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Michelle Obama and the politics of shifting

The added benefit of having Barack Obama as president, is that Michelle Obama becomes the first lady. For the first time in American history, an African American female has been uplifted as symbol of grace, beauty and intelligence. Michelle is setting trends, and has been compared to the likes of Jackie O.

Though Michelle has openly stated that her job is to be “mom in chief”, she cannot be oblivious to the terrible burden that she carries of representing black womanhood to the world. Every step, every word, and every expression that she makes is carefully scrutinized in an effort to cast her, and all African American women, back into the role of social obsolescence.

Never has the world watched the actions and the decisions of a black woman the way that it has watched Michelle Obama. We have had our share of sheroes that deserve acclaim, and recognition, but none have been forced to play representative of a race, and a gender, in the way that Michelle has.

Michelle is the quintessential “mystical negress,” and whether she likes that role or not she will have to play it. As a BUPPIE she is a figure that white people of privilege can relate to with a certain amount of ease. It is only when she reveals her blackness and questions the systemic inequality that makes her experience the exception rather than the rule, does discomfort begin to enter the equation.

Imagine if during her interview with Barbara Walters, Michelle had talked about serving collard greens, how this would have altered the conversation.

To remain the idol of all, Michelle must deny, or create as invisible, any aspect of her identity that is uniquely African American. For acceptability to be maintained she must keep the conversation on a level that whites can feel comfortable with at all times; otherwise she will be reduced to an “exotic other” in an effort to discipline her into performing.

The complexities of the situation are something I highly expect to only reveal itself as more problematic as the Obama presidency moves forward. Her husband has pitched the lie to the American people that there is “no white America and no black America”, even though division clearly exists.

The death threats against his person certainly attest to the fact that the US is not a nation that has reached a place of racial harmony. The press has further preoccupied itself with dissecting Michelle’s body. If no true division existed between the races, the need to paint the Obamas as triumphant heroes would not exist.

To some degree those in the public eye must always wear a mask. What they truly think, or feel about any issue is usually weighed against the personal cost to their careers. Even the most affluent people of colour will admit that there is a way that we speak to each other, and a way that we speak when in a room with people of various ethnicities. Colin Powell has spoken at length about the experience of shifting. Michelle Obama alluded to this very same disconnect in her thesis.

Even though there is no concrete identity that is specific to blackness, there is a unique culture that is specifically African American. Part of being successful is having the ability to shift as necessary to accommodate your surroundings.

Historically those that have fallen into the owning class, or bourgeoisie, have been white. Class is more than the ability to purchase or consume certain commodities; it is also a way of behaving. It is more complicated than selecting the correct fork at a formal dinner.

Many patterns of behaviour can directly be traced to class. It is about achieving a level of functionality within the group one associates with. Behaviour is disciplined and those that fail to conform are often cast aside. The treatment of the “nouveau riche” confirms that class location involves more than just wealth. It is performance in addition to possessions and knowledge.

The whiteness of wealth in America often means that class and race become conflated; thus when you hear the charge that someone is acting white there is an unspoken link to class-specific behaviour. When someone is charged with acting ghetto it is a commentary on class, but the unspoken element is race. As BUPPIES, Michelle and Barack were already assuming some of the behaviour that is typically linked to whiteness due to their rise in class status.

This is where the disconnect begins; to prosper and function one must necessarily adopt the behaviour patterns of those that are most able to help you succeed, but the cost is losing a true connection to African American culture. It means performing for others and saving your true self for more private moments.

Upwardly mobile of colour routinely deny ghetto culture as legitimate. The apologists like Bill Cosby and Shelby Steele have habitually attacked poor blacks under the guise of uplifting the race, when in actuality it is to define a difference between them and the poor. The functionality of so-called ghetto behaviour, or ebonics, is ignored in the attempt to privilege white bourgeoisie performance.

Though Michelle is now held up as a representative of black womanhood, it is a false designation because her class status will not allow her to publicly display her African American culture without being attacked. She is a slave to the very concept of the post racial world that she and her husband tried so valiantly to declare. Throughout the entirety of her husband’s tenure as President she must remain an enigma; shifting from situation to situation.

