Like most peoples of the African Diaspora I am thrilled to see a black family living in the white house; where once slaves toiled under the weight of the lash, a young black girl now sleeps peacefully. The love affair with Michelle Obama has become quite obvious. She has made the cover of people and the cover of vogue. There are some who would suggest that the high visibility of Michelle’s image stands as proof that women of colour will be finally be seen as beautiful rather than as exotic backdrops used to promote a Eurocentric beauty ideal. The images commonly used to represent people of colour have been highly racist, often reducing us to animals.
We are all somewhat uplifted by the Obama family however, overstating their ability to radically change the understanding of racialized bodies and in particular that of women of colour is indeed problematic. Even though they exist with a large degree of social power, they have continued to be assaulted by race-based attacks. Obama was most recently featured as a chimpanzee by the Post and it was only after a huge uproar that Rupert Murdoch finally apologized for the cartoon.
The ascension of the Obamas to the very pinnacle of power in the US has given many grounds to posit that we have moved into a post-racial world, but those claims can only be supported if we ignore the ways in which people of colour continue to be disenfranchised.
The high visibility of the Obamas has created new opportunities, but those only translate into new opportunities for those who already existed with a degree of social and economic privilege to begin with. As the staunch Washington insiders searched for blacks to include on their guest lists, those most likely to be approached for inclusion were already considered part of the Afro elite; celebrities and those belonging to old black sorority families quickly found themselves in high demand. It is not enough to say new opportunities for blacks without asking the question of opportunities for whom.
Even before the emancipation of blacks there has always existed a group that were elevated. They either possessed skills that were not common in the community, i.e. the ability to read, or had amassed a degree of financial comfort relative to the rest of the community. Some members were even granted increased opportunity due to hueism, i.e . the preferencing of those with a lighter skin tone.
Looking at the early photos of sororities at black colleges it is not uncommon to see them largely made up of light skinned blacks. Prominent families were known to openly prevent the marriage of their children to darker skinned blacks fearing a devaluation of social power for succeeding generations. Gradations in blackness became common place and the ability to achieve even marginal success quickly came to be associated with skin colour, and social circles.
The fact that many have fixated on the dark skin that Michelle Obama possesses only serves as proof that African Americans are well aware that even in this day of so-called increased equality, pigment still is very much an issue within the black community. The desire to praise Barack for choosing a dark skinned black woman as a wife, despite her obvious intelligence and beauty, speaks to our own internalized racism.
We have a tendency to congregate in, in-groups and out-groups and therefore, increased opportunity for some does not readily translate into increased opportunity for all. The basis of our society is hierarchical associations and it is this artificial ranking system that continues to trap generations in poverty. As a group, blacks very much need to believe in the idea of meritocracy even though we have shown by our own work ethic that the transfer of wealth is far more complicated than the ability to work hard.
The inability to own and transfer property down through generations has been a large stumbling block to the ability of blacks to accumulate capitol. Blacks have been working hard since the first of us stepped onto the western hemisphere however, unequal or no pay, racist loan officers, and the terrorist activities of various white power organizations, has clouded our ability to even purchase a family home.
It is not at all accidental that even blacks with good incomes and good to above average credit ratings were targeted in the mortgage fiasco. Black women were specifically directed to these loans adding a genderized element to the way in which the economy functions. If we do not believe that we can through our individual efforts pull ourselves up by our figurative boot straps, what hope is there to carry on? The lie is essential to our social health even though it wrongly places responsibility on the individual rather than the community.
The rise of the Obamas has quickened many social myths and we need to be weary of who is capitalizing and how this reifies our unequal social discourse. In particular the black community needs to hold our leaders accountable to ensure that those that have always existed with a degree of privilege relative to rest attempt to be more inclusive in their organizing efforts. The movement for change cannot be separated from class. Having an oppressor that looks like you is not very different from staring into the face of a white overseer. A change cannot be realized as long as we continue to employ the masters tools.