. Her testimony is featured in my upcoming book, After the Altar Call: The Sisters’ Guide to Developing a Personal Relationship With God. For me, Lola’s experience puts a human face on another troubling statistic: black women have a higher incidence rate of breast cancer before age 40 and are more likely to die from the disease at every age, according to the American Cancer Society.

As I noted earlier, my tendency is to avoid anything that scares me, and sometimes my anxiety leads me to inaction. But since I am a woman, I cannot ignore breast cancer — though I’d certainly like to. I have to make sure I conduct monthly self-examinations, visit my doctor for annual examinations, and live a healthy lifestyle. More than anything, I have to take my anxiety to the Lord while praying for a cure.

For more information, visit the website for National Breast Cancer Awareness Month.

The Intermarriage Solution

The Intermarriage Solution

Congratulations to Stanford law professor Ralph Richard Banks, author of the new book Is Marriage for White People?: How the African American Marriage Decline Affects Everyone, which was released earlier this month. With a sensational title like that, Banks is sure to sell a ton of books. But that doesn’t necessarily mean the author doesn’t have something important to tell us.

Personally, I’ve decided I won’t be reading Dr. Banks’ book. I’ve also been trying to avoid reading articles related to it. Why am I treating his book like Kryptonite? After all, I am a 38-year-old single, professional black woman — presumably smack dab in the heart of his target audience. Why wouldn’t I want to read a book about how miserable my life is?

What? Do I sound bitter? Well, I’m really not. I will admit, however, that I am annoyed. But I was annoyed way before Dr. Banks became the latest purveyor of solutions for the single black female.

In December 2009, ABC’s Nightline came to Atlanta, where I live, to interview several single professional black women and ask them why, in spite of their beauty, great personalities, and accomplishments, they just couldn’t find a good man. Cue Beyoncé’s infectious “Single Ladies (Put a Ring on It)” in the background. Comedian Steve Harvey was to the go-to expert for the segment and demonstrated with his streetwise insight why single black women made his first book, Act Like a Lady, Think Like a Man, a New York Times bestseller. The segment “went viral,” facilitating the need for Nightline to follow up in April 2010 with a full-fledged and star-powered forum called “Why Can’t a Successful Black Woman Find a Man?” It also was held here in Atlanta. A few months later, dating expert, Deborrah Cooper, through her Surviving Dating website, blamed the black church for keeping black women single and lonely. And in May of this year, VH1 debuted its first scripted show, Single Ladies, which is about an interracial group of single women based in … yep, none other than Atlanta. So excuse me while I get from under society’s microscope …

All that being said, what do I actually think of Dr. Banks’ book? First of all, for those who may not have yet to hear about the book, Banks ponders why “nearly 70 percent of black women are unmarried” no matter their socioeconomic status and offers solutions based on about 100 interviews with African Americans. In a Wall Street Journal article adapted from his book, Banks wrote, “I came away convinced of two facts: Black women confront the worst relationship market of any group because of economic and cultural forces that are not of their own making; and they have needlessly worsened their situation by limiting themselves to black men. I also arrived at a startling conclusion: Black women can best promote black marriage by opening themselves to relationships with men of other races.”

In his article, Banks cited the high incarceration of black men as one source of the problem. “More than two million men are now imprisoned in the U.S., and roughly 40 percent of them are African American. At any given time, more than 10 percent of black men in their 20s or 30s — prime marrying ages — are in jail or prison.” Banks also pointed to the inequity of education between some black women and black men as another root of the problem. “There are roughly 1.4 million black women now in college, compared to just 900,000 black men.”

As a result, according to Banks, many black women have opted to “marry down” (i.e. marrying “blue collar” black men) instead of “out” (i.e. professional white men). This, he asserts, may contribute to the alarmingly high divorce rate, as these “white collar” black wives are often incompatible with their “blue collar” black husbands. “Even as divorce rates have declined for most groups during the past few decades, more than half of black marriages dissolve.”

