Melissa Harris-Lacewell: An amazing black female public intellectual whose research is placing black American women front and center. I shouldn’t idolize anyone, but when you are feeling like the academics around you really don’t appreciate the work of black people or about black people, seeing her today did a lot for me. I’d already been familiar with her public work, and I cannot say enough about how her presence in the world of political punditry and in talking about issues affecting black folk has motivated me to continue to talk about what is important to me.
She has a new book coming out, part of which she spoke about today. She connects racial pride to racial shame and uses the work of wise literary grandmothers Toni Morrison and Zora Neal Hurston to speak to the shaming of Black women. She then connects it to current events that involve the shaming of black women of all classes. Finally she talks about current images of Black womanhood and strategies that black mothers and grandmothers have been using at least since Jim Crow to instill a sense of racial pride in our girls to overcome racial shame. Harris-Lacewell is a political scientist, and she draws it all together to talk about how this shaming of Black female identity has adverse consequences for Black women in the political sphere.
Interestingly enough, in my work, I argue a similar point in my work, but of course from a sociological standpoint. I identify “racial capital,” as a companion to cultural capital, that racial minorities draw upon to maintain racial authenticity and compensate for low racial status. I argue that these two demands – authenticity and compensation to “get along” in a white world – have typically been thought of as competing with one another. For example, “acting black” by speaking non-standard English is at odds with “working twice as hard to get half as far.”
But what I found is that, at least among some middle-class blacks (who fortunately do not have to deal with many of the economic pressures of the working class, and therefore have time and resources to put some stratgies into action), racial socialization strategies have created new meanings of “blackness” to counteract the negative, stigmatizing and shaming images of black people. In this way, some middle-class black parents are redefining what it means to be authentically “black” while also teaching their children about the realities of race and prejudice so they can compensate for it when they come up against it. My last couple of paragrapsh before “data and methods”:
The focus of this paper is the black middle class. While he was speaking of all blacks in America, DuBois’s (1903 (1989)) articulation of the answer to the question, “How does it feel to be a problem?” is indicative of the duality many middle-class Blacks feel today:
It is a particular sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings, two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder (p. 3)
It is the implication of this “double-consciousness” that corresponds to what Neckerman, Carter, and Lee (1999) call a “minority culture of mobility” that separates middle-class Blacks from both middle-class Whites and working-class Blacks. This habitus reflects “knowledge and behavioral strategies that help to negotiate the competing demands of the white mainstream and the minority community” (Neckerman et al. 1999, p. 949) . While middle-class blacks want to succeed in a white world, they also want to remain a part of the “black” community, and value intra-racial cohesion as much as do lower-class blacks (Hwang, Fitzpatrick, and Helms 1998).
Middle-class Blacks’ compensating racial capital stems from the “distinctive forms of prejudice and discrimination” middle-class Blacks face in middle-class settings (Neckerman et al. 1999, p. 950). Due to this distinctive prejudice, middle-class blacks are more likely to attribute lack of employment success to institutional factors, while working-class blacks are more likely to blame individual performance (Hwang et al. 1998). Middle-class Blacks have more frequent interaction with Whites as compared to working-class Blacks, who often live, go to school, and work segregated from Whites. Especially in public spaces, middle-class Blacks encounter race-based prejudice more often than do their working-class counterparts as they are more likely to enter spaces that are traditionally white, including middle-class educational, occupational, and retail establishments (Feagin and Sikes 1994). In these fields, class status does little to protect middle-class blacks from the disadvantages that stem from their lower racial status, hence, they must rely on compensating racial capital. One example of such capital a habit of overachieving in order to “earn” white respect (Feagin and Sikes 1994). Only through the accumulation of excellence in many fields do blacks begin to feel respected by the White mainstream.
In contexts such as the school or employment, where people of different races routinely interact, a person may need to use both types of racial capital as multiple fields in which status can be conferred intersect. Often authentic racial capital used among those of the same racial group is at odds with the cultural capital and compensating racial capital that accords blacks’ success in fields in which the behavioral norms have been determined by the dominant culture. This tension is especially salient for middle-class blacks. The most used example of this tension is given by many scholars who argue that one reason for why black students, even those who are middle-class, tend to do poorly in school, is due to the conflict between compensating racial capital and authentic racial capital (Downey 2008). “Talking white,” or speaking standard English, has become a indicator of low authentic racial capital among Black students (Fordham and Ogbu 1986). To be “black” according to these rules is to be not “white.” In the school, where peer-peer and teacher-student interactions often overlap, the use of compensating racial capital (e.g. overachieving) is very difficult to achieve while also using racial capital for authenticity (e.g. talking “black”). Conflict arises because those behaviors identified as “white” are also many of the behaviors that middle-class Blacks believe they must share with, and even be better than, middle-class Whites in order to be successful.
Black parents have the primary responsibility of teaching their children how to negotiate these competing demands successfully in order to foster the positive racial identity and achieve success in a White-dominated world. I will show that some middle-class Blacks, in their desire for an alternative to “acting ‘black’ = behaving poorly in school,” actively address the issue of “blackness” with their children in order to instill an authentic racial identity that is compatible with compensating racial capital. There are several strategies used by middle-class black parents to adjust their child’s definition of “black” in such a way that authentic and compensating capital can exist together for the betterment of the child.
What I loved about Harris-Lacewell’s work was her incorporation of literature into her work; most of what I learned about “being black” came from books when I was child. I read the Bluest Eye and cried. I read Their Eyes Were Watching God and laughed and cried.