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.
CORE VISION: Steve Jobs understood that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish innovation -- it enhances it. (Photo by Dai Sugano/Newscom.)
Steve Jobs has long been celebrated as a hero for middle-class, geeky white guys. But he was also deeply concerned about bringing more minorities into engineering, and into his own company. I know, because he told me. Even better, he hired me to help him do it.
Little did I know, God would allow my life path to intersect with that of Steve Jobs, the late cofounder and CEO of Apple. I met Steve four years ago and continued to interact with him until this past spring.
Since 2004, I’ve taught computer science at Spelman College, the historically black school for women in Atlanta. In December 2007, I took the SpelBots, Spelman College’s all-women robotics team, to Stanford University to give a presentation at Stanford’s Clayman Institute for Gender Research, which included an open showcase to the community. The SpelBots represent undergraduate female student trailblazers and role models who are paving the way for younger female and African American students by competing internationally against graduate-level engineering universities in RoboCup humanoid robot soccer competitions. RoboCup represents the closest we have to an international “Olympics” of robotics and artificial intelligence research.
After the SpelBots’ visit to Stanford, we did a tour of Silicon Valley, stopping off at Google for breakfast and Apple for lunch so that our students could see these world-class technology companies firsthand. During our lunch at Apple, my friend Scott, who was an employee there, told me not to look over my shoulder. “Steve Jobs just walked in with Jonathan Ive,” he whispered. I immediately recognized Steve, but I had no idea who Jonathan Ive was until Scott explained that he was the chief industrial designer for Apple, the man who had designed such gadgets as the iPhone and the iMac.
It didn’t take long for me to realize that Steve was both revered and feared at Apple, and that it was not a good idea to go up to Steve and try to talk to him. So, I went over to Jonathan Ive instead. I introduced myself and told him how much I liked his designs. We were having a nice chat when, suddenly, Steve Jobs came over to us.
I introduced myself, innocently including a little backstory as well: “Hi, I’m Andrew Williams, from Spelman College, a historically black college for women in Atlanta, and Apple supports our robotics team.”
Steve quickly asked, “Do you have an engineering program?”
“We have a dual engineering program with universities such as Georgia Tech and Michigan,” I told him.
“Can you help us hire black engineers?” he said. “Do you know how many black engineers we have?”
Before I could say anything he shared a shockingly low number and confessed how poorly Apple was doing in finding black candidates. I’ll skip the full exchange, but suffice it to say, I got an intimate peek into Steve’s passion and energy. He was seriously upset at Apple’s efforts in that area. His last words to me that day were, “If you have any ideas on how we can hire more black engineers, send me an email.”
King of Silicon Valley
Having grown up in a small Kansas Army town, living in a two-bedroom trailer with my African American dad, Korean mom, and five siblings, my path to overcoming poverty and earning my Ph.D. in electrical engineering was not always clear. But there I stood that day, amazed at how God had given me the opportunity to meet the greatest innovator of my lifetime.
I recalled reading in the Book of Proverbs, “Do you see a man skilled in his work? He shall stand before kings; He will not stand before obscure men.” I had taken those words of wisdom to heart while pursuing my education, and now I was realizing them.
While working at GE Medical Systems in the early ’90s, during the first dot-com boom, I grieved the fact that there weren’t more African Americans going to Silicon Valley and making a difference in the new technological era. I understood that many underrepresented minorities lacked the connections and education to become computing entrepreneurs. But now, there I was being asked by, in my view, the ultimate computing entrepreneur for help in getting more African Americans to work for his world-renowned Silicon Valley company.
Challenging Steve Jobs
In 1995, I earned my master’s degree in electrical and computer engineering from Marquette University while I was at GE. I then left GE to work on my Ph.D. in electrical engineering at the University of Kansas. I received my doctorate in 1999. Ever since, my passion has been to help underrepresented students reach their full educational potential in computing, so that they can play a productive role in our world’s changing economy and perhaps aspire to become “the next Steve Jobs.”
After my encounter with Steve, I went home and thought and prayed about what ideas I would give him about recruiting more black engineers at Apple. Then I composed an email that would change my life.
I began by explaining why I did what I did, including how my wife, Anitra, and I decided after reading The Purpose-Driven Life that I would leave my tenure-track faculty position at the University of Iowa so that I could fulfill my purpose of helping underrepresented students. I even attached a picture of my wife Anitra and my children, John, Adrianna, and Rosa to the email.
