Sister Citizen, Melissa V. Harris-Perry

The full title of Harris-Perry’s book is “Sister Citizen; Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America” and the cover specifies that the book is “For Colored Girls Who’ve Considered Politics When Being Strong Isn’t Enough.” Harris-Perry’s book is unique in its subject matter and approach. She takes four dominant stereotypes of black women in the United States and provides a historical trajectory for them from slavery to the Civil Rights Movement to the present day. In the process, Harris-Perry uses literary criticism, political science theory, theological theory, statistical data, psychological studies, and data from her own focus groups held across the country. Sister Citizen aims to study black women as citizens of the United States and to question how their politics are formed and deformed by the state’s (mis)recognition of them.

Much of Harris-Perry’s book relies on the idea of recognition. Without accurate recognition, she argues, individuals cannot successfully fulfill their role as citizens.

Individuals denied access to the public realm or whose group membership limits their social possibilities cannot be accurately recognized. An individual who is seen primarily as a part of a despised group loses the opportunity to experience the public recognition for which the human self strives. (38)

Ignoring race, however, does not translate to adequate or accurate recognition. “Color-blindness” (Steve Colbert comes to mind), Harris-Perry explains, does not equal satisfactory recognition: “Many African Americans…want to be understood as black and thus tied to a history and culture associated with blackness. At the same time, they do not want to be reduced to their racial identity alone. Just recognition means being neither blind to nor blinded by identity differences.” (39)

Harking back to the marginalization–and often exclusion–of women of color within the Second-Wave Feminist Movement, Harris-Perry presents an intriguing perspective on why black women tend to feel more solidarity with black men than with white women: “Racial loyalty inures against the harsh community critique of performing the Mammy. To show that they are not mammies, African American women are often required to demonstrate racial loyalty over and above gender solidarity.” (80)

Taking the theme of recognition further, Harris-Perry references post-World War II cognitive psychology research on field dependence–how individuals locate the upright in a space. She points to one study in particular in which participants were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and asked to align themselves vertically. Of this study, “some people could be tilted by as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images equally tilted” (29).

Harris-Perry invokes this experiment repeatedly throughout her book, using the study as a metaphor for the “crooked room” black women live in: “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…some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion…It can be hard to stand up straight in a crooked room” (29). Harris-Perry very strategically uses this analogy when explaining the consequences of shame. “When we feel ashamed, we assume the room is straight and that the self is off-kilter. Shame urges us to internalize the crooked room” (105). Her connection here is anything but arbitrary, and the ways in which she manipulates this research to illustrate her point is impressive.

Harris-Perry utilizes another psychological concept in order to emphasize her thesis: belief in a just world.

Psychologists have found that people’s belief in a just world helps explain how they react to innocent victims of negative life circumstances. People become cognitively frustrated when presented with stories of victims who suffer through little fault of their own. They can deal with this frustration in two ways: they can conclude that the world is an unjust place, or they can decide that the victim is somehow to blame. Most people reconcile their psychological distress by blaming the victim. (188)

Just as with the metaphor of the crooked room, Harris-Perry capitalizes on a psychological study to deeply engage readers with her perspective. The idea of a just world is incredibly understandable (optimism). Unfortunately, so is the logical progression toward victim-blaming. “When the idea of justice and fairness is threatened by the suffering of innocents, people will work hard to maintain a sense of balance even if it means rationalizing that innocent people deserved to suffer” (189). Harris-Perry shows how the seemingly innocent desire to believe in a just world translates politically to conservatism, where each individual is responsible for their own success or failure.

One of the most fascinating and relevant perspectives Harris-Perry offers is her explanation of republican conservatism among black women. Even though black women as a group arguably suffer most from structural inequalities rooted in racism and sexism, Harris Perry writes, they often lean toward political conservatism (207). Harris-Perry explains that even though the Democratic party is more interested in social programs aimed to give aide to those suffering from systemic inequity, the stereotype of “the strong black woman” compels black women to focus on individual triumph and accountability over government programs:

It is possible that attachment to self-reliance pushes black women in a politically conservative direction by encouraging a politics of self-help rather than one of structural change. The intuition is simple: to the extent that black women believe they are naturally endowed with a superhuman capacity to overcome life’s obstacles, they may be less likely to support political agendas and public policies that seek to dismantle the structural barriers facing black women and more likely to support those aimed at individual empowerment. (207)

Harris-Perry’s writing is elegant and clear and her subject fascinating and well-researched. At times I felt bogged down by her focus on statistical data, but her literary analysis coupled with a political-scientific approach resulted in a truly interesting and worthwhile read. I recommend Sister Citizen to anyone who enjoys reading cultural, social, historical, and literary commentary.

Melissa Harris Perry has a new weekend show on MSNBC that will air February 18th at 10am.

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About Madeleine Gyory

Madeleine is a social media butterfly who tweets (and does some other things) for the Women's Media Center, a media advocacy non-profit based in NY. She loves reading, particularly stories by and about women. She graduated from Barnard College, and has spent time teaching English in Ecuador. Her favorite writers are Alice Walker, Toni Morrison, and Jonathan Safran Foer.
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