May 1, 2017
Dr. Kim Harris
(Image courtesy of Loyola Marymount University)
On an early Tuesday morning at 8 am, I shuffled my way down to University Hall for my first Theological Studies class at Loyola Marymount University. It was chilly from the morning fog and I suddenly regretted choosing to take an 8 am religion class that would last an hour and a half of my Tuesday-Thursday mornings. However, when I got to class, my peers and I were greeted by a smiling and very awake Professor who introduced herself as Dr. Kim Harris. Once the clock struck eight, the first activity we did was stand up and stretch, make clapping songs with our hands, and sing. I was really thrown off by this, but immediately I knew that Kim Harris was a cool lady. She was friendly towards her students and made learning about religion very interesting compared to past religion classes I had at my private Catholic high school. Sometimes Dr. Harris would say things in class that made me wonder more about her past and how she chose to go from living on the east coast to coming to Los Angeles and teaching religion at LMU. When presented with this project, I immediately thought of interviewing Dr. Harris. So that is just what I did.
In the following analysis, I will be taking excerpts from my interview with Dr. Kim Harris and telling her story, drawing conclusions from her life, her beliefs on feminism and religion and the world around her.
Dr. Kim Harris grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in the early 60s. As a little girl, she lived with her mother, father, and her older sister. Her mother had a PhD. in Education and was an advocate for education. Her father worked for the Post Office, dealing with computers well before they became so portable and an everyday part of life as we know them today. Her sister is four years older than her and since being a little girl, had always been very involved in music. The neighborhood Kim lived in originally had a large Jewish population. Kim was friends with lots of Jewish kids and said that the neighborhood had been a greatly mixed. Except, she then explained that later on, the Jewish families begun to leave and move to the suburbs outside of the city, leaving behind a mostly black neighborhood.
Kim had wished her neighborhood could’ve stayed mix but that was not to be. I can conclude from my own knowledge and what I have learned from research that this sort of relocation among communities is not uncommon. The relocation of large amounts of people moving from the city to the outer suburbs happens all the time. Today, Detroit and Chicago are the most popular examples of such phenomenon. Most of the time, it is the privileged upper middle class who have the ability to leave the cities while less fortunate families have to stay behind. The move has to do with class differences and even possibly racial tension or differences, however Kim did not mention why she believed this event happened.
Today, Kim’s mother still lives in Philly along with lots of cousins and aunts and uncles. Her sister lives in New York City with her husband and daughter, working for the government. I asked Kim about her family background and she explained that her family is all African American. She claims that growing up, she was aware that her great grandmother’s parents were in slavery. One side of the family worked as slaves in Richmond, Virginia and because they were in the urban area, they were treated better than the other side of the family who worked on a ranch in the rural countryside.
Racism Behind Scenes
“…the white parents were saying “you’re gonna to mess up the school!…”
After describing the background of her family, I decided to ask Kim if she had ever faced any sort of discrimination growing up as an African American woman. Kim explained that actually, growing up, she never really faced racial discrimination in her face. It was only later on when she was older that she was exposed to it and could tell the signs. Her parents shielded her from a lot of the tensions between white families and black families in their neighborhoods. In elementary school, Kim told me that she wasn’t bullied however her mother saw the worst of it. The racial tensions occurred amongst the adults. Kim explained that:
Kim’s mom had protected her from the racial comments and discrimination that was going on behind the scenes at her school. Although Kim got along with the other students in class, Kim’s mother had to face and fight the white parents who refused to, as AnaLouise Keating explains, “listen with raw openness.” In Keating’s chapter titled Beyond Intersectionality, she explains how “we…spend so much time coming to voice, talking back, and tranform[ing] silence into language and action that we seem to forget the importance of listening” (Keating 52). This quote means that women, no matter what race, should be listening to each other, not staying silent about their oppression and not getting caught up shouting too loudly from their perspective of things either. The white parents Kim’s mother faced at the meetings may very well have welcomed the black families originally. However there were many white women at these parent meetings that were unable to truly and simply listen to what the black parents had to say, and instead overreacted in racist ways. This leads into another excerpt from a feminist writer. Audre Lorde states in her paper Age, Race, Class, and Sex: Women Redefining Difference, “white women ignore their built-in privilege of whiteness and define woman in terms of their own experience alone, then women of Color become ‘other,’ the outsider whose experience and tradition is too “alien” to comprehend” (Lorde 3). I feel like this quote can be applied to this situation because the women who weren’t the parents of Kim and her fellow black peers viewed these families as just that: ‘other.’ Their refusal to truly listen with raw openness as fellow mothers and instead to view these families as outsiders is what caused such strange reactions like the crying and the yelling during parents meetings. Kim’s mother was smart to shield her daughters from such cruel and racist reactions. Kim said that she never faced this sort of treatment from other children on the playground, even though they were the kids of the parents who were so against the integration. It was only when she got older did she begin to pick up on the signs of racial and gender discrimination.