His solution, according to the article: “By opening themselves to relationships with men of other races, black women would … lessen the power disparity that depresses the African American marriage rate. As more black women expanded their options, black women as a group would have more leverage with black men. Even black women who remained unwilling to love across the color line would benefit from other black women’s willingness to do so.”

It would appear many black women have already taken his message to heart. According to the latest U.S. Census data, black and white Americans are now getting married to each other in record numbers. In 2008, 14 percent of black men and 6 percent of black women tied the knot with a white partner; that’s up from 5 percent and 1 percent in 1980.

CONVERSATION STARTER: Author Ralph Richard Banks wants black women to expand their territory.

But back to what I actually think of Banks’ book. First, in all fairness to Dr. Banks, anyone who wants the full picture of what he’s arguing should read the book for herself. I’m sticking with my decision not to read it. I’m simply weary of sifting through this type of information and being assailed by the grim reminder that my chances of finding an eligible black man who meets my standards are severely limited.

Based on my experiences and the experiences of my friends, I think black women should expand their options. But that doesn’t mean they have to give up on being with a black man — educated or otherwise. I have friends who have married black men with a college degree, black men without a college degree, and white men. And I am happy to report all the friends that I’m speaking of are still married. So I believe marriage is for all people, not just white people. But I suspect Dr. Banks knows that already and is simply trying to grab our attention with his provocative title. (Note to Dr. Banks: From one writer to another, you hit it out the park with that title, sir. Cha-ching!)

As for me, my approach to dealing with this “where are all the good men?” dilemma, as well as other quandaries I find myself in, is to trust God and allow Him to speak through the challenges He allows in my life. I thoroughly believe what one of my favorite authors, Zora Neale Hurston, said in her book Their Eyes Were Watching God: “Two things everybody’s got tuh do fuh theyselves. They got tuh go tuh God, and they got tuh find out about livin’ fuh theyselves.”

My God has promised me that if I delight myself in the Lord, He will give me the desires of my heart. And to quote another Southern sage, Forrest Gump, “That’s all I have to say about that.”

Is That Hair Killing You?

Is That Hair Killing You?

As if chemical relaxer burns, alopecia, and unnecessary poverty from the staggering cost of sew-ins and lace fronts wasn’t enough, our hair has found another way to potentially kill us.

U.S. Surgeon General Regina M. Benjamin, who is black and no stranger to black women’s hair concerns, issued a warning last month against the common excuse of skipping exercise to preserve a hairstyle. According to the New York Times, Dr. Benjamin’s remarks to Bronner Bros. International Hair Show attendees aligned with a 2008 study where a third of the women cited their hair as a reason they exercised less often.

“For shame,” I’d like to say, but I’m just as guilty — maybe even more so because my hair is chemically relaxed. I’m in no danger of the regression from straight to curly to kinky that happens when moisture strikes pressed natural hair. I can identify, however, with the sinking feeling brought on by rain when I’ve just dropped $50, $75 or $100 (or more) to get my hair done. And, in case you didn’t know, weaves and wigs aren’t exactly waterproof nor are they cheap. Given the investment, I absolutely think twice before willfully dismantling a style through sweat from a vigorous workout.

Biblically, our hair is our glory, our individual object of pride. When Mary anoints the feet of Jesus and then washes them with her hair, the symbolism of the act of sacrifice is as much about the cost of the oil as the fact that she willingly sullied her hair to honor the Lord. Then and now, regardless of whether we grow ’em or buy ’em, we hold our tresses in high regard. We capitalize on our locks’ ability to influence the jobs we’re offered, determine how we’re treated and even how we’re admired. Ignoring the historical and social context of black women’s hair makes it easy to ridicule the expense of it all and downplay its significance.

But our hair is not as significant as we make it, particularly if we allow it to compromise our bodies so dramatically. Our hair was meant as a covering, not a cross to bear.

