To Search for Bearings: A Response to Melissa Harris-Perry’s Sister Citizen

by Shaun Terry

Melissa Harris-Perry is a writer, professor of political science, and important intellectual, especially for her work on African-American politics and intersectional feminism. She has published two books, written for The Nation, hosted a political editorial show, and she now works as editor-at-large for Elle.com.

In Sister Citizen, Harris-Perry describes the historical legacy of intersectional discrimination. She quotes the Combahee River Collective: “If Black women were free, it would mean that everyone else would have to be free since our freedom would necessitate the destruction of all the systems of oppression.” The point seems intuitive. If we accept empirical evidence that demonstrates that African-Americans and women are discriminated against, in unique ways and for unique reasons, then it stands to reason that African-American women face at least double jeopardy (I say “at least” because there may be an interaction to account for, which might suggest that the discrimination is greater than the sum of its parts).

The book is organized into five sections: the introduction; the crooked room; shame; the “strong black woman;” and Michelle Obama/the conclusion. Each section begins by borrowing a piece of literature to create affect that permeates its section. Excepting the introduction and conclusion, each section follows the borrowed literature with a chapter framing its important central concept and a chapter that supports the concept with empirical evidence and case studies.

To begin, Harris-Perry introduces the book’s theme: African-American women face unique challenges rooted in historical depictions of African-American women that are society, including African-American women themselves, internalize. After taking us through the complicated journey of Zora Neale Hurston’s Janie, from Their Eyes Were Watching God, Harris-Perry gives a prescription for what we might do with Sister Citizen. In referring to the treatment of Janie’s story by Janie’s friend, Harris-Perry says, “Phoeby’s task is to hear Janie’s story, be made taller by it, and use it to demand changes in the systems of racism and patriarchy that circumscribe American life,” before describing how we might do something similar.

The next section starts with a favorite quote of mine, from Audre Lord: “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” When considering disparate outcomes, it seems important to consider where power lies and what the tools of power are. The safest attempts to address inequities seem to necessarily require cooption of systems that create the imbalances. Perhaps, when dealing with oppressions, reconceptions of institutions and systems are appropriate for preventing reconcentrations of power among the historically privileged few.

Perhaps with something similar in mind, Harris-Perry describes one of the master’s primary tools for creating inequities that benefit the master and the master’s house: the crooked room. To define this idea central to her book, Harris-Perry refers to studies in cognitive science that observe how people attempt to reconcile up and down in rooms that are configured so as to confuse the issue. This serves as an analogue for experiences of African-American women. Society tells us that African-American women are people whom they are not, forcing African-American women to learn to blindly adjust, trying to avoid overcompensating or otherwise falling prey to misconceptions thrust upon them.

Harris-Perry defines three mythologies of African-American women: Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire. Jezebel is the overly sexualized African-American woman, Mammy is simultaneously the asexual African-American woman and white women’s unwaveringly loyal helper, and Sapphire is the angry and masculine African-American woman. Harris-Perry uses historical analysis, case studies, focus panels, and secondary sources to help define and locate these caricatures among American social understandings. She expresses the political importance in these problematic characterizations: “Although none of these stereotypes captures the complexity of black women’s lives, they have been powerfully and regularly reproduced in American political discourse and popular culture since the Civil War.” These stereotypes play an important role in how African-Americans hold “fictive kin” accountable.

Harris-Perry asserts that shame can play an important role in African-American women are viewed. She draws on Michael Dawson’s Behind the Mule and others to point out that African-Americans share a linked fate, albeit a nuanced one, and the psychological literature illustrates how shame relates society’s treatment of African-Americans to African-Americans’ lived experiences. W. E. B. DuBois assists: “How does it feel to be a problem?” But Harris-Perry does not altogether reject shame.

Harris-Perry makes a distinction between reintegrative stigmatizing shames, which has the possible redemptive virtue of reinforcing social values and cohesion, and stigmatizing shame, which is responsible for alienation and brutal forms of oppression. Harris-Perry posits that a society that shames a category of people distorts the experience of those people.

