Colbert: My guest tonight has written a book on stereotypes of black women in America—I’m sorry, blaaaaaeehhh women in America. [This is a callback to earlier in the show when he called out Santorum’s “black people”/”blah people” thing]. Please welcome Melissa Harris-Perry! [runs over to where Melissa is seated] Hey, nice to meet you! Thanks so much for coming on!
Colbert: Okay, madame. You are professor of political science at Tulane, you have a new show on MSNBC—
MHP: Not until black history month.
Colbert: —Not til Black History Month. Do you get to go beyond Black History Month?
MHP: Yeah, maybe into March, which is Women’s History Month.
Colbert: Oh, so, and you’re both of those? I don’t see race. Are you an African-American?
MHP: Most days.
Colbert: Most days. Okay, so, um, here’s my problem with talking about race: Doesn’t it divide us, by talking about our race?
MHP: You know, I do think that experiencing racism tends to be a worse experience than actually talking about racism and race.
Colbert: Uh-huh, uh-huh.
MHP: So, as a college professor, I feel like talking always brings us closer to understanding rather than dividing us. It can be tough. It can be a little nauseating. We don’t always have the right vocabulary to talk across our differences, but the talking is always better than the ignoring.
Colbert: That would be a great tagline for your show: It can be tough, a little nauseating.
MHP: Indeed. [laughter]
Colbert: Okay, so you’ve got a brand new book. It’s called Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. What do you mean by shame and stereotypes? What are the stereotypes you’re talking about, of black women in America?
MHP: Well, so, there are four that I look at. The Jezebel, that’s the kind of hypersexual black woman, the idea that African-American women aren’t in control of their fertility, that they just have babies by lots of different men all the time. There’s the Mammy stereotype, that was on display quite recently with, for example, The Help film—
Colbert: Great movie, great movie. Based on a true story! [laughter; MHP gives him a look] Go ahead.
MHP: And then—um [chuckles; audience laughter]
Colbert: I’m just tellin’ ya.
MHP: You threw me off!
Colbert: I’m not making this stuff up.
MHP: [laughs] Right—and then there’s the angry black woman, that kind of irrationally angry, all the time, at any moment might just snap—[Colbert impersonates the stereotype of an angry black woman using body language, facial expressions, and interjections]—yeah, that one, yes.
Colbert: Tell it!
Colbert: What’s she called?
MHP: The Sapphire.
MHP: Sapphire. Yes.
Colbert: Wow. That’s sparkly. Now, of these three stereotypes—Jezebel, Mammy, and Sapphire—which one are you? [laughter] Because I like to pigeonhole my guests as much as possible.
MHP: Well, you know, I’m actually that fourth stereotype, which is the Strong Black Woman. And in fact, the Strong Black Woman is the one that African-American women ourselves created. We borrowed a little bit from a lot of these stereotypes, but the fact is, even though we self-created her, she can be just as painful, just as problematic, this idea that we are inherently strong, basically born with the capacity to kick adversity’s butt, just because we are black and women.
Colbert: That seems like a lot of the burden—and I know nothing about black people, but if I could generalize as if I did—it seems like the woman in the black community takes the great burden for the absence of the black male.
MHP: I think we want to be careful about that because the notion of—
Colbert: I don’t like to be careful. I don’t wish to be careful about anything here!
MHP: [laughs] But black men are actually not absent in this way—
Colbet: They’re gone. There are none. They’re like the Yeti.
MHP: No—no, I have one of them—
Colbert There’s like a history channel show, like Finding Bigfoot—
MHP: Yes, Finding the Black Man. Where was he?
MHP: Well, one is even living in the White House at the moment.
Colbert: Yes! I heard that! [laughter] So how can there be—I don’t judge, maybe he’s black, maybe he’s not—but if we do have an African-American President, we have an African-American first lady?
MHP: We do.
Colbert: Doesn’t that shatter the stereotypes?
MHP: I guess I would say that no, she doesn’t shatter them, but she does challenge them. But of course, she’s challenging them at the same time that, for example, we’re holding up The Help. So we have a challenging figure in the person of Michelle Obama as First Lady, and then we have these reinforcing stereotypes in our culture.
Colbert: But The Help is a historical document!
MHP: It is not. [laughter]
Colbert: It is!
MHP: No, no. It was never—
Colbert [talking over her]: That’s how it once was. It was a simpler time!
MHP: Jim Crow was never like big fun in the kitchen.
Colbert: In some ways, don’t all women face stereotypes?
MHP: All women face stereotypes, and the point of this isn’t to say that there is—there’s no Oppression Olympics. There’s no one group where things are so much worse.
Colbert: But who would win if there was? Who would win? [laughter]
MHP: [laughs] Let me just suggest this: That the real point of this book isn’t that there are these bad things that these other folks are doing to African-American women. The real point of the book is that it matters how we feel about ourselves, that African-American women’s internal life experiences are part of the American story. So when we’re listening, for example, to the GOP rhetoric about the nostalgia of this America when things were simpler and better, you can never tell that story if you bother to think about African-American women’s experience. Because there is no moment in American history where it is nostalgic and better to have been a little black girl. And so what we do is we put black women’s stories at the center of the American story, and, all of a sudden, the American story takes on a very, very different resonance and trajectory.
Colbert: You’re trying to depress me. [laughter] Because when I think about something bad happening to a little black girl, I get very, very sad. And then I feel guilty.
MHP: Oh, I’m sorry.
Colbert: Okay? I don’t know if you’re familiar with this term, but that is called “the white man’s burden.” [laughter] Are you familiar with that term?
MHP: I do know that term.
Colbert: That’s your next book. Thank you so much!
[segment ending pleasantries, wild applause because Melissa is fucking brilliant, etc.]