The XX Factor

DoubleX Book of the Week: Sister Citizen

Melissa Harris-Perry opens her new book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, with a cognitive psychology case study. Scientists studying how people orient themselves in space placed subjects in a tilted chair in a room where all the angles were crooked and asked them to position themselves upright. Some people were able to locate themselves vertically in space despite the misleading cues in the room, but others were only able to orient themselves based on their warped surroundings, standing at up to a 35 degree angle and claiming to be completely straight.

Harris-Perry, a professor at Tulane University and a frequent guest on MSNBC, claims that this is the challenge African-American women face every day. Immersed in a society where distorted and damaging images of black womanhood abound, African-American women struggle to find their authentic selves, their true upright, amidst a bombardment of warped external signals.

Sister Citizen is Harris-Perry’s exhaustive attempt to identify all the crooked angles in this particular room, to elucidate the way cultural assumptions about black women affect their personal lives –indeed, their personalities—on a daily basis. “We can characterize African American women’s struggle with the slanted images of the crooked room as a problem of recognition,” she writes. She examines archetypes like “Jezebel,” “Mammy,” the “strong black woman” or the “angry black woman,” which are so pervasive that even women who resist internalizing those caricatured identities are still viewed by society within the framework of those stereotypes. A woman who manages to find upright in a crooked room hasn’t won the battle: She’s still the one who appears to be at the wrong angle.

The way to approach this problem, Harris-Perry suggests, is to consider the personal experience of being an African American woman as political. “Political observers have largely failed to consider what we can learn about American politics by exploring the psychology of black women. This book is intended to correct that deficiency.”

Accordingly, she deviates from the traditional tone and style of a social science text, combining analysis with personal anecdotes, excerpts from influential novels and poems, interviews, and cultural criticism. This is the beauty of the book—the mélange of genres makes her driving question (“What does it mean to be a black woman and an American citizen?”) feel relevant, even urgent, and appropriately multidimensional.

Those looking for an impartial text won’t find it here –the book reads like a lengthy, compelling op-ed—but the insight and grace with which Harris-Perry tackles the thorny issue of African American women’s identity politics makes it a must-read, if only for the opportunity to reconsider the angles of your own room.