Commentary on the Crooked Room: Melissa Harris-Perry Shines a Light On How Perception Affects Black Women

A recent sequence of posts about Black women, perceptions of beauty, and our inability to accept compliments rekindled a desire in me to write about Melissa Harris-Perry’s most recent work, Sister Citizen (2011). Though the prose is primarily political in nature, there were two core theories presented that resounded with me. So much so, I believe that much of the internal and external characteristics I possess today have been significantly augmented for the better.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, released in September 2011,  is a lovely and intelligent book about the images in the media that work to define Black women and their roles in American society. And though the prolific Cornel West has had much to say about Harris-Perry’s work, many contemporary, non-male scholars and commentators have accepted her presence as both necessary and legitimate.

The Crooked Room

Ever heard of the theory of the “crooked room?” If you haven’t, maybe you have heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. They are quite similar. I parallel the two because they both hint on the concept that [wo]men exist in a sort of a vaccuum and until enlightened to the pretense of their environments, they mentally assimilate with whatever their surroundings may be. The crooked room is a central point of reference for Harris-Parry’s work and is summarized as follows:

“In one study, subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically. Some perceived themselves as straight only in relation to their surroundings. To researchers’ surprise, some people could be tilted as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted. But not everyone did this: some managed to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images were.

When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.”

What exactly does Harris-Perry mean when she notes that Black women “tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion?” Ever heard of a young lady named Beyoncé? Did you think that was her natural hair color? skin texture? eye color?

 

Yes, in its simplest sense, it looks like colorism at its finest. This beautiful and talented 9 year old girl…

 

 

 

…grew up to be a gorgeous young black woman who hit major stardom in the mid-1990s…

 

…but, by the early 2000s, her attire, skin tone, and hair texture had already begun to change…

 

 

…till we reach now…where she basically resembles a very beautiful, non-descriptly ethnic woman…

 

On Giving In to the Room We Live In

Some will criticize this post as hating. But, the truth is, no matter what Beyoncé does to her hair, body, or otherwise does not take away from her talent. But, her transformation over the last twenty years is indicative of a larger phenomenon affecting Black women. Her mere presence and bountiful success works in two interesting ways.

  1. It shows young Black girls that there is a possibility to come from humble beginnings and make it big one day. Her symbolism reinforces the notion of the “American Dream.” You know, the one where you pull yourself up from your bootstraps and whatnot.
  2. On the other hand, Beyoncé’s physical changes garnering such accolades and praise (like being named People Magazine‘s “Most Beautiful Woman in the World” in 2012 after the magazine’s hiatus on Black women from Halle Berry gracing the cover 9 years earlier) sends dual messaging to young women and boys about what Black women are “supposed” to look like. It says that a beautiful young woman with countless talent still has to transfigure herself to be deemed beautiful by the rest of the world. So, what if you deem yourself less talented or less beautiful than she was to begin with? What then?

In that case, many women simply give in to the crooked room they are living in. In other words, they behave in a way that contorts and shifts into lockstep with the world around them. And though it may make them feel more beautiful, it never quite seems to satiate their desire to be loved, appreciated, honored, or respected. This is one of the central issues affecting Black women’s self-imaging. Why can’t we take compliments? Well, because the bestow-er must be disingenuous right? I’m no Beyoncé, right? Even she has to change herself to be pretty. So, I have to do something even more extreme, right?

We all live in this crooked room. And, not only does it make it hard for us to receive compliments, it makes it hard for us to give them too. This is especially so when it comes to other Black women. Innate competition between us about hair length, skin tone, material possessions, and all types of other inconsequential indicators of self-worth impair our abilities to appreciate each other. Ever walk outside thinking you were just doing it, (hair did, nails did, everythang did…) only to have one of your girlfriends rip you a new one? Was your head up too high so they had to ground you real quick? The crooked room tells us that ain’t nobody “all that.” And, even if they think they are, we can find something about them to get them back in their place.

I will end this on a personal note since there is much more to be said in a future post. Growing up as a brown girl in a brown world, my world was always slightly off-kilter. But, my mother put me in diverse schools with students of many different ethnic backgrounds. So, I was fortunate enough to have my world constantly tilting on its axis every time I went to school, church, or family gatherings. I got a multitude of images and social norms from numerous  sources which almost made me crazy at times. But, it was their intersection that elucidated the center of my planetary mass. Somewhere in the center, I realized that some of the boys didn’t like me, they preferred the girls with longer, “whiter” hair. And, in some cases, the boys really liked me because I appeared easier to get than those other girls.

One thing that always stuck out to me was a very subtle thing: courtesy. At school, during flu-season, everyone would constantly sneeze. The teacher would sneeze, and the class would say “God bless you” in unison. A Hispanic boy would sneeze, similar levels of bless yous. An Asian girl would sneeze, more bless yous. Then, I would sneeze, silence…to this very day, I find myself in crooked rooms where this is the norm. And, it wasn’t until reading Harris-Perry’s book that I realized the polymorphic existence I had always inhabited wasn’t my own creation. It was the endless tilting of the endless rooms that I was gliding through on a daily basis. And, there were times when I appeased them. In one room, I would try to seem more “black.” I’d roll some syllables and purposely relax my diction in certain company. And, I’d perform the equal and opposite actions in other tilted rooms.

But, one day, I simply said enough was enough. I stood up straight in all my rooms. And, though I found it jarring at first (because some rooms were surprisingly more tilted than others – I mean damn near 90 degrees askew), I found that my straightened form made everything very clear to me. I demanded the same treatment as everyone else. I demanded the same respect as everyone else. And, I defined my most linear plane. It may be crooked to others, but that’s simply because they are walking around like some Smooth Criminals…think about it. Ever found yourself in a crooked room? Heck, you may be in one right now…

To be continued…The Mammy, the Jezebel, the Sapphire, and Shaming

Buy the book here.