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Worth 101: In the Crooked Room

This introduction to stereotypes of black women is based on Melissa Harris-Perry’s book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America. It was originally posted in a sequence of articles on Beyond Black & White.

Though the prose is primarily political in nature, there were several core theories presented that resounded with me. So much so, I believe that much of the internal and external characteristics I possess today have been significantly augmented for the better.

Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes and Black Women in America, released in September 2011,  is a lovely and intelligent book about the images in the media that work to define Black women and their roles in American society. And Harris-Perry’s work has been accepted as both necessary and legitimate.

The Crooked Room

Ever heard of the theory of the “crooked room?” If you haven’t, maybe you have heard of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. They are quite similar. I parallel the two because they both hint on the concept that [wo]men exist in a sort of vacuum and, until enlightened to the pretense of their environments, they mentally assimilate with whatever their surroundings may be. The crooked room is a central point of reference for Harris-Parry’s work and is summarized as follows:

“In one study, subjects were placed in a crooked chair in a crooked room and then asked to align themselves vertically. Some perceived themselves as straight only in relation to their surroundings. To researchers’ surprise, some people could be tilted as much as 35 degrees and report that they were perfectly straight, simply because they were aligned with images that were equally tilted. But not everyone did this: some managed to get themselves more or less upright regardless of how crooked the surrounding images were.

When they confront race and gender stereotypes, black women are standing in a crooked room, and they have to figure out which way is up. Bombarded with warped images of their humanity, some black women tilt and bend themselves to fit the distortion.”

On Giving In to the Room We Live In

sistercitizen_smallMany women simply give in to the crooked room they are living in. In other words, they (or we) behave in a way that contorts and shifts into lockstep with the world around us. And though it may make us feel more beautiful, it never quite seems to satiate our desire to be loved, appreciated, honored, or respected. This is one of the central issues affecting Black women’s self-imaging.

We all live in this crooked room. And, not only does it make it hard for us to receive compliments, it makes it hard for us to give them too. This is especially so when it comes to other Black women. Innate competition between us about hair length, skin tone, material possessions, and all types of other inconsequential indicators of self-worth impair our abilities to appreciate each other. Ever walk outside thinking you were just doing it, (hair did, nails did, everythang did…) only to have one of your girlfriends rip you a new one? Was your head up too high so they had to ground you real quick? The crooked room tells us that ain’t nobody “all that.” And, even if they think they are, we can find something about them to get them back in their place.

One thing that always stuck out to me was a very subtle thing: courtesy. At school, during flu-season, everyone would constantly sneeze. The teacher would sneeze, and the class would say “God bless you” in unison. A Hispanic boy would sneeze, similar levels of bless yous. An Asian girl would sneeze, more bless yous. Then, I would sneeze, and silence. To this very day, I find myself in crooked rooms where this is the norm. And, it wasn’t until reading Harris-Perry’s book that I realized the polymorphic existence I had always inhabited wasn’t my own creation. It was the endless tilting of the endless rooms that I was gliding through on a daily basis. And, there were times when I appeased them. In one room, I would try to seem more “black.” I’d roll some syllables and purposely relax my diction in certain company. And, I’d perform the equal and opposite actions in other tilted rooms.

But, one day, I simply said enough was enough. I stood up straight in all my rooms. And, though I found it jarring at first (because some rooms were surprisingly more tilted than others – I mean damn near 90 degrees askew), I found that my straightened form made everything very clear to me. I demanded the same treatment as everyone else. I demanded the same respect as everyone else. And, I defined my most linear plane. It may be crooked to others, but that’s simply because they are walking around like some Smooth Criminals … think about it. Ever found yourself in a crooked room? Heck, you may be in one right now…

The truth is, you can never truly concern yourself with how others perceive you. Likewise, you can never change perceptions or judgments which have already been made. But, distorting your true self, becoming crooked to align one’s self, or even downplaying innate characteristics not only helps to cement the negative imagery, it further distances you from your authentic self. To truly acknowledge your own self-worth, you have to be willing to be you, even when the room seems to disallow it. The Worth Campaign is about being you in the face of adversity.

Let’s get to Worth 102: Understanding the Roots of Stereotypes.




  1. […] it has not necessarily been the most welcoming place for women of color. In many respects, the very crooked rooms that these women seek to escape in their daily lives are emboldened in the corporate realm, but […]

  2. […] MSNBC host, and professor, is no stranger to The Worth Campaign. In fact, it was her book, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, that inspired our founder to create this organization. Her courage to deal with and make plain the […]