September 11, 2014
Imani Perry —
The Fabric of Our Identity

The first in a four-part series, "The American Consciousness."

Imani Perry is a scholar of law, culture, race — and hip hop. She acknowledges wise voices who say that we will never get to the promised land of racial equality. She writes, “That may very well be true, but it also true that extraordinary things have happened and keep happening in our history. The question is, how do we prepare for and precipitate them?” We took her up on this emboldening question at the Chautauqua Institution, on the cusp of yet a new collective reckoning with the racial fabric of American life.

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is a professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University. Her scholarly books include Prophets of the Hood: Politics and Poetics in Hip Hop and More Beautiful and More Terrible: The Embrace and Transcendence of Racial Inequality in the United States.

Pertinent Posts

Rather than merely expressing outrage at what happened in Ferguson, white Americans must show courage and own its part of the tragic story and the opportunity for transformation.

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Imani Perry and Krista Tippett at the Chautauqua Institution

Watch Krista Tippett and Imani Perry in a conversation on the American consciousness recorded live at the Chautauqua Institution in August, 2014.


The American Consciousness

This is the first episode in a special series on "The American Consciousness." Human identity is more fluid than ever before. How do we live gracefully in this moment of change, helping to shape it? How do we nurture common life, even as we are reinventing it? With Imani Perry, Richard Rodriguez, Michel Martin, and Nathan Schneider.

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I was struck by Imani Perry's perception of being "ignored in a checkout line" and her belief this was racism. Perception is everything. I recalled watching my mother struggle with this same situation and coming to the conclusion that she couldn't really know if the cashiers coldness was motivated by racism or not. She concluded it didn't matter, the important thing was her own behavior. Instead of analyzing others motivations, focus on our response to perceived racism. My mother refused to be a victim, even though I saw her victimized. She was God's child. That was her identity. The way she was treated hurt her, but what was more important to her was how she treated others. If everyone focused on treating others the way they want to be treated, their would be no racism.

I am awed by such wisdom !

I agree with you that perceiving being"ignored in a checkout line" as racism seems like over focus on racism and being a victim. I was also surprised to hear her mention someone cutting her in line as racism. These things happen to people who are not black as well. Maybe it happens to African Americans more often? I don't know? I've seen racism so I know it happens, I'm just not sure these were good examples.

I think there is a tremendous amount of privilege that accompanies the presumption that we can better evaluate or label someone else's experience, particularly an experience of being marginalized.

The very idea that a person could "over focus on racism and being a victim" exemplifies ongoing racism in which one group's opinions, experiences in the world, and perception of reality are seen as less accurate than another's. A white person who gets cut in line does not experience that act in combination with a history of overt and covert racism, discrimination, violence, and generational trauma. Moreover, Dr. Perry's story was actually not focusing on racism or on being a victim. Rather it was a story of her not allowing the ignorant and hurtful actions of one person to become a stereotype for an entire group.

I love both of you. Everything that Imani is saying and is about lives in every bone of my body and is embedded in my soul. I live in Princeton on the edge of the University and would like to meet with her and bask in her glow. I would like her advice that she can guide me toward the Trentonians who are working to create a Trenton that all of us locals of and around Trenton can bond together and bring our lives together. Who are the local leaders besides Isles?
Love and hugs,

I enjoyed Ms. Perry's reflections, but found myself shutting down when she (and Tippett) referred to Trayvon Martin's "murder" and the attack on hi s "innocence".

While I appreciate that blacks overwhelmingly perceived the Trayvon Martin shooting through a different prism than did whites (Obama noted this in his remarks), there is no question that Trayvon was a troubled kid on a downward spiral into drugs, crime and violence and that he initiated the confrontation with George Zimmerman, which resulted in a tragedy for all.

But it was NOT primarily a racial incident (the FBI confirmed this), and Trayvon Martin was NOT the right person to organize a movement around, which only served to discredit what's left of the Civil Rights leadership.

I investigated and discussed this case exhaustively in Guns, Race, the Law & Public Opinion – The Trayvon Martin, George Zimmerman Case ().