Harris-Perry describes how Hurricane Katrina and the Duke Lacrosse Case show that treatment of African-American women by society has been influenced by misrecognition. Endless coverage of Hurricane Katrina “offered many opportunities for recognition and misrecognition. Issues of race, gender, and politics were literally framed by what Americans saw.” Harris-Perry shows a racial difference in reactions to images of African-Americans from Hurricane Katrina; African-Americans were more likely to experience certain negative emotions than were whites, and these differences in emotional responses may have affected views on relevant policies. Whites were less likely than African-Americans to support, through whatever necessary means, the rebuilding of New Orleans and the repatriation of displaced Hurricane Katrina survivors. In a similar vein, African-American women experienced greater stress when receiving the news that Crystal Mangum seemed to have lied about the Duke Lacrosse Case. One of the tragedies is that the Duke case may have contributed to the perpetuation of unfair biases, despite that, among millions of people, any subgroup of people will surely contain some people who are sometimes dishonest and who sometimes make bad choices. But Harris-Perry shares how African-American women have constructed an alternative image of themselves.

Harris-Perry offers, “The strong black woman serves as a constructive role model because black women draw encouragement and self-assurance from an icon able to overcome great obstacles. She offers hope to people who often face difficult circumstances.” Indeed, throughout the book, Harris-Perry illustrates a compelling case for the “strong black woman” overcoming myriad obstacles represented by the crooked room. But she also cautions that “there are dangers to allowing this symbol to remain unchallenged at the center of African American understandings of womanhood. When black women are expected to be super-strong, they cannot be simply human.” She suggests that the self-defined archetype forms a prison that charges African-American women with being many things to many people, leaving very little of themselves for themselves and to themselves, leading many African-American women to heavily depend on God’s support.

Harris-Perry defines “womanism” as a theological term to describe African-American women who gracefully endure intersectional oppressions and survive—through God’s distant assistance—unthinkable obstacles, while others depend on them. African-American women are resilient in the face of oppression, as they wait to be properly recognized, even by the churches that they selflessly serve. In some ways, this is counterintuitive, as the church participates in the abuse and neglect of African-American women. Despite that, religion may represent the source of some African-American women’s strength, as some African-American women look to their roles in the church, and to their relationships with God, to help straighten their crooked room.

The book concludes by offering Michelle Obama as the most visible African-American woman in contemporary society and as one of the most successful in straightening her crooked room. Obama confronts the three stereotypes at different times, as well as typical sexist reactions by some elements within the media and some elements in society more broadly. Despite this, Obama seems to have defined herself on her own terms, managing to avoid some possible pitfalls to which society subjects African-American women. Instead, Obama perseveres through unfair mischaracterizations and willful hatred directed at her. There is, however, an obversal image to Harris-Perry’s monumental depiction of Obama’s resilience and grace in the face of the challenges with which Obama is confronted: Shirley Sherrod.

Sherrod’s case is significant for its juxtaposition against the hopefulness with which one might think of Michelle Obama. In fact, Barack Obama’s White House was complicit in the misrecognition and mistreatment of Shirley Sherrod. Harris-Perry explains, “Such cavalier disdain is hard to attribute to anything other than very deep, persistent assumptions about black women as unsavory and ultimately disposable.” As Michelle Obama worked to straighten the crooked room, her husband’s administration reminded us just how crooked the room can be.

We might classify Harris-Perry’s book as dealing with intersectional political complications that African-American women face. She attempts to answer whether socio-political treatment of African-American women is uniquely oppressive and limiting. Beneath this consideration lies questions of whether the contemporary political paradigm allows African-American women to achieve full citizenship and rights, how African-American women’s race and gender make them politically unique, and what factors have contributed to African-American women’s problematic situation.

Harris-Perry’s book ends without offering a new solution; instead, Harris-Perry suggests more of previously tried methods. Does the answer lie in more of this kind of effort? Perhaps, but should we conclude that there is no more helpful option? Harris-Perry offers, “African American women too often hesitate to demand resources to meet their individual needs,” before closing with a Shirley Chisholm quote about Chisholm’s desire to be viewed as authentic.

However, I feel that there could be helpful changes. My point is not that I oppose efforts to properly diagnose the problems. I find that kind of work important, but it might have been better for Harris-Perry to not imply a solution, and to simply give a compelling account of the reality. Instead, Harris-Perry’s book sometimes suffers from going partway in some of its efforts.

Harris-Perry’s book occupies an interesting space, if partly for her methodological approach. She uses the kind of Ordinary Least Squares linear regression models that pervade quantitative approaches to political science, along with focus panels, detailed historicizations, references to psychological research, and literary references that help to illustrate her points.

