Review: Sister Citizen, Melissa Harris-Perry

I am interested in the ways people are affected by representations of race, gender, sexuality, etc., in the media. It seems like Oscar Wilde was right all along: Life reflects art. If you watch gay people on TV you are more likely to want them to get married. And Melissa Harris-Perry is a feminist whose writing and thinking I like quite a bit. So when she writes a book about representations of black women in American culture, I’m obviously there.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (affiliate links: Amazon, B&N, Book Depository) is about the stereotypes that exist in American society about black women, and the ways that black women counteract those stereotypes, and the toll that counteracting the stereotypes can take. (See? It’s right in my wheelhouse!)

Harris-Perry begins by taking on the three classic stereotypical representations of black women: Jezebel (hypersexualized black woman), Mammy (docile, maternal black woman who serves white interests), and Sapphire (angry black woman). She talks about how these images have been used in the past to discredit and silence and generally make life crappy for black women. These are stereotypes that trivialize or deny the truths of black women’s lives: call a black woman angry and you make her an instant caricature with decades-old resonance. Her anger ceases to be a problem worth addressing (a response to injustice, to abuse, to poverty) and becomes a punchline instead.

The analysis of these stereotypes was good, though fairly basic and familiar (because I am familiar with Melissa Harris-Perry). For me, the book shines the most in the second part, which deals with disaster and with strength. Harris-Perry draws on a range of surveys over the past twenty years to discuss the ways that society perceives black women in times of disaster. Belief in a just universe tends to make people blame disaster victims for their own misfortunes, an effect that tends to be particularly strongĀ  when the victims are black women. (Cf Hurricane Katrina.)

Harris-Perry is fantastic when she talks about the stereotype of the strong black woman — this one a stereotype that often holds an important place in black women’s self-images (as well as the self-images of black communities). As much pride and comfort as this image can carry, it also inclines women who hold it about themselves to be less willing to seek out help, and thus more depressed and isolated than they would otherwise be.

If you’re interested in representation and its influences, I recommend Sister Citizen. It’s well-written and carefully researched, if at times a little basic, and Harris-Perry is good about pointing out the limitations as well as the strengths of the studies she cites. Melissa Harris-Perry is one of my favorite feminists working today: invariably thoughtful and interesting!

American/British cover
American/British cover

Cover report: No separate British cover. No winner. I do like this cover quite a bit, however. Well-done, cover design people.