II: Living During a Time of Change
“That would’ve been me on a Sunday morning like that…”
When Kim was around the age of 6, she recalled that her father would leave the house for special meetings. These meetings were preparations for the March on Washington, which her father ended up participating in. Kim remembers not fully understanding what it was her father was involved in though. Only now, as an adult does she understand what had been going on, but as a kid, she had no idea. She told me, laughing, how when her dad told her that he wouldn’t punch back if someone hit him at the march- little 6-year-old-Kim would argue against him and said he should fight back. Which shows that she really didn’t understand the peaceful protest and the point of what was going on, she was too young. From this, I can conclude that Martin Luther King Jr. had a big role in her family especially for her parents. However Kim herself and her sister had a hard time grasping why when they were that little. On the day of the March, her mother and big sister stayed home while their father went down to Washington D.C. on the train. Kim recalls:
Kim knows that looking back on her memories at this time, she does not remember the event of the bombings which was only a few weeks after the March. As an adult, she knows that they happened. However, as a kid, it seems as though her parents have once again- shielded her from that information in an attempt to protect her from the horrors of the event. However, her parents couldn’t hide her from everything. Kim remembers in detail the day that President Kennedy was shot- live on television while his procession drove down those crowded Texas streets. Her parents cried. Kennedy had been a big figure in their family- and not just their family but most other black families around the country. Then there was Martin Luther King Jr. when he got stabbed. Breaking News! Breaking News! Kim said:
Even today, Kim is affected by the sudden Breaking News! headlines that appear on television. She grew up watching great leaders and activists for social justice be slain. During this part of the interview, I was incredibly fascinated because of her experience of actually watching the March on Washington on television and living to see such political figures like MLK Jr. and President Kennedy. Things that I have only seen from documentaries in the format of black and white grainy film, she had actually seen when sitting with her family in her living room. Although Kim doesn’t remember too much about these times when she was little, I still find it fascinating to hear about from her first-hand experience.
“…always with the goal of helping people sing along.”
Music in Kim’s life played a big role. Since last semester’s Theological class, I had known that music was really important to her. In class, singing was pretty usual and she had a great, powerful voice. I later learned that Dr. Harris was a part of the LMU Choir and so she exercised her vocals daily. During the interview, I spoke up and asked Kim about her musical side. I ended up having some things in common with her. Both her and I really enjoy music, and play 2 of the 3 same kinds of instruments. Similar to Kim, I knew how to play the piano and drums too. Except, she also knew how to play the viola.
Growing up, Kim and her sister were first exposed to the piano, learning hymns and classical music. As she got older, Kim took singing lessons, and eventually she and her sister joined their church youth choir. While in her last few years at her all-girl high school, Kim joined the marching band and was a percussionist on the drumline. In high school, I was also in the marching band and played percussion in drumline. We had a little bonding moment over this, which was pretty fun.
After college, Kim would return to her life of music as a traveling folk singer with her now former husband. The two of them traveled the country singing and playing guitar to folk and religious songs. In the beginning they played in bars and at college coffee houses. Eventually the two of them were hired for church and youth groups which Kim really enjoyed doing.
While traveling, Kim was able to inspire and influence kids all over the country with her songs of spirituality and freedom. This would mark Kim’s return to focusing more closely on religion, specifically Catholicism, something that has also been a big part of her life since she was little. Although, in addition to influencing her to look into theological studies, Kim had to make some other serious decisions for herself on the road.
It was at this moment that Kim brought up decisions about having a family, and so I decided to lead her into some bell hooks’ feminism is for everybody. I read the following quotation: “facing the reality of aging in patriarchal society, particularly the reality of no longer being able to biologically to bear children, led many women to adopt anew the old sexist notions of feminine beauty” (hooks 34). With this quote, I was trying to lead Kim into a specific topic- not necessarily about children in the first place. I wanted to hear her opinion on this excerpt in terms of women facing issues with their appearance in a patriarchal society after having or not having kids. I planned to first ask her if she had any kids and how she came to this decision. I was also curious if she ever faced any pressure from friends, her husband, her mother, or society. Although she did not dive in depth about the specific topic based off of the quote, Kim told me some really interesting things. She explained to me that the pressure to have kids was only ever from herself. She never had pressure from her mother, even after she got married. Her mother told her that “not everybody has to have kids.” And so Kim realized it was okay not to. As a woman on the road though, Kim decided to not have kids and focus on her passion for music with her husband. She even mentioned to me that a majority of her black women friends didn’t have children either, because they were so focused on their careers. I was hoping for Dr. Harris to go more into depth about the specifics in regards to feminine beauty and the portrayal of women however she wanted to focus on the world of her fellow black women who did not have kids, which I found to be very engaging.