I also told him about the positive things I observed Apple doing to encourage and expand diversity. Apple, at the time, was building relationships with Atlanta University Center schools. I told him about my wife’s experience with her retail position at the Apple Store in Atlanta and how I could see growing diversity there. I bragged about how my Apple friends Scott and Denise were doing great with improving Apple’s diversity in both its university relations and retail. Denise, by the way, is an African American woman who at the time was Apple’s director of human resources for global retail.
I told Steve how important it was for students to see other underrepresented and female role models at top positions at Apple including its board of directors. I suggested he needed to make efforts to recruit at non-traditional “Apple” elite schools, such as historically black colleges and universities (HBCUs) and women’s colleges. I told him that our current SpelBots captain would make a great intern at Apple. I mentioned that it’s important to consider the importance of family when dealing with African American students in making career and education decisions. I also let him know that I admired Apple and that it was one of the few companies for which I would consider leaving academia.
After I sent the email, I waited and didn’t hear anything for several days. I think my Apple friends were concerned because few people dared to confront Steve and tell him what he should do. Yet I saw him as a fellow human being who was concerned with helping underrepresented students make his company continue to be great. A week later, I received a phone call from Scott, and later a copy of an email Steve had sent internally about how he was “sooooooooooooo happy” about what I told him about Apple’s recent diversity efforts and that he wanted to hire me to help “hire black engineers.” He had read my email so thoroughly that he pointed out that I had hinted I would consider working at Apple.
I soon found myself taking a yearlong sabbatical from Spelman College to become a full-time Apple employee. I was named Apple’s first Senior Engineering Diversity Manager.
I won’t divulge all that I did and saw at Apple, but I did witness positive changes being made at levels that were way above me that could only have come from Steve. I was able to directly influence the hiring of more African Americans, women, and other minorities as interns and eventually full-time Apple engineers.
SPELBOTS COMETH: The 2011 SpelBots team (from left) Coach Andrew Williams, Christina Sparks, Amelia Henderson, Tyler Davis, Jonecia Keels, Jazmine Miller, Naquasia Jones, and program manager Angela Church. (Not pictured: Breoshshala Martin, Daria Jordan, Chanel Johnson.)
I was especially proud that I played a role in helping one of my students become the first Spelman grad to work as a full-time engineer at Apple, after she had obtained her initial internship through my contact with Steve. I’ve met African American engineers at Apple who helped design the iPad; one of my former female students from the University of Iowa works with Jon Ive’s group; there are African Americans intimately involved with the App store; and the list goes on. There are now literally dozens of engineers from underrepresented groups who are making a contribution to the development of Apple’s products.
I continued interacting with Steve in various ways after I ended my sabbatical at Apple. I gave him a copy of my autobiography, he received my family’s Christmas newsletter, and we periodically connected via email or indirect messages. One poignant note that I sent to him shared how with Apple’s new FaceTime feature I was able to “tuck in” my youngest daughter, Rosa, while I was away from home on business trips. Using FaceTime, I’d tell her a story and pray with her before she went to bed. Because of Apple’s technology, we didn’t have to sacrifice our bedtime routine — even when I was a thousand miles away.
My final interaction with Steve occurred this past spring. In a March 30th email, I told him I was praying for him and his family. I also let him know that one of our SpelBots students had won a national iPhone app competition and that she thought Apple should hire her as an intern. She had applied for summer internships at Apple over the last few years but could never break through. I didn’t hear back from Steve directly, but not long after that my student received a call from an Apple recruiter who said Steve had forwarded her résumé. Sure enough, this past summer our SpelBots student was hired as an Apple intern and soon will be offered a full-time position as an engineer.
A company such as Apple, which at the time of this writing has over $80 billion of cash on hand, can pick and choose whomever they want to hire. So, I’m always glad when they recognize the talent and potential of individuals from groups that are underrepresented in the engineering ranks.
My hope is that Steve’s vision for diversity at Apple will not die now that he’s gone. I also hope that other CEOs learn from him that a true, passionate commitment to a diverse and inclusive environment does not diminish but only enhances innovation.
Take it from Steve Jobs to understand diversity’s value and significance. He recognized that a diverse team of smart and creative people was essential to the success of his company, and to the future of our nation’s global competitiveness. Because of his sincere commitment to diversity, who knows? The next great American innovator could very well be an African American, a Latino, a woman. The iPad and the iPhone are wonderful, but for me that would be Steve’s most enduring legacy.