American Studies professor Duchess Harris is a scholar of contemporary African American history and political theory. In March, she sat down with President Brian Rosenberg in Washington, D.C., as part of the college’s Big Questions event series. Their conversation—edited and condensed below—examined race, class, and the Me Too movement.

How did the Me Too movement actually begin?
People think actor Alyssa Milano started it by tweeting #metoo, but actually it was Tarana Burke, an African American woman from the Bronx. In 1997, when a young black girl told her about being mistreated, Burke—also a survivor—regretted not responding, “Me, too.” After that, Burke set up a MySpace page for survivors called Me Too. She did all the work on the ground—but it’s different if you have a working-class background, if you don’t have certain social networks. When Alyssa Milano found out about Tarana Burke, Alyssa apologized and said she wasn’t trying to take credit for what’s been going on for more than a decade.

Before Supreme Court Justice Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation hearing in 2018, there was Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas and Anita Hill. What did people not understand about Anita Hill?
In 1991, we didn’t have any language. No one knew how to talk about sexual harassment and we didn’t understand it. People didn’t understand why she didn’t come forward—everyone said if it were true she would have reported Clarence Thomas herself. People said, “She must want to undermine him.” People said that
she had a civil rights agenda because she was African American, but actually her politics were very similar to his. She was not radically left; she was very religious and very conservative.

How does race and class figure into Me Too?
Part of it is the politics of Western beauty. With Anita Hill, people said that she wasn’t attractive enough to be sexually harassed. They were also saying she probably made it up because, God forbid, she was single. What Alyssa Milano realized is that people were hearing her because she had the Hollywood look and a lot of money.

Regarding Me Too and the issue of sexual harassment and assault: Are we on a trajectory that leads you to be optimistic, or are we going in circles?
I’m optimistic because of what is happening in middle schools and high schools. Twenty years ago, you couldn’t really have these conversations. I think that 10 years from now young people will come to college and say, “We learned about that; we’ve had a conversation about that.”

How do you see this play out on a college campus?
These are 18- to 22-year-olds, and the whole idea of what consent is is really messy—it’s messy even for older adults. I think that a lot of students struggle with what harassment or assault is. And if you are convinced that you’ve experienced it, then do you tell people? That’s one of the issues that’s still real: figuring it out, then figuring out what you should do with it.

How do you assess the effectiveness with which college campuses, including our own, are dealing with this issue?
I think it’s difficult. A few years ago, faculty were put in the position where if someone shares something with you, you’re required to report it. I understand that—and I understand the legal implications of keeping something like that private—but I think it makes it difficult because students know that as well. Sometimes students want to talk about it, but they’re not ready to report it.

You’ve written a book series about race and gender, aimed at a younger audience. What’s it like to move into this world where you’re trying to speak about the same sorts of complexities but in a different voice to a younger audience?
I tell people that I’ll ask my colleagues in math if they’ve ever had a student who didn’t take pre-calculus or calculus in high school, and they’ll say, “Of course not.” And then I say that I’ve never had a student who understood anything about what African Americans were doing during World War II. Ever. The books are 112 pages long, written at an eighth-grade level. That’s one undergraduate assignment. It gets my students where I need them to be, so we can take it to the next level. My vision is that, sometime before I retire, I’ll have a student who says, “I read your work in high school.” If anyone could show up just having the basics, it would mean so much.

Have you gotten hate mail?
My first hate mail was in 2015, when I published my first book for young people. It was about Black Lives Matter, and people were like, “We will not stand for this.”

Minnesota has some of the country’s most dramatic race-based disparities. I’ve always found white people in Minnesota deeply reluctant to have that conversation. How do you get your students to have those conversations?
I open it up and say what it’s going to be. A lot of faculty members are challenged to have trigger warnings, and I say, “This whole class is a trigger every single day, so there’s no need for me to even put that on [a syllabus].” I talk about how we’re going to treat each other. I say that they’re not here to agree with each other or with me—but we’re going to do this with respect. I remind them that it’s fine to be upset, but we’re going to try to have a constructive dialogue. And then I explain to them that this is the skill set they need. When you graduate from Macalester, if you can do this, then you’re going to be okay.


August 2 2019

Back to top