Sometimes, it seems that Harris-Perry compromises between not fully telling a narrative and not fully justifying her arguments. It feels like she is squeezing at least two books into one and that they require more space. The empirical story is often compelling, but she does not always take us fully from idea to empirical proof. She often requires us to make leaps of faith.

I find it important to acknowledge the limits of empiricism, but Harris-Perry comes up short in this concession, which counterintuitively seems to weaken her argument. She states, “I cannot tell a clear causal story, drawing neat arrows from stereotypes to black women’s emotional lives to their political choices.” She goes on to assert that there is value in her empirical work. That said, there does not seem to be a way for anyone to fully demonstrate causality, regardless of the academic field, so Harris-Perry may have been better served to have pointed that out instead of limiting the criticism to her writing.

Despite Harris-Perry’s concession that she cannot prove causality, she sometimes states things in absolute terms—for example: “That desperate survivors were portrayed as dangerous criminals was largely a result of the racialized nature of the Katrina disaster. Americans have long connected urban African American communities with crime.” While her logic here makes sense to me, it seems that she undermines her argument by stating it as though the association she draws must hold. To be clear, she immediately follows this with evidence to support her claim, but if she cannot make absolute claims to causation, then how can she make statements as above?

Harris-Perry’s book leaves me with other questions. Are the differences in whites’ and African-Americans’ opinions on policies after Katrina due to misrecognition of African-American women, as Harris-Perry suggests, or is it maybe due to differences in attitudes about government interventions in general? Despite her implication of the former, she does not fully convince. Also, is shame sometimes good? She asserts that it might be, but the empirical evidence that she provides seems to all line up on the other side of the argument. While Harris-Perry’s book came before the reification of Black Lives Matter in the minds of most Americans, it occurs to me that the Hurricane Katrina tragedy may have been a catalyst for sublating an understanding and perhaps even an ethos on which BLM may have been built.

Those issues aside, Harris-Perry stumbles upon a point that I find interesting. She alludes to political correctness on both sides of the Duke Lacrosse issue. Referring to an article by Charlotte Allen, Harris-Perry writes, “This rhetorical move casts into doubt the entire history of black women’s physical and sexual subjugation simply because Crystal Mangum lied about the assault in March 2006. The image of Jezebel is used to shame both contemporary black feminist scholars and the historical women whose lives are their source material.”

In note 48, on page 348, Harris-Perry refers to a response by Robyn Wiegman, Wahneema Lubiano, and Michael Hardt, in a paper titled, “In the Afterlife of the Duke Case.” Near the end, their response says,

“If this new trend increases its foothold among universities as the means to judge scholarly and teaching competence, the university hands over the regulation of research, individual faculty expression, student life, and teaching autonomy to the vigilantism of outsiders, including members of other university faculties who have used ‘Duke lacrosse’ for their own political gain. Universities will also concede the content of the terrain of social justice that was opened by the social movements to what might be termed the therapeutic logics of student services, whose hailing of specific minoritized groups within the increasing class homogeneity of the research institution will enable it to become ever more blind to the multiple publics that continue to vie for recognition, access, and legibility.”

I take this issue as a serious, timely one. Conceptions of political correctness sometimes conflate what seem to be two meanings: 1) the attempt, through language, to recognize historically marginalized groups; 2) the censorship of offending points of view. The reason to point this out in particular is that Harris-Perry’s rigid statements could have a possible chilling effect, discouraging discourse. If what she asserts are true facts, then there is no reason to quibble over them, despite that it could turn out that they would not hold.

In the end, these contentions would not lead me to dissuade anyone from reading Harris-Perry’s book. While I would prefer a more rigorous and precise treatment of the arguments, Harris-Perry draws from a wealth of interdisciplinary evidence to help undermine and criticize common ideas about race and gender, as well as helping to expose the apparent sources of many of these problematic ideas. I find her writing style highly readable and her interdisciplinary approach interesting and enriching, helpful to dismantle problematic ideas about race, gender, and particularly fraught questions regarding African-American women in particular. Especially, the use of psychological evidence—and even more particularly, the cortisol studies—formed bases for very interesting arguments.

I would recommend this book to anyone. The subject matter is too important and Harris-Perry’s argument is too cogent to be ignored. Her unique approach provides a refreshing departure from more predictable fare, even as these questions seem to be undervalued as research imperatives.

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