Exercise isn’t just for overweight people, and those who don’t engage risk more than obesity but also hypertension, higher levels of bad cholesterol, poor sleep, and increased fatigue. Beyond that, if it’s our desire to positively participate in a movement of God with a broad impact on the world around us, physical health must trump physical beauty, even as the two coexist.

Whether well coiffed or not, we still exist for a greater purpose that we can’t be ready to fulfill if we’re falling apart. We can’t be spiritually strong if we’re physically worn down.

As good stewards of the bodies God gave us — that still belong to Him — we have a responsibility to maintain ourselves as much as possible to fulfill our individual callings. And if that means exercise at the price of a few bad hair days, then so be it. Just keep the flat iron ready for after the workout.

Black Women Are Less Attractive?

Black Women Are Less Attractive?

The writer of “The Scientific Fundamentalist” blog for Psychology Today apparently thinks African American women are less physically attractive than women of other races, and he cited unscientific “attractiveness ratings” from a recent study to justify his bias.

In “Why Are African-American Women Less Physically Attractive Than Other Women?,” published on May 15, evolutionary psychologist Satoshi Kanazawa used scientific language and multiple graphs to back absurd statements, claiming that he can “compute the latent ‘physical attractiveness factor’” from his data. Psychology Today eventually removed the post and issued an apology, but not before it drew plenty of fire from around the Web. A copy of the article was reposted on Quora.

The brief apology statement posted about two weeks later, just this past Friday, said Psychology Today “does not tolerate racism or prejudice of any sort” and that it had not approved the post. Editor-in-Chief Kaja Perina wrote, “We deeply apologize for the pain and offense that this post caused. Psychology Today’s mission is to inform the public, not to provide a platform for inflammatory and offensive material. … We have taken measures to ensure that such an incident does not occur again.”

However, the apology stopped short of detailing what measures would be taken to prevent future racist articles from being published. It also failed to point out the post’s scientific flaws, let alone denounce them. Merely recognizing the post as offensive is not enough; Psychology Today also needs to call out Kanazawa’s faulty science.

As many have pointed out, Kanazawa’s statistics are deeply flawed. A Scientific American journalist and other writers for Psychology Today recently conducted independent statistical analyses of the Add Health data and debunked Kanazawa’s claims. Just the beginning of how his claims didn’t make sense: Kanazawa used data from an Add Health study about how adolescent behaviors affect their health—not a study about race and beauty. It’s common knowledge that the population of any study needs to be an unbiased sample, and the people doing the beauty judging were Add Health researchers. Since when are the researchers themselves an unbiased sample?

Having presented these flawed statistics in his post, Kanazawa mused about the cause of this supposed attractiveness difference, passing up the “race difference in intelligence” as a potential cause (he claimed beautiful people are more intelligent)—as if such a racial difference exists. He just as confidently concluded that the only possible explanation he could think of must be that African American women have higher levels of testosterone—with no data to back up that outrageous claim.

Now, the London School of Economics is conducting an internal investigation of Kanazawa’s comments and students are calling for his firing, The Guardian reported.

Perhaps the most disturbing part is that Kanazawa has gotten away with other absurd claims until now (past posts include titles like “Are All Women Essentially Prostitutes?”), under the façade of fighting political correctness in the name of science. Which makes you think: How easily fooled is our society? Are racist or sexist beliefs suddenly okay if some statistics are thrown out there to justify them? It’s all too easy to take statistics out of context to back up ridiculous claims and hide the truth. Take race and the academic achievement gap—does such a gap prove some racial minorities are inherently less intelligent? Or does it prove that our society has systematically oppressed those same minorities for generations?

If pseudoscience can be so recklessly used to justify racism, then what can we do as Christians to combat these social messages? Perhaps we need to remind others of the truths behind Scripture such as Galatians 3:26-29 and the spirit of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., that all humans are inherently equal and our society can only heal after we acknowledge the damage of racial prejudice and injustice. In doing so, we must reject Eurocentric definitions of beauty and instead define ourselves each as Christ does: children of God worthy of love regardless of how our society might attempt to rank our value.