The Stories We Tell About Who We Are: Race, Gender, Making American Politics
By: Sara Grossman
Melissa Harris-Perry rooted her keynote at the 2017 Othering & Belonging conference in a simple proposition: belonging is foundational to our survival, but belonging alone is not enough.
Harris-Perry, the Maya Angelou Presidential Chair at Wake Forest University and former host of the Melissa Harris-Perry show on MSNBC, began her keynote speech,“The Stories We Tell About Who We Are: Race, Gender, Making American Politics,” with an illustration of the different ways belonging can manifest.
Her three-year-old, 15-year-old, and chicken all have very different ways of engaging with belonging, she said. Her three year old does not care or think about belonging at all, she said, while the 15-year-old is quite concerned about belonging—she wants peers and teachers to like her, parents to approve of her decisions. As for the chickens, well, they will die if not part of the flock. All of them, in their own ways, are engaging in the ways society is teaches about belonging. “Belonging matter,” Harris-Perry concluded.
Yet, she continued, it is equally as dangerous to assume that belonging, in and of itself, is an “absolute good”. While belonging is undeniably important, belonging alone won’t solve society’s most difficult challenges around race-based inequalities and injustices.
She offered three “false” narratives about belonging to demonstrate the limits to what belonging alone can offer.
The first erroneous story about belonging, Harris-Perry said, is that, “belonging is good, because we can’t be what we can’t see”—or the notion that belonging is critical because we need role models. But Black people have been exactly that since the founding of this country, she pointed out. She added that is one of the gifts of Black folks to “have the radical imagination to constantly be able to see” that which does not yet exist in front of them, like a Black president or scientist.
“The history of Black folks in America is constantly being what we don’t see,” she said.
The second misunderstood story about belonging, she continued, is that inequality can be eliminated with equal opportunity to belong. She pointed to the poorer health outcomes for the newborns of Black mothers, even when born into wealthier families. The babies of middle class black women babies are twice as likely to die before first birthday as their white counterparts, she said—and wealth and education didn’t improve these outcomes.
And, according to NPR, it’s not just related to higher poverty rates. For middle- and upper-class Black Americans, the pressure of being a minority in a white-dominant space, or even the only minority, can also have severe effects. Belonging, Harris-Perry said, can actually be related to bad birth outcomes.
Furthermore, Harris-Perry cited research on the wage gap suggesting that the gap doesn’t close as education level goes up. In fact, the gap continues or even widens between white and Black Americans who have both attained high levels of education.
The third narrative Harris-Perry sought to disrupt is the counterintuitive notion that Othering is bad. Sometimes, she said, the wisdom of the Other is what is most critical to the growth of a society. She discussed her experience with people who were surprised she is an academic.
“If I look like the maid to you, that makes sense,” she said, “because my grandmother Rosa Harris was a maid. I prefer to look like a maid than whatever it is you think a scientist looks like.”
We must disrupt the gender devaluation of the help, Harris-Perry said. It’s problematic when belonging simply means “fitting in” to the status quo. Those who are Othered in society oftentimes hold the most valuable and honest truths—and their insights can make us stronger. “The Others know that Trump voters are not uniquely deplorable,” she said. “They are reflecting the race and gender values enforced in our culture and history.”
She said that after the election, many distraught progressives lamented about what they should tell their children about the country and its leadership choices. Harris-Perry’s response was to ask: What have you been telling your children before this point? “If you asked that on November 9, what were you telling them before that?” she said.
“Rather than constantly asking to belong, democracy needs those who don’t want to belong,” Harris-Perry concluded. “We want to belong, but maybe we also want to be Othered. Never forget the artistry and power of the Other.”
Following her speech, Harris-Perry answered audience questions, notably from one attendee who asked why it was so difficult to reconcile her identity and challenges as a woman with those as an African American. Harris-Perry responded that many stories are told well in the Black community—including those about racism, police brutality, health, and more. “We tell the story of Emmett Till so we know what to do when we see Trayvon Martin,” she said. But stories about Black women are told less well.
“We tell none about rape, sexual assault, or the patriarchy, and as a result...we understand each one of those experiences individually, rather than within broader political framework,” Harris-Perry said. “We don’t know that rape is part of a thing, when babies die in our arms we don’t know it’s part of thing.”
The solution, she concluded, is in “uncovering, recovering, and putting our stories at the center.”
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