Wake Forest University professor and former MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry presented a talk titled “Race, Gender and the Politics of Knowledge: Campus, Community, Congress” in Johnson Chapel on Monday, March 26.
Harris-Perry is also the Maya Angelou Presidential Scholar, Executive Director of the Pro Humanitate Center and Founding Director of the Anna Julia Cooper Center at Wake Forest University. She hosted “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a current affairs and political commentary television program, on MSNBC from 2012 to 2016. Harris-Perry has written two books and is now an editor-at-large at lifestyle and fashion magazine Elle.
Harris-Perry spoke about the low value placed on women of color on campuses, in communities and in congress. She defined campus as the “space where we produce knowledge, but in the broadest sense,” community as “the spaces of ordinary discourse or everyday knowledge — common sense” and congress as “formal structures of power and government.” In these spaces, she said, “knowledge of race and gender is devalued, and … women of color are absent.”
According to Harris-Perry, women cannot improve their circumstances by hard work alone when they earn less than men, especially in high-paying jobs. She argued that women earn less because of assumptions about their knowledge. “Our presumptions about what makes you strong, the value of what you know and how you know it [and] the claims you make on truth are similarly situated in ways that devalue women’s knowledge and the knowledge of women of color,” she said.
Harris-Perry also focused on violence against women of color in the U.S. While the history of violence against men of color is well-documented, Harris-Perry said that the same was not true of violence against women of color.
“When black women[’s] vulnerability appears … we don’t have a set of stories onto which to map it,” she said, citing the recent string of missing teenage girls in Washington D.C. as an example. A lack of knowledge and documented history prevented the police from effectively responding, she said.
Harris-Perry then spoke about women of color in congress. According to Harris-Perry, black women voted for former president Barack Obama in previous elections with extremely high turnout rates. Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton had expected black women to do the same for her this past election, according to Harris-Perry, but did not make significant efforts to show that she had black women’s interests in mind.
“If anybody had bothered to think about America from the perspective of black women’s knowledge, it would have been very easy to see how Trump wasn’t really all that motivating [for black women voters],” she said. She added that the media did not provide much coverage of issues impacting black women, such as the trial of Daniel Holtzclaw, an officer accused of sexually assaulting black women.
A Q&A session followed her talk. To one student who asked about making change at Amherst, Harris-Perry said new scholars studying different issues in numerous fields would need to join the college as professors for real change to take place.