The Perfect Struggle: MSNBC’s Melissa Harris-Perry On Being Okay With Making Mistakes

In the history of high school drama, nerds tend to get the short end of the stick. While preferring to keep their noses buried in books, the academically zealous usually opt out of Mean Girl gossip and make social sacrifices to land 4.0 GPAs and clock in for extracurricular endeavors.

But geniuses nationwide re-upped on cool points when Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the wildly popular The Melissa Harris-Perry Show on MSNBC, boldly and unapologetically claimed to be of the same ilk. While the Virginia-raised author, professor and public speaker is warm, funny and personable, MHP is no fool, often diving deep into topics of politics, art, race and whatever else the mother of two feels demands attention.

And while Melissa proudly lets her nerd flag fly, she’ll also show off her cool side while dancing in her seat to hip-hop, R&B and other smooth tunes as the show goes to commercial break. VIBE called up MHP to discuss race, balancing life in North Carolina and New York, and the one thing women shouldn’t fear.

Shh, enough talking. Class is in session.

My morning routine:
It depends a lot on what morning we’re talking about because I live in two different places. On Monday through Thursday, I live in North Carolina and on Friday, Saturday, Sunday, I’m in New York for my show. So Monday through Thursday, I wake up whenever baby Anna (we call her A.J) wakes up, which could be as wonderfully late as 5:30am or it could be 3 in the morning. It depends on what she wants. (Laughs) She wakes up and then around 6:00, I get some of the housework done that I never have time to do. I do a load of a laundry, unload the dishwasher, water the plants. At 6:30, I wake up my 13-year-old and put on my running clothes. Then I drive my 13-year-old to school, come back and the babysitter is there for the baby. I hand off the baby, go for a run, come back, take a shower and head to campus. I try to be at campus between 9 and 9:30.

On Friday mornings, I do something similar except instead of hitting campus, I hit the airport. I fly to New York and then on Saturday and Sunday mornings, I’m up at 5 and prep for the show. We start prepping on Wednesdays, but my personal reading takes place on Friday and Saturday mornings. I get up, get my coffee, sit in the living room and I usually read from about 5:00 to 7:00, go for a run and then get to the office by 8:00.

My MLK Moment (Realizing The Dream):
I think educators are a little like doctors. I think doctors have been playing with their toys and taking their blood pressure by the time they’re six years old, and I believe teachers similarly were lining up their Barbies and teaching them the alphabet. My dad is a college professor, his twin brother is a college professor and my mom taught at community colleges, even though she worked [for non-profit organizations]. I was always kind of a teacher’s pet and used to love my teachers. So I always knew [I would be an educator]. I certainly made the decision when I got to college, saying, ‘Well I’m never leaving. This is great.’ (Laughs) But the other part was my college adviser was Maya Angelou. Being with her and seeing that she was an educator in so many different ways, I’m not sure if I ever said to myself, ‘Oh, I want to be like Dr. Angelou,’ but she became the primary model of adulthood for me.

Favorite Maya Angelou quote:
There are two quotes that are particularly impactful for me. One is that, ‘Courage is the greatest virtue, because without courage, no other virtue can be practiced consistently.’ The other thing she would say is, ‘All comparisons are odious.’ You don’t compare [yourself to the next person like], ‘Am I smarter than her? Is she prettier than me? Is that house nicer? Does he have a better car?’ Our humanity is unique. It helps when I read the better reviews of some shows and then I just remember, ‘Nope, all comparisons are odious.’

On realizing my race and gender:
So I’m African-American. My mother is white and my father is black and both my parents were married before they met and had me. I have one sibling who has two white parents and three siblings where both parents are black, so we’re truly a mixed race family. It was something that I was always aware of, but specifically when I was 14 and I was a freshman in high school. Two very different things happened. I was a cheerleader and I loved being one. I went to a public high school in central Virginia where football is king. It was very clear to me that there was a cap for how many black girls could be on the team and that no matter how many black guys were on the football team, people in the stands didn’t want to see more than a few African-American girls as part of the cheerleading squad. So I not only learned about being black and a woman, but also being light-skinned because one of my girlfriends who was dark-skinned and was equally good, did not make the team when I did. The other thing is I’m a sexual assault survivor and that was the year I was assaulted. The perpetrator is an African-American man, who was my neighbor. I didn’t tell [anyone] for about 10 years. One of the reasons I didn’t tell [anyone about it] was about race, [from] experiencing the worst kind of vulnerability as a girl and as a woman, and suddenly understanding what it means to be a girl and victimized in this way, and then for [the perp] to be someone who was in the [same] race group.

