*The Academic Feminist: Using the Past to Reimagine the Present with Imani Perry

Welcome back to The Academic Feminist, a series that aims to bridge the blogging/academic divide by linking discussions in feminist academia to those taking place online. Today’s interviewee is Imani Perry, Professor at the Center for African American Studies at Princeton. You can learn more about Perry’s work on her website . All comments on the series and suggestions for future interviewees can be sent here. And thank you to all the Feministing readers who have offered suggestions and positive feedback on the series so far!

*Editor’s note: Due to concerns raised that there might be confusion with Barnard Center for Research on Women’s awesome The Scholar and Feminist Conference and S&F Journal, we have renamed The Scholarly Feminist to The Academic Feminist.

1) Your work lies at the intersection of law, history, culture, and literature.  You wrote a 2007 law journal article that combines these elements to argue that third wave feminists understand sexual harassment in different ways than their predecessors. Can you describe the main points of this article and how your views may have shifted (or not)?

In that piece I wanted to consider how the concept of sexual harassment can at times work to punish rituals of courting, and not simply harassment. I wanted to fine tune an understanding of what harassment is, because we sometimes talk about it in ways that cast the net too wide. So I tried to develop a basis for distinguishing between harassment and an acceptable expression of romantic interest. Then I tried to offer an way of thinking about how people ought to respond to indicate they aren’t interested, at which point we need to see how interested party replies to the rejection: do they persist, or do they accept that response and move on? I think this is important to consider in what we deem harassment. In particular, I was thinking about the way that “hollering” commonplace African American practices of approach in public spaces, is frequently universally called “harassment” when there are significant variations in how it is performed.

Additionally, part of what I wanted to do with that piece was to revive the second wave feminist language of “talking back” or “taking back the night” or “speaking out” in ways that are useful for today. Unfortunately, in legal terms, the way feminist causes are sometimes recognized depends upon an idea of victimization that can discourage or implicitly punish assertiveness.

This is related to my interest in the gender dynamics that don’t fit into clear legal categories. For example, I think there is an under-discussed area of sexual trauma and woundedness that comes from women “going along” with sexual encounters. This is significantly different from rape and sexual assault, but still necessary to address. I’m thinking of instances in which they haven’t said no, and may have even explicitly said yes, but really don’t want to. I recall a conversation with two friends, many years ago, explaining how they’d both said yes a number of times because they were afraid that if they didn’t that they might be raped. That is technically consensual, but emotionally tragic. I find this heartbreaking, and the fact that we have a culture that socializes women into this kind of acceptance, infuriating. So I believe that it is good idea to encourage young women and men to feel empowered to say, “No, I’m not interested in you.” Or “No I don’t want this.” We want to create a feminist culture in which speaking out and claiming power is valued, and a society in which talking back and being assertive is safe.

A point also about my thoughts about the “waves” of feminism: I came of age during the third wave of feminism, and I think there were some important interventions: we were talking about feminisms in plural, about multiple women’s experiences, about how gender coexisted with race and class and sexuality, identities and experiences. However, somewhere along the way, certain branches of third (and fourth) wave feminism got caught up in the neoliberal fixation on personal choice and the individual experience, embracing sexiness without challenging the larger power relations that socialize the very ideas about what sexy is. We need to keep what is good about third and fourth wave interventions, but also keep alive the second wave focus on broader liberation and justice, alongside the truths from non-mainstream feminist and queer thought and activism.

2) More recently, your review of Ralph Richard Banks’ book, Is Marriage for White People? gained a lot of attention in the mainstream press, especially from feminists of color.  What are some of the impacts of this article, and the book itself?

Honestly, I’m somewhat ambivalent about the attention to both the book and the subject of rates of marriage in the African American community. Philosophically, I think that we ought to pursue healthy networks of support, and value multiple family configurations. I believe that heterosexual marriage should be de-centered as the normative ideal for family structure, and that we ought to explicitly embrace extended families, fictive kinship relations, single parent households, same-sex couples, intergeneration child rearing, and really any and all types of families that are healthy and happy. For example, in my book I talk about how, historically, extended family and multiple nuclear family collective living have been incredibly important for people of color as ways of sharing responsibilities for childcare and pooling resources. The devaluation of these family structures has had deleterious effects, particularly for poor and working class people. In my ideal world, marriage would be something conducted by churches, but the state would only recognize civil unions. Moreover, I would advocate that civil unions be nothing more than two adults sharing domestic and economic ties, but would not require an assumption of a romantic partnership.