I am a retired engineer. I spend a substantial portion of my waking hours volunteering in my community and I give blood every 8 weeks. The one thing I almost never see in any of these activities is a black face. Blacks kill other blacks daily in my city. And yet if a white person kills a black,no matter the circumstances, riots take place. Most of the sports teams I enjoy watching are predominately black. I have never heard outrage suggesting there should be a quota for white representation. My opinion is that we all need to take responsibility for our own actions. Every perceived slight is not racism. One thing I know is true. Any person who identifies with victim-hood will always be a victim and that is true for all races.

I'm 27, a "lighter skinned" black male. I've only recently started to acknowledge the fact that I am a "black man" in a still consciously racist America. I now know that this is a shared sentiment with many black people today regardless of the color spectrum, who don't want to identify with the predetermined social identity we're given and all the stigmas that come with it. This forced social awareness by recent tragic events is a wake up call to many, of the still broken state of America and I am thankful for people like Imani and her ilk who speak up for those of us less outspoken. I now have hope that if "both sides" of race like two sides of a coin, face who we are as individuals and as a nation, we will see that we are one in the same, all with the same worth.

I, too, enjoyed Dr. Perry's reflections, but found myself distracted by one of her comments while she was discussing the Trayvon Martin shooting. She said, “Well, he skipped school once, he smoked marijuana. I mean, this — all of these things, which are fully human, and normal for young boys…” I thought to myself, wait a minute. I don’t think skipping school and smoking marijuana are “normal” for young boys – my family and friends don’t; my community doesn’t. And in that one statement, then, I fear, Dr. Perry may be promulgating the very racial stereotypes and narratives that she finds as “evidence of the persistence of inequality.”

The fear of what police will do is for all teenage boys and I have an incident from my son at 19 who stepped over a hedge from one yard to another and was arrested because the white police officer arrested my beautiful white boy who moved about 20 feet and he drove back through and said he had told him not to move. He arrested him and my son cried his eyes out at the embarrassment of being arrested because he did not want to hurt me. He looks like Brad Pitt and Matthew McConnaghy combined and is ten times that good as a person. Police officers are generally people who were bullied and like George Zimmerman, get that attitude of authority and "I can do what I want to do." He has threatened yet another person and denies it of course and no charges were filed. He is a walking time bomb. Trayvon was walking down the street and was accosted and he was getting the best of Zimmerman and it was a bruise on his ego so he shot Trayvon. I have worked out in a meat head gym before and police officers talk and it is not all good or all bad. Tavis Smiley seems to think Obama has made things worse or not improved for black people. Being white, that I cannot judge. Thanks for letting me post.

It seems like there is a large gap between the hip hop culture that Ms. Perry defends and the way she raises her own children. Also, how does society close an opportunity gap when an achievement gap exists? It seems like we are going in circles and are back to affirmative action. Meanwhile, in many urban areas, the concept of racial identity is dissolving in an increasing interracial, and economically divided, society.

A place and a people that have many faults but have one thing going for them is Cuba and their total lack of racism (the Florida Cubans are a whole other matter). Black, White, Brown or Yellow-- they all live and suffer together as a whole community, something we in the rest of the world should learn.

I have to disagree with Imani's statement that black students 'acting white' is not a thing.As an African-American male, I can tell you that it is absolutely a thing, because I have been on the receiving end of it, and 80% of it is from other African-Americans. The way I speak, for doing my homework, loving to read, the music I listen to, the way I dress and carry myself. Maybe Ms. Perry doesn't see it in scholarly circles, but there are many of us in different parts of the country for whom this is a regular reality. It's one thing to be discriminated against from those outside of your own community, which you expect, but to be discriminated against from those within your community because you don't live up to their expectations of what it means to be Black....well, that's something completely different to navigate and deal with.

americans in general frown on academic achievement. hence the negative connotations of words like nerd, poindexter, smarty-pants, etc. bullies cut their teeth on nerds with impunity and assistance from the rest of their impish peers.

Key words in this conversation were community and process.
Community is about place; process is about time.

Great show.

