Friday, May 18, 2007

Why Michelle Obama Can't Just "Be Herself"

“Are Americans threatened by working wives?” is the closing question posed by Leslie Morgan Steiner in her Washington Post article “Michelle Obama’s Front Page Move.” Over the past week, a lot of news has popped up about the Obama family, particularly with regard to Barack Obama’s stance on affirmative action, and Michelle Obama’s recent decision to leave her job in order to devote more time to her husband’s presidential campaign. Steiner’s piece compared the role of Ms. Obama to that of Hillary Clinton when her husband Bill held presidential office, and criticized the mainstream press for focusing so much attention on Ms. Obama’s recent career move. The piece, however, was completely devoid of race. For some, mentioning race with regard to the Obamas is a bit like beating a dead horse, race being something so many liberals who sing the song of a colorblind nation would like for us to forget. But the undeniable intersection of race and gender that occurs in the minds of observers each time Ms. Obama enters a room is one that should not be ignored, especially considering that the press has certainly not been shy about making headlines of studies, one co-authored by Steiner herself, and media representations of black women as of late.

According to what has been dubbed as “the first national survey exploring how life, love, work, motherhood, money, sex, religion and relationships differ for black and white American women” by its authors Steiner, a Washington Post columnist, and Paula Penn-Narbit, who wrote Morning by Morning, a book about her experiences homeschooling her three sons, black women are more likely to possess financial independence than their white female counterparts. In their study “Women in Black and White,” Steiner and Penn-Narbit noted that 90% of the black women interviewed had a savings account as compared to 83% of the white survey respondents. In addition, the same percentage of black women indicated that they worked outside of the home, as opposed to only 78% of white women. Though these figures seem positive, there are several underlying factors that call for a reconsideration of such a quick judgment.

For one, the black women interviewed noted that they felt burdened by the prevalence of racism, feared that their daughters would be objectified as a result of their race, and considered financial independence more of a necessity than a choice. Secondly, considering that black women are “less than half as likely [as white women] to be married” and/or have supplemental financial backing from their families and spouses (if applicable), their financial “freedom” clearly comes at a cost. Finally, statistics such as these only provide further fuel to the gift and curse known as the “Strong Black Woman” (SBW)syndrome. The syndrome, explored in depth in an 1997 Ebony Magazine piece by Laura B. Randolph, is the aftershock of a stereotype of the same name that characterizes black women as unflinching bearers of all the weight that comes with blackness in addition to the balls and chains (a la Jacob Marley from the Christmas Carol) of single parenthood, emotional pain, and economic instability. The SBW, despite being heavily laden with hardships, manages to maintain balance, her arms akimbo on her large brown hips, and never breaks a sweat lest she ruin her freshly “done” coif. The SBW is a cultural myth and superhero that, while empowering on the one hand, places an immense amount of pressure on black women while simultaneously emasculating black men. It is a myth that harkens back to Victorian class and gender norms that portrayed working class women as rugged and masculine and wealthy housewives as human porcelain dolls, voiceless “Angels of the House.” It is a myth that is, without a doubt, meant to frighten those who wish for black women to remain in “their place.”

Michelle Obama, for the American press, is the quintessential SBW. She was raised in a working class family, yet attended Princeton University for college and Harvard University for law school. She held a well-paying, high powered job, yet somehow still managed to serve as a dutiful wife and mother. Though for some, Ms. Obama was still not enough. In line with the predictable sexism and racism that still haunts black women, critics picked apart her every move. On the one hand, she was not soft enough on American eyes. Michelle Obama, to this day, is often photographed mid-sentence, her eyes intense and her mouth set to form a word, yet mistaken as forming a scowl. She is characterized as “blunt,” “competitive,” and “irreverent,” even by the most liberal of mainstream newspapers. Worst of all, she has been recently chastised for even the slightest of joking while accompanying her husband on the campaign trail. In a San Jose Mercury News article entitled “Michelle Obama’s Just a Bit Too Quick to Deflate Hype,” author Maureen Dowd expresses her outrage at Ms. Obama for attempting to be funny, “I wince a bit when Michelle Obama chides her husband as a mere mortal.” She further criticizes Ms. Obama for not having given her husband advice prior to his having made a real estate deal with someone whose ethical background was questionable, mockingly begging the question, “isn’t that where a dazzling, touch, smart, and connected wife could come in handy?” After reading the article, one wonders whether a woman like Michelle Obama can ever just be herself.

She can’t be funny. She probably shouldn’t work. After all, if she wants to counter the SBW stereotype and make her husband appear to be in charge, she cannot have a career. But when she quits her job, her motivation and commitment are called into question, and she risks losing credibility in the eyes of feminists. She can never have a hair out of place, appear aggressive, or ever be shown working out (one of her favorite activities), lest she characterized by someone as a “nappy headed ho.” In light of this constant and very public criticism, Michelle Obama can never quite be herself without being stereotyped as the aforementioned SBW—a categorization that could potentially destroy her husband’s presidential campaign. While Ms. Obama is (and would be considered even more so if she were to become First Lady) an incredible role model for black women and girls everywhere, it is rather disappointing that her personality and achievements must be scaled back in order to make her more appealing to Americans who are afraid to think beyond their comfort zones and recognize that a black woman can be an equal without being a threat.

-Wendi Muse

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

God Bless Michelle Obama for daring to be herself in the glare of such ignorance and nonsense spouting from the mainstream media. She's my First Lady

Anonymous said...

"...Though these figures seem positive, there are several underlying factors that call for a reconsideration of such a quick judgment.

"For one, the black women interviewed noted that they felt burdened by the prevalence of racism, feared that their daughters would be objectified as a result of their race, and considered financial independence more of a necessity than a choice..."

OTOH, isn't considering financial independence more of a necessity than a choice actually a good thing in the long run?

It seems as though the wives who think it's a choice and choose to be financially dependent are the ones at higher risk of finding themselves "displaced housewives" (or STD-infected if they don't want to be divorced by condom-hating cheaters), no matter what their ethnicities and nationalities are.

BlackWomb said...

Michelle has my vote. She would be an excellent First Lady, among other things. She is a Blackwomb who makes me proud (see Blackwomb.blogspot). Thanks for the article. We need more critical analysis and support of Black women. After the Imus mess, it was pretty obvious that mainstream media (and my extension America) does not know how to respond to an intelligent, witty, and confident Black woman. Case in point, the majority of the people discussing the Imus story were white men and women, and black men. Finally, one of the few black women who were invited on a major news show called the interviewer on it. (I should say, I'm not setting up a competition here b/w black men and women -- who gets more tv time, or who is more oppressed. That argument only benefits those in power.) What I am saying is that we have Michelle Obama's in our communities across the country. Sadly, America isn't ready for what she has to offer.

Anonymous said...

"Thanks for the article. We need more critical analysis and support of Black women."

And more support of critical analysis by Black women! :)

mp said...

More analysis indeed. The examples in your post show exactly why being able to read the readers is so important. Thank you Coup!

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