When I heard Kim say this I immediately thought to myself: well there’s something that shatters the hegemonic, stereotypical perception of black women and children. Even in the seminaries, Kim noticed that the black women did not have kids. They were so focused on their careers, that a family seemed too much for their busy lives.
And so, Kim didn’t face any overwhelming pressure from any outside forces, other than herself, to have kids. She was surrounded by determined, educated black women who allowed her to see that it was okay not to start a family.
Then, to touch upon the portrayal of women, Kim went into how much she loved fashion magazines. She mentioned how a majority of the articles and ads in these magazines, like Vogue, are about reverting a woman to her younger self, using makeup and other tools to look “beautiful” again.
Although she is happy with the representation in magazines with the appearances of more women of color and women of all shapes and sizes, Kim recognizes that it is only recently (within “the past five years”) that this has happened. She also pointed out how much of the marketing is aimed at trying to stop “aging.” The advertisements with plastic surgery, laser treatment, creams, makeup- this sort of business that upholds “old sexist notions of feminine beauty” (hooks 34) is huge. Yet, Kim admits to still being drawn to the magazines, and I would admit to that as well. In addition, although these magazines continue to promote sexist portrayals of women, I find it relieving that women of all colors and sizes are finally making the covers of magazines like Vogue. It makes me optimistic that future magazines so geared towards beauty and femininity will portray women in better light. As people become more educated in patriarchal issues, and women break climb corporate ladders, I believe that there will be significant changes.
Now, we’ll move on to the racial and gender discrimination Dr. Kim Harris saw and faced in her college and seminary years.
College and Beyond
“…they were more like small incidents, but those really add up after a while…”
Dr. Kim Harris had always wanted to come out to California and explore life in Los Angeles in college. She decided to focus on film and production, majoring in Communications as well but ideally, she wanted to be in Hollywood for that sort of stuff. Realistically though, Kim realized that plane flights were too expensive, and her own mother wanted her close to home on the east coast. Ultimately, Kim ended up at Temple University in downtown Philadelphia, her major being communications and film production. Kim recalled that in college, she didn’t face any serious discrimination or racial offenses towards her. This would probably be due to the fact that at the time, Temple University was mostly black. She told me that:
Being black, and especially being a woman, Kim has gone through her life facing the small comments, the “small incidents” that eventually “add up after a while.” I can’t imagine having to- not only face sexist comments- but also racial charged comments. Personally, as a white woman, I am privileged and do not have to face cruel racial comments from people in the way that blacks face them. And not to be purely binary, that includes any minority for that matter. I do however, combat sexist comments daily. I would agree in this case that yes, it does add up. But I will never be able to imagine first-hand what its like to have to deal with the idiotic, racial comments or actions done against a black woman for simply having a darker skin tone.
“I needed to be in a school where I had more diversity of students and more diversity of teachers.”
After completing college at Temple University, Kim didn’t stay to get a graduates degree. Instead, she and her husband went on to travel in their folk band. It was at this time that Kim realized the only other thing she wanted to study if she went back to school was theology. Years previously, Kim had converted from Presbyterian (the religion of her childhood) to Catholicism and so channeled her religious passions into pursuing her PhD. in theological studies. Not only this but Kim had a lot of friends out on the road that were reading theology and especially feminist theology:
The feminist theological writer, Miriam Therese Winter, that Kim mentioned above wrote about the women mentioned in the bible and solely focused on their stories and how important they are to the story of Jesus. The feminist theology that Kim was reading on her travels inspired her to pursue theology and so she went in search of a good seminary. At this part in the interview, Kim got into the details about the things that were happening in the Catholic church. Many important religious figures and scholars were beginning to notice the lack of religious participation and the fall of the amount of people joining seminary. Instead of calling it a “priest shortage,” they called it “a shortage of listening to the spirit” as Kim mentioned above. And she strongly believes that women should also be allowed to be priests, similar to what Episcopalians have done many years ago.
