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SISTER CITIZEN: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America

Melissa Harris-Perry

Citizenship in a democracy is about much more than casting votes. Citizens need and seek recognition of their rights and of their value as individuals. When the rights and value of all are recognized, democracy is working at its best. When the rights and value of some are not recognized, democracy fails its citizens.

In SISTER CITIZEN, Harris-Perry argues that persistent harmful stereotypes routinely interfere with black women’s claims to the full rights of citizenship. These stereotypes-invisible to many but painfully familiar to black women-profoundly shape black women’s politics, contribute to policies that treat them unfairly, and make it difficult for black women to assert their rights in the political arena.

Drawing on literature, on interviews, on news coverage of Hurricane Katrina, and more, Harris-Perry makes vivid the challenges black women face as they fight for recognition in a society that often sees them inaccurately. The experiences of women as they confront stereotypes that shame them, and the ways they feel about those experiences, are front and center in this groundbreaking book.

Harris-Perry identifies three myths, born of America’s unique and problematic racial history, that affect the ways black women are perceived. The Jezebel myth holds that black women are hypersexual and promiscuous and that their out-of-control sexuality must be regulated to prevent social disaster.  The Mammy myth paints black women as slavishly devoted to white interests. The Sapphire myth insists that black women are irrationally and perpetually angry. In defense against these humiliating stereotypes, black women have created a myth of their own, the Strong Black Woman, who can endure any hardship without relying on others and who sacrifices her own needs to ensure that her community prospers.

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Writing with clarity and passion, Harris-Perry uncovers the ways all four of these myths rob black women of political power. The Jezebel myth hampers public support of black female victims of sexual crime, for example, and fuels public anxieties about “welfare queens,” resulting in policies that penalize black mothers. The Mammy myth pushes black women to privilege race over gender in their politics and makes it difficult for them to partner with white women to demand gender equality. The Sapphire myth means that black women’s anger, no matter how well founded, is easily and often dismissed by policy makers as irrational. And the myth of the Strong Black Woman, though it counters the shame inflicted by other stereotypes, demands that black women put the needs of others first while bearing their own burdens silently and without help.

How does Michelle Obama navigate these stereotypes? How did media images of black women during Hurricane Katrina both reinforce and challenge these myths in the national consciousness? How well does the black church serve the political needs of black women and what role does it play in their political activism? What does Tyler Perry’s movie For Colored Girls tell us about the political climate for black women at this moment?  Sister Citizen examines these and many other questions in pursuit of a nuanced and accurate picture of American black women’s political lives.

Melissa Harris Perry on Race and Relations on C-Span

SISTER CITIZEN is sure to become an instant classic for black women and for all feminists, to spark intense debate about the nature of politics and of citizenship, and to accelerate the dismantling of barriers to full citizenship for all.

About the Author

Melissa V. Harris-Perry is professor of political science at Tulane University, where she is founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South. Her previous book, Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought, won the 2005 W. E. B. Du Bois Book Award from the National Conference of Black Political Scientists and 2005 Best Book Award from the Race and Ethnic Politics Section of the American Political Science Association. She is a columnist for The Nation magazine. Harris-Perry is a contributor to MSNBC, appearing as a bi-weekly guest on the Thomas Roberts Show and a frequent guest on the Rachel Maddow Show and The Last Word. She is a regular commentator for many print and radio sources in the U.S. and abroad. She lives with her family in New Orleans.

Make sure you keep up with what Melissa Harris-Perry is doing by visiting her website HERE


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