Is there any place geographically, historically
where racism has not existed and does not exist?
Racism is a human condition just like child abuse.
The consequences are very similar..
The destruction of trust between individuals
and the destruction of trust within community.
Like child abuse, racism has nothing to do with the victim
and everything to do with the victimizer.
But who can believe it! Certainly not the child,
at the bottom of the stairs, hearing the parent
scream at the top of his/her lungs,
Or the child of color
who finds out, for the first time,
he/she is in the presence of evil.

Racism like religion
has never ‘not’ existed.
Everywhere: Japan, Russia, Korea,
all of Europe, North America, South American,
Orientals, Blacks, Whites, Indians.
There is nothing regional about the existence of racism.
Humans are religious and humans are racists.
Religion has a few well-known responses to Racism.
The extremes are:
Kill all of the heretics
or at least don’t let them
move into your neighborhood and
love your neighbor as yourself
(remembering Christ's answer to the question,
"Who is my neighbor?").

Well stated David. That is the tragedy of our humanity - not only with racism but with religious allegiances; gender.... something is always wrong with someone else and we are "perfect".

I found the interview with Ms. Perry quite important. While I might not understand, or particularly relate to rap, or other forms (as a White American) of entertainment, or film, or literature, I can respect them, if they speak to the people of African American, or mixed, races. However, it is the mixture of cultures, races, and the like that makes up our world. It would be ideal if we could accept these differences. Some may never do so, which is a true shame. I look at a person as a person, regardless of the skin, race, and so on. It's how I was raised. I've often been judged for my appearance, and due to my being a heavy person, so, I get that prejudice is wrong, and it is for those of use who try not to be (though we might fail sometimes) to work together to overcome it. Thanks.

i appreciate ms parry's eloquence. unfortunately, this black guy has long argued that the race question is really a class question. at this late stage, everything parry says about negative impressions of blacks is equally true of all the poor white people in this nation who are never even addressed, as if they do not exist. i've lived in vermont and upstate new york where there are millions of white people on food stamps and other forms of aid, and no one talks about these people. if white people of privilege refuse to acknowledge poor whites' existence, how can we expect these people to understand blacks? poor whites outnumber the entire black population, yet no one is addressing their issues which, in most cases, are not very different from those confronting poor blacks.

anecdote: in columbia county new york, there is a migration of urban moneyed people to the city of hudson, often profiled in the ny times as a groovy place. hudson has a large black population of its 7000 souls. it also has an equal number of poor whites. the poor whites and poor blacks frequent a bar that is not haunted by the urbanites. the urbanites give considerable lip service to their liberal ideas, but their bar is largely white. i have heard these whites talk about poor whites in ways they would not dare to speak of blacks. the conversation should really be about class. race conversations serve no purpose other than to perpetuate the problem. the solution that needs to be discussed is class unity. sure, poor whites tend to live in the country and poor blacks in the city, but a good place to find both is in the south. maybe one should start building bridges there.


norman douglas

Thanks for this interview.

For any meaningful discussion regarding the American consciousness toward racism, it would be intellectually honest and valuable to include other speakers with perhaps different perspectives. Dr. Ben Carson comes to mind for the African American view as well as prominent spokesmen of other minorities representing those of Jewish, Japanese, Hispanic descent as examples.

The problem with shootings of unarmed black men have more to do with white America's (i.e. the white supremacist, male patriarchal paradigm in which we all exists)unconscious biases about black youth and black men as well as deep-seated ideas about black criminality. The fact that poll after poll shows a racial divide between the way whites and blacks view law enforcement (even evidenced in some of these comments) shows that we do not have consensus on this issue. Finally, we have a criminal justice system that is inherently flawed and verifiably discriminatory. The issue really isn't about the moral character of these young men who were all probably troubled in some way, it's about the moral relativism and double standard that we employ in dealing with them vs. white youth who also engage in criminal behavior. Thus the campaign #crimingwhilewhite. So when all of the white kids I grew up with were skipping school and doing all kinds of drugs imaginable, there were rarely any punitive consequences and certainly no jail time for them.

What Imani said was very insightful. I imagine it would be very hard for African American boys to worry if they will be hurt needlessly and what they should do. I also had no idea that people would ignore African Americans in the check out line or the extent of racism there continues to be in America today. Imani brings up great points and it was great to her we talk.