Kim first attended Saint Bernard’s for her theology classes and on her first night, she faced a very rude and random call out in front of her entire class. The story goes as:
Kim was called out on her first night of class at Saint Bernard’s. In a white, male dominated institution, Kim was subjugated to their control and power. The professor, probably trying to make a stupid joke the first night of class, did something completely uncalled for. However, at such a patriarchal institution, such jokes were probably blown off. He should have known better, as Kim said. When looking back on this part of the interview, I was reminded of Patricia Hill Collin’s reading Toward a New Vision: Race, Class, and Gender as Categories of Analysis and Connection. In her paper, Collins talks about how a majority of large institutions like hospitals and especially universities are made up of straight, white males and create a more modern plantation environment. Collins states, “Much more typical are colleges where a modified version of the plantation as a metaphor for the institutional dimension of oppression survives” (Collins 78). This quote can be connected to Kim’s experience in a Catholic seminary among mostly white people, but more importantly, among mostly white, older men. Religious institutions and Christianity in general are known for establishing many patriarchal values that we have in society today. Collins warns that its the institutions with mostly white men at the head of the administration that would be classified as this “modified version of the plantation.” In terms of race, Kim was the only black student and her professor recognized this. Instead of encouraging her attendance at the school and denouncing his inapropriate comment towards her, he insisted that she find another school. Collins goes on to mention that these kinds of institutions consist of minority custodians and workers, but Kim did not touch upon this. Therefore, I cannot say that employees who were not professors at her own school fit Collins’ description. However, I do feel as though the comment that Kim should leave the school was a white supremacist capitalist patriarchal thing to do. In that way, the characteristics of the “institutional dimension of oppression” that Collins talks about in her paper are supported. Although what Kim experienced here on her first day of school was not continued, she explained that she eventually grew used to the treatment from men towards women, people of color, and women of color among the religious community.
After leaving St. Bernard’s, Kim was inspired by the theological author’s that she was reading to pursue her degree at Union Theological Seminary in New York City. In the city, she was able to start part time and easily make it back for classes from traveling in her band. The seminary ended up being a really good fit for Kim because the school liked artists. They had a big program focused on theology and the arts. Ultimately, Kim decided to stay at Union for her doctorates degree. She composed a mass based on spirituals as her doctorates final thesis, which I have the pleasure of having the CD of from her.
Conclusion: The Church and Feminism
“we still have a way to go…”
For one of the last questions that I decided to ask Kim, I addressed bell hooks again in order to spur a more specified answer from Kim. From feminism is for everybody, I read Kim the quote: “Truly, there can be no feminist transformation of our culture without a transformation in our religious beliefs” (hooks 106). With this, I asked Kim if she agreed that religion and Christianity was upholding the foundational beliefs of patriarchy. She responded with:
It is upsetting and frankly quite surprising to hear Kim explain how she does not feel fully respected at LMU. She notices people’s judging glances or comments and she knows that they cannot fully comprehend that fact that she is a black woman professor working in theological studies. Kim is unique. She’s broken three different layers of hegemony with her own intersectionality. She is a determined black woman who has a respected, scholarly job at a top private, Jesuit university. This already breaks many hegemonic ideologies of what not just women can do, but what black women can do in society. Along with this, another layer can be piled on: the fact that she works in theological studies, a subject area that has been patriarchal for thousands of years. She is breaking three major categories of hegemonies all at once, but unfortunately this is not something everyone will see as a victory. Some people do not “understand what that means- that there would be, you know- a black woman professor in theological studies.”
An example Kim pointed to to show how the church keeps patriarchy in place is the story of Adam and Eve:
It is extremely common to see uses of the story of Adam and Eve as something to point to in defense of keeping women in place. At the mentioning of this biblical creation story, I remembered John Berger’s article Ways of Seeing. In regards to the portrayal of Adam and Eve, Berger says that, “The woman is blamed and is punished by being made subservient to the man. In relation to the woman, the man becomes the agent of God” (Berger 48). Something as classic and revered as the creation story of man from the Bible is constantly pointed at as either the blame for harsh patriarchal values in Christianity or the reason for keeping women below men.
Kim then spoke on a political level, connecting the patriarchal ways of the Catholic Church to the most recent election:
I already believed and agreed with Kim on the entirety of her answers above but the part about her time at LMU I found to be very upsetting. It’s not okay that Kim feels the tension between herself and other people on campus, on LMU, and can see that some people don’t believe or don’t want to believe that a black woman like herself could be a professor at the university. She is incredibly right when she says “we still have a way to go.” We have a long ways to go. As long as the church, especially the Catholic Church, continues to uphold patriarchal values and practices, there is no way that people in society can start to see the impact of what such values have on women. Especially women in the work force at top universities who, with PhD.s, are just as capable as any white man to do the job.
Dr. Kim Harris has gone through her life pushing against the stereotypes and the doubters. From day one of meeting her last semester in that quiet 8 am religion class, I knew Kim was a great woman. I have respect for her ability to charge through seminary schooling and get her PhD in theological studies, and I respect that she is a successful professor at this private institution called Loyola Marymount University. This interview was great to finally conduct and I would like to thank Kim Harris herself for spending an hour of her time with me doing that. To you, reader, feel free to say hi to Dr. Kim Harris when you see her and if you have the chance to take a class taught by her- do so. She is awesome!