This multi-part series covering Melissa Harris-Perry’s book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, has discussed three main stereotypes faced by black women in America: the Jezebel, the Mammy, and the Sapphire. In discovering these tropes, Harris-Perry elucidates the themes that induce shame in this racial strata. And, these labels, misnomers, and caricatures work to further the societal ailment of misrecognition.
Harris-Perry thoroughly discusses the term misrecognition when she articulates the use of stereotypes to truncate opportunities, esteem, and worth initiatives for black women. What is misrecognition? It is the misjudgement or mis-characterization of an entire person’s self based on perceived or assumed traits (positive or negative). Misrecognition is inherent in race-based stereotyping because it a) assumes that a perfect stranger can accurately gauge another individual’s race, ethnicity, or heritage from perception alone, b) seeks to identify certain behaviors as attributable to their own understanding of said race, and c) relies on very limited information or exposure to make those judgements.
Misrecognition is extremely powerful. And, it plays directly into the notion of the crooked room. The crooked room says that an individual is only one of several predesignated characters. And, it assigns folks into categories based on those imagined and pre-fitted roles. Once those roles are assigned, individuals are measured by their congruence with these crooked images. And, when they fall in line with negative images like Sapphire or Jezebel, they are shamed for their behavior.
So what is shame exactly?
Were you ever that kid who got a whoopin’ in the church bathroom? Maybe you got pulled out of a room by your ear? Or, better yet, maybe you and your cousins had to go outside and pick a switch to get your punishment after having a pillow fight? I was all of those kids. And, if you experienced these things, then you, like me, have experienced re-integrative shaming. This type of shaming usually comes from authority figures or parents who use punishment in a more public setting to teach you acceptable behaviors.
For example, a child with a cursing problem might be forced to wash his or her mouth out with soap. And, that action, though disgusting, teaches the child to remove the dirty words from his or her vocabulary. But, as long as it isn’t followed up by repeated extremes and the child is welcomed back into the loving family with no strings attached, the act is neither exclusionary nor permanent.
But, there is a different, much more diabolical form of this punishment called stigmatizing shame. Stigmatizing shame does not seek to teach the individual much except that his or her whole person (not the behavior) is bad. Stigmatizing shame was a foundational aspect of slavery and Jim Crow. It said, in a sense, that black people were inherently bad, dirty, unclean, wanton, and barbaric. Instead of attributing certain features to certain individuals, it inspired the adoption of collective stigmas associated with the entire group in order to subjugate and reduce all of the individuals within the group.
Stigmatizing shame teaches LGBTQ folks to stay “in the closet.” It teaches those who have been victims of sexual assault to keep quiet so they don’t seem like they somehow welcomed the abuse. Stigmatizing shame teaches young women and men climbing the social ladder to hide their poor beginnings. And, for black women, stigmas about natural hair textures, eating habits, voice tempo and volume, career choices, child rearing, and a host of other things have taught us to hide behind a variety of more “acceptable” social norms.
Any of this stuff sound familiar?
One key characteristic in the collective shaming of black women is a term Harris-Perry calls fictive kinship.
“The term ‘fictive kinship’ refers to connections between members of a group who are unrelated by blood or marriage but who nonetheless share reciprocal social or economic relationships.”
This notion of innate connection to others in a social group helps to draw pride from images like President Obama. But, conversely, the same kinship draws shame from folks like Shawty Lo or Kanye West. It is this kinship that leaves the black community reeling when a prominent black figure cheats on his wife or goes into a fit of rage on national television. And, it is this same kinship that helps to reiterate societal pressures to avoid unsavory images at all costs.
According to Harris-Perry, feelings of shame occur when we feel exposed to and in disappointment of a “real or imagined audience.” Shame happens when we become worried about what other people might think. Eerily though, Harris-Perry notes that, “when we feel ashamed, we assume the room is straight and that the self is off-kilter.” So, if the self is indeed “off-kilter,” we are then normalizing the crooked behavior and marginalizing our true identities.
When this happens, individuals become desensitized to obscure images of themselves and one another and snuggle into the comfortable slot carved out for them in the crooked room. And, in many cases, the shame works to keep people, who would otherwise be socially mobile, in a repetitive cycle of immobility, thereby validating the crooked images. This is called self-fulfilling prophecy.
But, what happens when someone who actually isn’t one of those crooked images is treated like they are? I am glad you asked. I’ve got a scenario for that.
Well, in the last installment of this series, I left off with a riveting story of my arrest for school truancy. And, after reading this book, that situation became so much clearer to me. I realized that that cop was attempting to shame me. And he was succeeding.
Gather ’round folks…I’m going to finish the story…
“It is instances like these that produce those angry little black girls. It is instances like these that harden feminine hearts. It is instances like these that prove that neither academia nor athleticism nor altruism can work to defray the weight of the burdensome angry black woman load. And, in fighting this white cop, I was fighting against a larger societal vision for me. I was attempting to stand against something much bigger than myself to no avail.”
The cop took me to a middle school about 15 miles away from my high school. He never said a word to me for the entire ride.
“Is this a real cop car? Like where criminals ride?”
“Why am I in the backseat?”
So, I sat there with my thoughts. Crying. And, crying. Then, I stopped. I literally just stopped. I was pissed off. I was angry. I was REALLY angry. As we pulled up, I saw a line of black kids going into the truancy center. They were girls, boys, some of them looked grown. And, there were cops everywhere. Laughing and chatting. Drinking coffee. But they weren’t talking to the kids.
The cop took me out of the car cradling my head on the way out of the vehicle like he actually gave a crap.
“Okay, go stand in that line. Give them your name and what school you came from. Go upstairs and they will have reading material for you. You can do homework also.”
“I don’t have my homework. You picked me up at second period and wouldn’t let me get my backpack. When can I go home?”
“That is up to you parents.”
I laughed to myself, “parents.” Whatever. I got in line behind a girl with super long finger nails and braids and waited to tell some chick who I was so I could ruin my otherwise perfect school record. Once I handled that deed, I went upstairs and sat at the smallest table known to man in a room full of other high school students sitting at similar tables. There were no adults in the room. It was like baby detention or something.
On the tables they had little pamphlets with phrases like “why am I here?” and “what is a truant?” I was over it. Done. A lady came over to me and asked me if I wanted to call my mom or dad. Once I did, I realized that no one really gave a crap that I was in baby prison for the day. My mother and my brother (because dad was the no-show type) were not going to exit their quaint little daily plans for me to get back to my academic studies and perfect grades.
My teachers weren’t going to put out an APB. And, life would go on. I looked around at everyone else, and they all looked as if they felt the exact same way. We were corralled in this room away from our friends, not talked to, not addressed, and basically shunned to make a point. We were bad. Being a truant was bad. And therefore, we were bad. The reasons didn’t matter. The intentions didn’t matter. All that mattered was the color of our skin and the location of our feet on a curb during school hours.
And, it worked. I felt ashamed. I prayed that I would never see these people again. I prayed that no one from my church had seen me in the cop car. I prayed that my purse and backpack would be safe for the remainder of the school day. And, I prayed that someone would at least acknowledge me. And, when my brother came to get me a few hours later, his nonchalance and ineffectual attitude showed me that he thought I was bad too. And, his feelings made me feel even more ashamed.
The shame was almost inescapable. And, that was the point. That white cop did his job that day…
To be continued…When Shame is an Action Word and Reactions to Shame
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