WILLIAMSTOWN -- Melissa Harris-Perry, host of the MSNBC show bearing her name, asked a simple question to a crowded theater at Williams College on Thursday morning: "So what?"
Harris-Perry kicked off the annual Claiming Williams Day with a talk titled, "What Difference Does it Make? Politics, Activism and Scholarship," in which she urged students to challenge existing institutions.
"It is consistently young people who ask the questions that change the world," she said.
Claiming Williams was established in 2004 as a day for the college to reflect on issues of inequality. No classes or athletic events are held, but students, faculty and staff are invited to attend lectures, performances and discussion groups throughout the day.
Assistant professor of political science Candis Smith called Harris-Perry's show, which analyses and synthesizes the week's news, a "GPS for your brain."
"It helps you navigate the world of American politics, international politics, too," Smith said.
Harris-Perry received her bachelor's degree from Wake Forest University in 1994 and her Ph.D. from Duke University in 1999. She has previously served on the faculties of Princeton University and the University of Chicago. Her latest book is titled "Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America."
Throughout her talk, Harris-Perry used the image of the innocence of a child to represent what causes people to question how things work. It was the child in Hans Christian Andersen's tale "The Emperor's New Clothes," she said, that questioned why he was nude.
"Everyone knows the emperor is naked," she said. "But they are bound to a system ... they are worried about status."
The importance of questioning institutions is apparent in U.S. history, she said. The American revolution was a definitive achievement, she said, but did not usher in a fully perfected union.
"It left men [who didn't own land] and all woman without the right to citizenship, it left African-Americans in chains and without the basic recognition of humanity," she said.
It was the Civil War that would challenge the institution of slavery, ultimately leading to the 13th amendment that outlawed it.
"For a short while it made a really big difference," Harris-Perry said. But Jim Crow laws meant African-Americans in the south remained marginalized.
She explained how growing up in a post-civil rights era gave her opportunities her parents did not have.
"I have attended and taught universities where my father could not attend because of his race, or my mother couldn't attend because of her gender," she said. "I have lived to see a black man elected president, twice," she added.
Harris-Perry finished by again encouraging students to question the establishment.
"Even after you accept the hard earned degree, I encourage you to be [a child] who goes into life, in a certain way, quite ignorant," she said. "Because the most exciting thing in the world is realizing how little you know, and how little you will know, and getting terribly comfortable with it."
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