On my biggest fear and hope for my daughters:
There’s no question that my biggest fear as a mother of daughters is sexual assault, and that’s because I’m a survivor and report on it. I also know how fundamentally altering—not just to your life, but to your whole character and sense of self—sexual assault can be. Also, [I know] how powerless any given parent is over it. My mom was a great parent. My dad was a fine, wonderful parent. You can’t put your children in a protective shield [to prevent sexual assault] from happening.

But I guess I’ll also say, unlike some parents, I don’t hope that my children’s lives are worry and struggle-free. I mention often that my dad was an intense guy. He grew up in the Jim Crow South, was part of the civil rights movement and when we were growing up, he would sign our birthday cards [when we were] three, four, five years old with ‘The struggle continues, Daddy.’ (Laughs) Years later, I’ve learned that [the struggle] is such a gift. What I hope for our children is that their life isn’t without struggle, but specifically, they have good allies and meaningful struggle.

Women should never be afraid to…
Make mistakes. The fear of making a mistake so often keeps us from trying the hard stuff, and I think it’s particularly true especially for high achieving African-American women who recognize we’re not just representing ourselves, but often representing the race. We’ll only do the things we know we’re going to be good at so that way, we’re leaving a good impression about who we are, but then we never try the thing we might fail at. Look, I’ve failed a lot. Like I said before, Maya Angelou was my college adviser. She did not act perfect in front of me and that was such a gift. She let me see her be a woman and a human, and not just Dr. Maya Angelou. It was liberating because when I went out into the world and I made a mess sometimes, I was like, ‘Well Maya Angelou used to make a mess sometimes, too and she is still everything!’

Biggest on-air regret:
The most obvious one is the experience I had at the end of 2013 when we put up a picture of the Romney family. [Editor’s Note: Melissa-Harris Perry and a panel of guests mocked Mitt Romney’s family holiday photo, which included the governor’s wife, 22 grandchildren and their adopted African-American grandson. Melissa later issued an on-air apology.] The way the conversation went turned out to be hurtful—and this is why it was such a great learning experience for me. Things were said and I did not immediately regret them. Then the response came and it was clear to me that we not only did something that was hurtful to that individual family, but we spent two years as a team developing our show as a safe space for all different kinds of families. This should be the one show you can always tune into and know that your family will always be affirmed, and we messed up.

On knowing the audience in TV land:
Part of it is we don’t try and simplify [the content]. We do try and use the clearest language that we can, although sometimes we use academic language to define it. But part of it is we really do our very best to respect that our audience is smart. If [viewers] show up on a weekend morning to talk about the stuff that we talk about, then they’re actually capable of complex reasoning even if they’re not scholars and haven’t spent years reading books. I do believe sometimes, some media [outlets] don’t respect their audience enough to give them the benefit of the doubt that they can come along.

People would be surprised to know that I’m…
A great baker! I make a mean red velvet cake. I can make cookies. There’s sort of a joke that I make cookies automatically. When I start to talk about politics with people in my kitchen, I’ll just whip up some cookies from scratch. I’m only an average cook. My husband does most of the cooking because he’s from New Orleans. I’m also an HGTV addict.

The best lesson I learned from marriage:
Ahh, man, this is my second marriage. But I will tell you this: a bad marriage will take away your fear of death. (Laughs) A bad marriage is a bad thing but similarly, a good marriage is life-giving in all kinds of surprising ways. Let me be clear: my first husband is a good guy, but we had a bad marriage. I mean, I don’t know who I was during those years, but I was not Melissa Harris. So when I met and started dating James, it really was shockingly easy. All these people who are like ‘Marriage is hard work,’ [I say] grown-up life is hard work. But it’s just I see him, he sees me, and we just like the shit out of each other everyday! (Laughs) And I adore the way he parents our children. If there’s a great lesson I’ve learned from this marriage, it’s that respect is so central. Love is great but man, when you can pair that love, friendship and deep respect for who a person is, it’s a great marriage.

On whether or not racism can end:
What I want for us to struggle towards is for the consequences of racial bias to be reduced as close to zero as possible. I think there is a lot of reason for us to believe, from social psychology, cognitive psychology and decades of sociological work, people make groupings and they make judgments based on those groupings. Will people stop grouping each other and making judgments? No. But can we move to create a world where the consequences of racial bias be reduced as much towards zero? Yes! Will we get to zero? Probably not. Can we push ourselves, our society, our culture, our public policies, our laws, our practices so that being born in a black body will have fewer and fewer negative economic, social and political and even bodily consequences? Yes! In fact, I think we’re already on that track. The consequences of being in a black body in 1776 are very different than in 1876 and different in 1976, and very different in 2015.

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