5 Things To Take Away From The Melissa Harris-Perry And bell hooks Talk On Black Womanhood And Race

November 11, 2013  |  

As Melissa Harris-Perry said in her introduction at the Black Female Voices: Who is Listening? public conversation on race and black womanhood, “nobody comes to black feminism except through bell hooks first.”

If you haven’t yet seen the discussion between Melissa Harris-Perry and bell hooks, the MSNBC talk show host and the acclaimed feminist theorist, you are in luck as The New School (as well as the Melissa Harris-Perry show website) has made the more than 90-minute discussion available online. You can also watch it on the last page of this article. The video is a strong reminder of why hooks remains one of the most constructive post-colonial feminists to ever exist at the intersection of race, gender and class. Melissa Harris-Perry was also outstanding as a facilitator, which I will discuss more later. I truly believe that even women and men, who do not identify as feminists, will appreciate the candid and overall fearless way in which both scholars give their critique on race, sexism, classism and white domination – well, at least some of you will.

Here are a few takeaways I got from the discussion:

You’re not angry just because you are a black woman, you are angry because there is something to get angry about: Earlier in the discussion Perry and hooks reflected on the challenges black women must deal with when trying to be a dissenting voice in the face of labels such as “difficult” or “angry.” It was a label, hooks said she has endured throughout her career, most memorably by white feminists after the release of her first book. As hooks contends, most times she is just being “exact” and “precise” in her thoughts, however, she also reminds us that sometimes, she gets mad too: “I’m one of those black women, who if I am angry you are going to know I am angry and I am going to own my anger.” Perry cosigned that sentiment and told the story of the backlash she received after her now infamous segment of the Melissa Harris-Perry show when she abruptly challenged her guest, economist Monica Mehta, with the profound question of What’s riskier than living poor in America? Like hooks, Perry too was labeled by folks in the press as “angry” and “having lost it,” when in all actuality, she was just speaking up at what were some pretty ridiculous attacks against poor people.

What’s great about this particular part of their conversation was not only did it delve into how these labels are often used to dismiss and marginalize a black woman’s voice, but also through this conversation, we get to see push-back to the idea that being mad is irrational. As Perry put it:

 “I’m mad but I am mad about something. I am not mad at the inherent aspect of my blackness or my womanhood. I can be difficult, right. Man, I can be difficult. But so are all the white guys…that difficulty is presumed to be legitimate whereas ours are seen as illegitimate.”

Poor folks are people without access to livable amounts of money – and that’s it: Her name was Tanya Fields and she stood at the mic, several months pregnant with her fifth child, to deliver a very candid and unapologetic testimony about what is often the patronizing and condescending ways in which feminists (of all stripes) will speak of feminist single mothers who live below the poverty level:

As a low income black mother, I have been struggling to find my voice. And I have been using my platforms Facebook, Twitter etc. to talk about being this whole person and what it means to be unmarried with three baby daddies and four kids. The push back that I am often feeling is not from the white folks in the community. It is from the other sisters who tear me down. Tell me that the reason why I am low income is because I didn’t have the insight to choose good men. That I should have kept my hands out and my mouth closed and my legs closed…It stops you from wanting to have that voice…

Even in the best of intentions, folks have a tendency to treat people of of lower-income levels, paternalistically. As someone who was reared below the poverty line, I can say for certain that nothing is more annoying than having someone relate to you as some sort of cause meant to be fixed or saved. You may think it’s helpful until you realize that there is an entire aid establishment built upon this thinking and yet, folks aren’t getting less poor. And as a former poor child, who followed the scheme of graduating college, avoiding premarital pregnancy and managing my money well – you know, the opposite of stuff folks like to throw in poor people’s faces as the reasons why they are poor – I’m still only a paycheck or two away from reluctantly reclaiming my financial roots. Therefore, as feminists, it is important that we seeks to empower women and not paternalize them. 

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