Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Righting the "Crooked Room" for Black Women: Melissa Harris-Perry's "Sister Citizen"

Melissa Harris-Perry
Political science professor and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry starts her new book, "Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America" by explaining the crooked room concept. Cognitive psychologists found that if you put study participants in a crooked chair in a crooked room and ask them to stand up 'straight,' some people would adopt the angle of the crooked chair and the crooked room. Some people would tilt themselves up to 35 degrees and tell the researchers that they were standing up straight--they changed their orientation to fit the room. Others, meanwhile, would find a way to not get disoriented by the confusing angles of the room and chair and stand up truly straight.

Harris-Perry uses this concept to frame her book, convincingly arguing:
"When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up."(p. 29)
Harris-Perry goes through the historical layers to explain how the Jezebel, Mammy and Sapphire stereotypes came to be, how they reinforce white supremacy and male dominance, and how they still deeply affect how politicians, journalists, juries and the general public see black women in America.

For instance, in 1923, a Mississippi senator introduced a bill proposing that the federal government establish a national Mammy monument on the National Mall, and the United Daughters of the Confederacy planned to pay for it. The Senate passed the bill...the very same Senate which had not passed an antilynching bill proposed less than a month before. Harris-Perry explains:
"While refusing to protect African American citizens from domestic terrorism, the Senate referred the Mammy monument bill to the House of Representatives, where fierce and prolonged resistance from the black press, black women's organizations, and ordinary citizens helped to kill it. Just when white women achieved the franchise and the promise of equal citizenship [through the Nineteenth Amendment, passed in 1920], a group of them sought to memorialize black women's subjugation and inequality." (p. 73-74)
But lest we think of patting ourselves on the back 90 years later, Harris-Perry notes that Mammy images are still alive and well contemporarily. Aunt Jemima and other food brands that celebrate the happy, subservient black woman still sell well; shows like Sex in the City drop in magical and two-dimensional black women to help white women; and films like "The Help" glorify and white-wash the lives of domestic black women workers.

After detailing the origins and lasting effects of the Mammy, Jezebel and Sapphire stereotypes, Harris-Perry's provides a nuanced analysis of the ways in which the strong black woman stereotype can also harm black women. Drawing from a few studies and a qualitative study of her own, Harris-Perry argues that although this stereotype is undoubtedly important for many women, it too can one-dimensionalize black women, allowing them only a narrow range of emotions and discouraging them from asking for help or demanding structural equity. The stereotype:

"[c]ontributes to a worldview that not only asks a woman to demonstrate superhuman strength for family, friends, and the community but also discourages her from empathesizing with the structural difficulties present in her own life and those of other black women." (p. 210) and "The strong black woman ideal  ... is still inadequate to allow black women to enjoy the benefits of recognition and therefore to opt into an experience of full citizenship." (p. 217)

And all that is just a fraction of the book. With her blend of social science data, historical research, and contemporary media and societal analysis, you feel like you're absorbing a lot of important information but the writing still flows well narratively. Harris-Perry even finds a way to include literary passages from Zora Neale Hurston, Alice Walker and others, adding even more dimensions to her portrait of and pressures exerted on black women in America.

Ever since I saw Melissa Harris-Perry as the keynote speaker at the National Conference on Race and Ethnicity in American Higher Education (NCORE), I am hooked! Wondering how I can audit one of her classes at Tulane...slash get cable so I can watch her daily on MSNBC.

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