black women

Melissa Harris-Perry Discusses American Media’s Representation Of Black Women

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melissa harris-perryby Afiya J. Watkins

Professor Melissa Harris-Perry is not afraid to tackle the controversial subjects that some aren’t comfortable addressing. Many dismiss the concerns of Black women who lament poor representations of themselves in media, but in an in-depth discussion she sits down with image activist Michaela Angela Davis to unpack the devastating effects of misrepresentation and their real consequences.

In this forum Harris-Perry discusses ideas about racism and sexism from her book, “Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in Americain which she offers several examples of the quandary and juxtaposition many black women find themselves. Often unable to be recognized as having legitimate needs and concerns, black women are stereotyped as “angry” for voicing their displeasure over things that unfairly impact them. This description is routinely used to invalidate, scapegoat and rob them of their collective voice. “Our anger is always irrational anger. We are seen as inherently angry”, she asserts.

Harris-Perry uses Michelle Obama’s experience at Princeton University to illustrate how black women are deemed as being “ungrateful” when they have ascended to heights usually reserved for privileged whites, but are marginalized once there. Mrs. Obama, who rightfully earned her admission to Princeton, wrote in her thesis that she felt relegated to the periphery of campus life and was made to feel like a visitor who was lucky to be there. The feeling of being an outsider is a common one for black women in many segments of this society, but it is an emotion that is unwelcomed and inconvenient to discuss.

Historically, the black woman’s place in American culture has been reduced to the images of Mammy (a subjugated domestic worker) which Harris-Perry states “evokes romantic remembrance of the happy slave” or Jezebel, the overly sexualized woman who is to be a whore in order to justify the historic sexual objectification and brutalization of black women and lend credence to the white purity myth. These are empirical descriptions that have been indelibly etched into the American culture. Harris-Perry eloquently chronicles the history of these stereotypes and why they exist.

Double consciousness, a term coined by W. E. B. Du Bois that refers to the psychological challenge of reconciling an African heritage with a European upbringing and education. Harris-Perry believes many African Americans employ this as a means of coping with the alienating and demoralizing effects of racism and classism.

Whether to conform or not to conform is a question that keeps many at odds with their intrinsic selves and are key factors that give relevance to the notions of “The Politics of Recognition and Respectability” and is a reason for behaviors such as “code switching”- a way of navigating certain social and political constructs. Harris-Perry discusses these ideas in great detail stating (among other things), that mainstream society is only interested in “black cool” and “swagger” to the extent to which they can profit from it. Otherwise, it is something to be controlled and policed.

Central to the discussion are also important themes such as: the failure of the Black community to address concerns of the LGBT, AIDS/HIV, intravenous drug use, etc., and the social and racial impact of Hurricane Katrina. Harris-Perry also bravely discusses her own professorship and feelings of alienation during her tenure and subsequent career.

Overall, a brilliant and thorough discussion on how the emotional lives of black women, in particular lead to political choices. If there is one resounding take-away, it is probably the fact that our hurt, pain and suffering are not politically relevant. But if you are a black woman in this society, you probably aren’t just coming to that realization.

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8 Comments

  1. Tott

    March 1, 2014 at 10:21 am

    Very on point. In school, at the private, small liberal-arts college I attended and later during grad school I was usually either the only black person or 1 of 2 blacks; or for a period, the other being a biracial male, raised by a white mama who could not relate to me, nor I to him. He was tight with the whites. I was cordial with them, but was mostly alone. At many jobs, I was the only black woman In my position or in my department; Today…I’m so used to it that when I enter a new situation and people try to ” freeze me out” I laugh and think ” believe me I’ve been excluded by the best!” While heart- wrenching at the time because I was young, I am now older and stronger and had The Lord on my side helping me all the way.
    During those years in college and at work, think of all the degrading images, profiles and suggestions about black women that I have endured during films, discussions and in books. Sometimes it was implied, not said. I never had the courage or knowledge to write a book like the one in the article. I toyed with the idea of exploring the concept as my thesis because I knew it would be unique, but I wasn’t able to devote the time or energy and frankly, I did not trust my professors to give it the consideration it deserved.
    I plan to share this article and will seek out Harry-Perry’s book. Thank you Ms. Perry for putting the work in. Would that it could become the basis for a college course!

  2. Anastasia

    March 1, 2014 at 12:16 pm

    Black women are angry. Always angry about something. That is one reason no one likes them. ^^^It is not about freezing you out, it is about preventing forseeable and unnecessary drama.

  3. p jones

    March 1, 2014 at 1:49 pm

    We Black people will always be a “guest” in someone else’s institution!!! We should all return to our own HBC and support them with our money.

  4. Carolyn M.

    March 1, 2014 at 6:34 pm

    P Jones you are so right. We have not received and/or believe that fact. Anastasia what are your comments based on? Have you walked in a black woman’s shoes? Foreseeable and unnecesssary drama? Pls explain.

  5. ana

    March 1, 2014 at 6:56 pm

    American Media’s Representation of Black Women is innacurate and also sometimes offensive…The Media must also be willing and courageous enough to acknowledge and address their failures.The American Media should be held Accountable for what they publish and accept sound criticism just as they often dish out to others…Journalism is not promoted when wrongdoing in the profession is defended.For The American Media,that means pursuing the truth fearlessly,but responsibly…It’s a Teachable Moment.”

    • Angella W.

      March 1, 2014 at 9:01 pm

      I totally agree with Ana,American Media and society in general does misrepresent Black women. Black women are not angry, we’re fed up with being judge and stereotype. There is a plethora of Black women in this world that are highly educated, intelligent, strong, courageous, authentic, tenacious, open-minded, independent, leaders, knowledgeable, sexy, sensitive, fun and most of all Black,Beautiful and proud. All Black women don’t have to exploit themselves for notoriety or acceptance into a world which could care less about well-being the Black woman. I don’t think or adamantly that Beyoncé is the spokeswoman for all Black women my personal choices are Angela Davis and Nikki Giovanni, Maya Angelou and Cicely Tyson just to mention a few. These Black women have stories to tell, we see their glory, yet we know only a bit of their life story, I don’t believe their angry. Real black women who look at life with an open-mind and respect are fed up with ignorance, injustice, discrimination and the American Media/Society that label all Black Women as angry we’re not angry we’re gifted and Black deal with..

  6. Gwen

    March 1, 2014 at 8:52 pm

    It amazes me how ignorant people like Anastasia can make a comment that Black women are angry. She sets herself up to speak about millions of women she does not even know. However her opinion means absolutely nothing to Black women because we don’t give a rats a## what she or others like her think. We never have and never will. What would do her a world of good would be to take a good look at herself and work on her on issues.

  7. Rebecca

    March 2, 2014 at 11:12 am

    Thank you Gwen. I could not have said it better.

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