Professor/Pundit

Melissa Harris-Perry takes her political insights from campus to cable

Interview by Chris Geidner
Published on February 15, 2012, 9:57pm | Comments

(Page 4 of 5)

MW: You talk about these personal experiences, and how they shape your political perspectives and your life. What, even earlier on, were yours?

HARRIS-PERRY: My dad and mom are both real community activist kinds of people in different ways. My dad is a retired college professor, the first dean of African-American Affairs at the University of Virginia. So, we moved to Virginia in the mid-1970s.

This is a man who went to Howard University at the same time that Stokely Carmichael was there, was very much an advocate of black power community activism, very much a community development activist, so he always saw urban planning and housing as a way to do social justice work. I spent many, many hours as a child sitting in city planning meetings.

My mom has a very different background. She's a white woman who actually grew up Mormon in the West. So, when my dad was college roommates with Stokely Carmichael, my mom was at Brigham Young University. And I'm their kid. She went on to run community nonprofits during most of my childhood. She ran community-based day care centers, domestic violence shelters. She did the work of reproductive rights back before Roe v. Wade, so some of her work was during a time when abortion was legal in some states but not others, so they would provide safe houses to women who were crossing state lines to seek pregnancy terminations.

So there are the people who I grew up with. They were and are very clear that they're pretty uninterested in success by normal parental measures. It wasn't until I got to college that I found out there were people whose parents told them to make money. I can't even fathom the idea of my parents saying to me, ''You need to get a good job and make money.'' In fact, probably the opposite. The more money I make, the more they're worried about my eternal liberal soul.

Their directive was very clear: ''Go out into the world and do good.'' So, that was for me sort of my earliest experience. And, of course, growing up a black child in an interracial family in the immediate post-Jim Crow South. You can't miss all the political lessons of that.

MW: And, we now have a president who has taught America a lot about having grown up in an interracial family. As someone with a similar experience, how have you reacted to the way that America has taken Barack Obama?

HARRIS-PERRY: I'm constantly heartened by it. I know the rhetoric is really bad right now, and I know it feels ugly. In fact, we spend a lot of time on MSNBC pointing out the ugly rhetoric, and I think there's real importance in expressing it and putting in the light, in part so we can fight back against it, but I am such an optimist, I really am. It's sort of pitiful actually. I keep thinking that this is just the death rattle of this version of American racism. Not that we are on the precipice of a post-racial age, and any day now we're going to sing ''Kumbaya'' together in Benetton commercials. Not that. But that this particular version of assuming that a black body is inherently unequal and invaluable. It just seems so fringe to me as an idea right now. It seems to govern less and less of what human interactions are like.

And so, when I look at President Obama, I do not see perfection – not by my definition of liberal, lefty perfection, not at all. But, I do see his presidency, the first family, the visual images and the realities of him as both sometimes a real champion of progressive causes, sometimes a real champion for more authoritarian causes – but all of that challenges what it is we think ''the black guy in the room'' is, and in that way it's all good.

MW: You talk about this era of change – and a belief that it is getting better – on racial issues, but you've also been outspoken on issues of sexual orientation and gender identity – and their interrelation with race that some people shy away from.

HARRIS-PERRY: Again, I think, some of that moves to the personal and some of it is the professional. Which is to say that, for me, the question of LGBT rights is always read for me at least in part through my niece, who is 20 now. But she came out in ninth grade. Christina is her given name – everyone calls her Chris. Chris is not only gay, she is also gender non-conforming butch lesbian, and black, which also makes for some interesting times. So, it's not just a matter of what it means to be gay or not gay, but the ways in which her particular gender non-conforming self-presentation because she's butch has led her into experiences where she's had serious harassment and the kind of things that scare me and her mother to death. She presents often as male, but once people find out that she's not, the level of anger and violence that can generate is enormous.

On the one hand, I am just a good old-fashioned ally, HRC straight girl, who says we gotta have marriage equality, we gotta have ''Don't Ask, Don't Tell'' revoked, those are the big issues.

But, then I know that those things don't ultimately make nearly as much difference in Chris's life as the fact that she's going to look for housing in the next year or two. The issue is that when [she and her girlfriend] go in as a queer couple that they can actually be legally denied housing opportunities in most states in this country. Legally. She can't get a legal remedy for it, because sexual orientation and gender self-presentation are not covered under the Fair Housing Act. If she was being discriminated against because she was black, she could bring suit, but if the condo is full of black folks, it won't be because she's black, it will be because she's gay.

And I'm an academic, so there's also those issues. The other part is actually engaging with queer theory, which is trying to ask not just the most straightforward civil rights issues, but that full inclusion into the American project of lesbian, gay and transgender people should not just mean, ''Oh, good, now you can assimilate.'' It should mean that we have to challenge all of our assumptions as well. Expanding the citizenry ought to expand what the country is.

And I think that's the thing that is most terrifying to the right. It's why they keep saying, ''We gotta go back to this former America. We gotta go back, we gotta go back.'' And, it's the one thing that can never happen is the one thing that they keep saying we have to do. We're never going back. It's the one thing that will never happen, and it must just absolutely induce panic.


Call 202-638-6830 to advertise here in Marketplace