01.13.12

Michelle Obama Confronts Racial Stereotypes in White House Tell-All

Black America hoped Michelle Obama would usher in big changes in how women of color are perceived. As 'The Obamas' shows, the first lady is still fighting off old stereotypes.

First lady Michelle Obama isn’t fond of being in the eye of the storm, but this week she’s had no choice. Hounded by reports that she had frequent tension-filled encounters with her husband’s White House staff, Mrs. Obama stood up for herself on CBS and declared once again that she wasn’t the stereotypical “angry black woman.”

Four years ago, few could have predicted the first African-American FLOTUS would still be defending herself against the slur that never seems to lose its appeal to the mainstream.

The fact that a conversation about the attitude and disposition of Mrs. Obama remains such a hot-button topic is a major disappointment for those who thought times would change after her husband’s election in 2008. Many in the African-American community were certain the mere presence of Michelle Obama on the international stage would effect perceptions of black women worldwide.

Surely it would be impossible to ignore the grace, charm and intellect of the 5’11” Chicago native, with her Harvard Law degree, committed marriage, and two young daughters. Society would come to realize that Michelle Obama was not the exception but more often the rule in the black community.  Magazines would have covers featuring women of all hues and Hollywood would expand storylines to offer more detailed and diverse descriptions of women of color. Terms such as “angry black woman’’ would die a fitting and long overdue death.

Unfortunately that hasn’t been the case.  The release of Jodi Kantor’s book, The Obamas, four years later makes it clear that Michelle Obama’s arrival on the scene has done little to change the way in which black women and race are still viewed in America.

“The looming shadow of racism is always there and it’s very sad,’’ says Mikki Taylor, a former editor at Essence  and author of Commander in Chic, about Michelle Obama. “Who was more feisty than Barbara Bush?  Laura Bush always spoke her mind, but Michelle Obama takes the heat for being an independent-thinking woman. It’s so clearly based on race and backward ways of thinking.’’

Michelle Obama has faced the wrath of negative media before. As her husband gained recognition on the 2008 presidential trail, Michelle often faced criticism. Some viewed her no-nonsense gray pantsuits and structured flip hairstyles as cold and sterile, while others said the words she chose in speeches and even the deep arch of her eyebrows revealed a woman furious at America and the lifestyle it offered her. Adding fuel to the fire was The New Yorker cover in 2008 that infamously featured the then-aspiring first couple doing a black power-like fist bump and Michelle armed with an angry scowl, afro, and machine gun.

“That said it all to me in terms of how the country saw her and how they’d continue to see her,’’ said Lana James, 22, a student at Spelman College in Atlanta. “The country has a set view of black women whether we are educated or not. Whether we’re married or not and no matter what else we do. I really did think she’d make people have more open minds, but it’s made no difference. No matter what she’s done, it makes no difference.’’

She’s done a lot to appease her critics in the past. Prior to her husband’s election, Michelle softened her look by adding more dresses and floral prints to her wardrobe and changed the tone and tenor of the speeches she made during the 2008 campaign.  Since entering the White House, the first lady has remained low-key, focusing on non-controversial issues such as better services for military families, childhood obesity, and the welfare of her own two daughters, Malia and Sasha.

“Michelle had no desire to get involved with the day-to-day issues of the White House and that was clear from day one,’’ says a White House source. “She had no desire to be the next Hillary Clinton or face the opposition Hillary faced because she was so involved in her husband’s office. She did not want that headache.’’

Kantor’s  book asserts that Michelle regularly butted heads with former Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel and often expressed frustration with staff members for not pushing her husband’s initiatives more.

The first lady told Gayle King on CBS This Morning that she hadn’t read Kantor’s book but she’d grown tired of the constant attacks on her character. “I guess it’s more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and as a strong women--you know? But that’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman.’’

The book also noted that Mrs. Obama was overly concerned with just how she’d be viewed as the first African-American first lady. To that claim, Mrs. Obama offered this explanation. “Who can write about how I feel? Who?  What third person can tell me how I feel, how anybody feels for that matter?’’

But few could blame the first lady if she’s concerned with the image she presents?  In era in which the most visible African-American women usually sing or dance for a living, Michelle Obama has been in the unique position to change the thought process and lives of many young women eager to travel a different road to success.

“There seems to be so many people angry with him and what he has or hasn’t done—nothing associated with him is given the benefit of the doubt and that includes Michelle.’’

“Anyone who is the first is a big deal and you worry about being the best you can be in that position,’’ said a longtime friend of the Obamas. “Of course she had the basic concerns of not wanting to be a poor representation of all women, but definitely women of color. We’re not all Nene Leakes with loud mouths and stripper poles on our resumes.’’

Others say they’re frustrated that the book’s more in-depth points about Michelle Obama have been lost in the frenzy of over her alleged confrontational manner.  Several references in The Obamas stress an unyielding loyalty to her husband and a determined desire to see his campaign promises fulfilled.

“I guess people don’t want to see that aspect of her talked about,’’ says Taylor.  “She’s supporting her husband. But that sounds too much like a real marriage or a good marriage and black folk don’t have those, you know. Michelle is concerned about doing the work and serving her purpose in helping others. She’s concerned about raising her children well. She’s not in the White House fighting her husband’s staff.’’

Still, it’s also easy to question if Barack Obama’s difficult term as president has played any factor in the more recent negative reports about his wife. Obama supporters say right-wing opponents have much to gain from painting the picture of a White House bitterly divided and a spouse causing additional problems for an administration fighting for re-election.

“I do wonder if part of this is because of how people view Obama and what he’s done in office,’’ says Victoria Uwumarogie, editor of the African-American website Madame Noire. “Because there seems to be so many people angry with him and what he has or hasn’t done—nothing associated with him is given the benefit of the doubt and that includes Michelle.’’

Uwumarogie said she believes if President Obama is re-elected and able to increase employment and the overall economy, Michelle Obama will have a second chance to redefine public opinion.  Taylor’s not so sure.

“Everyone isn’t going to like you and I’m sure Michelle’s parents taught her that as a child, just like mine did,’’ said Taylor. “The key is doing your job and doing what you feel strongly about. She can’t worry about the attitudes of others so much, but do what’s needed of her. It doesn’t work like that. She’s a brilliant woman with a lot to offer and that’s that.’’