What is success? Can someone achieve success while at the same time expressing their connection to African American culture? Can a person of color perform their ethnicity without fear of backlash? Clearly the answer to this question is no. When we examine the ways in which the Obamas have been attacked, it is primarily on the basis of their race.

Michelle Obama uses a chemical straightner to relax her hair, yet when she was depicted on the cover of The New Yorker, she was shown with an Afro. The Afro is a symbol of the black pride movement that originated in the late 60’s. Though the cartoonist claimed this was meant as a mockery of the racism aimed at the family, what it revealed is that blackness in its natural state is unacceptable. If blackness in its natural state is rejected, this necessarily forces those that wish to “be acceptable” to perform to enter into the circles of the white bourgeoisie.

In a post racial world such shifting should not be necessary. While we sit and celebrate Michelle as a black woman, we demand that she carry herself a certain way, dress a certain way, and speak a certain way. Should she slip and revert to what for her might be a more comfortable way of relating to the world, her association with black culture will cause immediate discomfort among those whose support both she and her husband need for continued political success.

Acceptability and representing black womanhood comes at a cost. How can she ever be her true self as long as we continue to deny that there is a difference between Black America and White America? Culture and class combine to ensure that a successful person of color will forever perform on a stage that is not of their own choosing.

5 thoughts on “Michelle Obama and the politics of shifting

  1. As usual, I love your posts.

    My best friend in college was a middle-class black girl from Tacoma, Washington. She was constantly being picked on by her black friends for “acting white” because she’d grown up middle class. I remember her getting mightily offended at a professor who insisted that she spoke ebonics at home.

    So I wonder if this isn’t a double bind for Michelle Obama–if she acts one way she will be too black for white America, and if she acts another way, she will be too white for black America. Remember Obama being criticized early on for not being black enough.

    Yet one of the things that has struck me about both the Obamas is the way they seem to be very comfortable with who they are.

    Just as many feminists assume that I must be wearing makeup and skirts to appeal to men, I am loath to assume that Michelle Obama dresses and talks the way she does because she’s trying to appeal to white folks like me.

  2. Renee, great post! I agree with you and I must also say that Michelle Obama will be held to a higher standard, through no fault of her own. She makes Barbara Bush look like a frump. Actually, she was frumpy. Michelle Obama exudes such grace, confidence and determination that you have to stop and listen to what she is saying.

  3. Yes, she is represents Black American women. She also represents, to some degree, all American women of color (even we of mixed blood who “look” White). I look forward to when she represents all American women. Hell, I look forward to when she can be a woman and not have to “represent” anyone!

    Whom does John McCain represent? Is he a symbol for White American men? Or is he just…McCain? Until she becomes just Ms. Obama she will not be able to do anything without scrutiny, criticism, and also idealization.

    I see another windmill. Must tilt.

  4. I’m with Sarah J here. And yes, awesome post. I just think the data isn’t all in. Michelle and her brother (student and then coach at a top school) have both gravitated towards yuppie worlds. That could be partially a desire to succeed professionally and economically, and also that they are comfortable in both of those worlds. It’s hard to say whether Michelle feels constrained or if what we are seeing is who she is, as much as is the case for any politician who is somewhat playing a part. This is someone who chose to work at Sidley & Austin, and found it more tolerable than I found a similar firm. Sidley’s the epitome of yuppitude.

    I imagine the truth is somewhere in between — Michelle may be more comfortable than black American would wish, and less comfortable than white America would wish, with the public persona she must adopt.

    But I guess your larger point remains, whatever the case is for Michelle in particular. If she had wanted to talk about collard greens with BW, and if she did wish to have a different hairstyle, she’d be scrutinized in a much more negative way than if a white woman talked recipes or adopted a controversial hairstyle.

  5. MO isn’t exactly a first-generation buppie, I gather that she is from a line of several generations of “talented tenth” types. I’d find it odd if she DID identify with real or faux “ghetto culture” as represented by pop culture trends. I can’t picture her listening to commercial rap of the misogynist sort or glamorizing violence. Jazz and classical music seem more likely to be in her music library.

    John McCain represents The Grumpy Old Man.

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