However, and this is a big caveat, the social reality that is revealed by low rates of marriage among African Americans is an important one that MUST be addressed. Mass incarceration, high unemployment, and poor educational outcomes for Black males, have led to the growing class divide in which middle class African Americans are disproportionately female, and the poor are disproportionately male, which, in turn, is indicative of a particular kind of gender and race-based marginalization experienced by Black males in this society. I am frankly frustrated by feminists who don’t recognize that what happens to Black men in this country is a gender issue. Around the world we understand that the relatively lower access to education, increased encounters with physical violence, and exclusion from job markets, are all features of gender oppression. This is true of both Black men and  women in this country, although with different valences and patterns. And the outcomes are worse for Black men and boys.

3) You recently featured a post on your blog titled “The revolution WILL be tweeted”  and I think that your points on the subject will resonate with a lot of Feministing readers. How do you think that social media works to both strengthen activism and popularize academic ideas? And who are some of your favorite revolutionary tweeters?

I think social media has enormous potential to network activists and also to provide knowledge of social movement and issues that otherwise are generally inaccessible. It is a wonderful tool and pathway, and I think some of those who don’t “get it,” are thinking that people think tweeting is the activism itself. That is like saying the mimeograph machine or the leaflet was the activism in the 60s. No, they, like twitter, were tools for dissemination and communication for people committed to changing the world. The reason I got hooked on twitter is largely because I generally don’t watch corporate news programming. It rarely satisfies my interest for substantive content, nor is it consistent with my left politics. I find the articles and commentary of people I follow on twitter to be far more satisfying intellectually and politically.

I don’t want to list favorite tweeters, simply because there are so many. I think the best approach is to begin by following people and organizations you respect and then allow your list to grow organically by following who they retweet or follow. I also appreciate that I can share ideas that are in my books and articles with a wider audience, including people that might not otherwise pick up anything I write.

4) Who are some of the feminist thinkers who have most influenced you? And do you have a few reading suggestions for Feministing readers who might be interested in following up on the topics discussed here?

In college, I began to think about what it would mean to live the life of a feminist intellectual. The summer after my sophomore year I worked at South End Press and got to know bell hooks, who was a South End Press author. That summer I fell in love with Yearning that summer, which is still one my favorites of hers.  Then, in my senior year of college, I took a class called Sociology of Culture taught by Joshua Gamson (who many years later would become the author of the biography of queer icon Sylvester.) In that class we read Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins . Collins’ work moved me not only because it spoke to my experience specifically as an African American woman, but because that experience was an entry point for her complex analysis of inequality and also struggle with far reaching implications. I remember going home for spring break, setting the book on the kitchen table and telling my mother “This is what I want to do with my life.” Her response was, “Oh, I know Pat from back in the day.” It turned out that Patricia Hill Collins and my mother had been involved in community school work together in the late 60s, which wasn’t surprising because I grew up amidst activists and feminists of various stripes.

Growing up amidst this type of activism, the archive of feminist writing, from various places and time periods, that has influenced me is huge. Recently, I have spent a lot of time re-reading Angela Davis’s essay from 40 years ago, “Women and Capitalism.” While it is a challenging read, it has some really important ideas that I think are still relevant. I’m also reading The Feminist Press’s series of books, “Women Writing Africa“, and re-reading Robyn Weigman’s American Anatomies: Theorizing Race and Gender . Over the years, however, I have been influenced by so many feminist thinkers: Mary Helen Washington, Hortense Spillers, Cherrie Moraga, Gloria Anzaldua, Donna Haraway, Carolyn Heilbrun, Alice Walker, Gabriela Mistral, Gwendolyn Brooks, Nawal El Sadaawi, Jamaica Kincaid, Rosario Ferre, Julia de Burgos, Bonnie Thornton Dill, the list goes on. So, while I try to find my own footing in the politics and ideas of today, the way I think about gender and justice draws from a remarkable tradition.

Extra Credit!

Adding to the links above, below is a list of resources where those interested in some of the topics discussed here can go to find out more. Add relevant resources in comments.

  • Imani Perry (2011) More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States. New York: NYU Press
  • Imani Perry (2007) “Let Me Holler at You: African American Culture, Postmodern Feminism, and Revisiting the Law of Sexual Harassment,” Georgetown Journal of Gender and Law
  • Patricia Hill Collins (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness, and the Politics of Empowerment. Routledge.
  • Stanlie M. James, Frances Smith Foster, Beverly Guy-Sheftall, eds. (2009) Still Brave: The Evolution of Black Women’s Studies. New York: The Feminist Press.
  • Cherrie Moraga and Gloria Anzaldua, eds. (1983) This Bridge Called My Back: Writings by Radical Women of Color. New York: Kitchen Table Women of Color Press.
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