October 31, 2008

Visiting politics professor explores how experience of shame is linked to race

Melissa Harris-Lacewell, associate professor of politics and African-American studies at Princeton University, presented a chapter of her book-in-progress, “Sister Citizen: Black Women’s Politics in the Crooked Room,” Thursday afternoon at the Centers for Gender/Race Studies.

Harris-Lacewell’s work discussed the impacts of shame on black women’s political agency, examining the phenomenon by “taking seriously the lives of African American women as a site of political work,” she said.

Harris-Lacewell said that black women who had memories of race-based shame during their childhoods had statistically lower birthrates than those who did not have memories of this type of experience.

Despite positive role models from Harriet Tubman to Serena Williams, Harris-Lacewell argued that black women also identify with shame at transgressions of others members of their community.

Harris-Lacewell gave the example that, if white women hear news of Paris Hilton’s latest debauchery, they do not experience shame, but when black people found out that the D.C. sniper was black, they did.

The conversation also explored Barack Obama’s place as a role model. Harris-Lacewell commented that Obama’s place in the political spotlight has required the McCain-Palin campaign to redefine whiteness.

“Obama went to Harvard; in achievement, in wealth, he’s out-whited the whitest,” she said. “Dumb is the new white…It’s the lowest common denominator of whiteness that’s the rallying point.”

A workshop member interjected: “McCain and Palin are straight-up keepin’ it real.”

Laughter filled the room.

“This wasn’t supposed to be about the election. This is the University of Chicago. Can’t we just stay on topic?” Harris-Lacewell said.