“Mrs. Obama is black, she is a woman, and if she doesn't get angry on occasion, she is not human. She is human. End of story.”
—George F. Will, This Week, ABC, January 15, 2012 (in response to Michelle Obama saying she is not some “angry black woman” on CBS This Morning, January 11, 2012)
Wait. This is déjà vu. We have been here before, haven’t we? Yes, I believe we have. It was during the hotly contested 2008 presidential race, the democratic primary was just about over, then-Sen. Barack Obama was about to win the nomination, and his wife, Harvard-educated attorney turned hospital executive Michelle Obama came under fire in an infamous caricature of her on the cover of the July 2008 New Yorker magazine—sporting a large afro, toting a machine gun, and wearing militant ’70s clothes. The cover story was in response to the political flap that summer over her remarks that she was “proud of her country for the first time.”
Conservative media pundits like Cal Thomas, Bill O’Reilly, and Rush Limbaugh immediately pounced, calling her—well, you guessed it—“an angry Black Woman.” If that wasn’t enough, they started to dig into her college senior thesis at Princeton. The thesis, titled “Princeton-Educated Blacks and the Black Community” and written under her maiden name—Michelle LaVaughn Robinson—examined the isolation she felt as a black student at the Ivy League college.
She wrote: “My experiences at Princeton have made me far more aware of my 'blackness' than ever before. I have found that at Princeton, no matter how liberal and open-minded some of my white professors and classmates try to be toward me, I sometimes feel like a visitor on campus; as if I really don't belong. Regardless of the circumstances under which I interact with whites at Princeton, it often seems as if, to them, I will always be black first and a student second."
The furor continued and rumors emerged that there was even a damaging video of her saying “Down with whitey” at a private event at her then-controversial church with Pastor Jeremiah Wright. That video never surfaced because it never existed.
Like millions of black women in America, I was ticked (yes, angry even). And I was appalled at how she was being vilified and attacked. I had experienced it too many times in my own professional and personal life, as every black woman who dares speak her mind, or share her point of view has at some point. I penned an article in The Washington Post titled “Black. Female. Accomplished. Attacked,” which went viral among black women and the mainstream media. I then took to the airwaves to defend Mrs. Obama and professional black women like her on CNN Morning. Fortunately, the Obamas went on to win the White House, and the hopes and dreams of millions of black women like me were realized. We finally had someone who looked like “us” residing at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, who would represent us in a positive, affirming, and fulfilled way on a global platform.
Mrs. Obama, Image & Stereotypes
Fast forward to January 11, 2012: first lady Michelle Obama sits down for an interview with CBS’s Gayle King. They discuss the then-controversial new book, The Obamas, written by New York Times reporter Jodi Kantor, and its allegations that Mrs. Obama was an oft-combative force to be reckoned with in the West Wing. She pushed back saying: “I am not some kind of angry black woman.” Washington went crazy. Pundits (including me) took to the airwaves to analyze the wisdom of the first black first lady actually being bold enough to talk about race and angry-black-women stereotypes. The general consensus was she should not have used the term. Of course, I strongly disagreed.
So here we are again. Michelle Obama, now in the second term, finds herself smack dab in the middle of yet another controversy about how she “reacts” to what she does not like, or when she feels she is being “disrespected.” On Tuesday, the first lady was speaking at an event, she was heckled by a member of the LGBT community, and she apparently stopped her remarks, walked up to the woman—“eye to eye” witnesses say—and threatened to leave the event if the heckler did not listen instead of talk. The news spread quickly of the so-called confrontation, and this is where I want to start my well-honed observation of the incident.
Given the backdrop of all I just shared, I think it’s fair to say that Obama has had to tread lightly since she appeared on the political scene in 2006 when her husband ran for the U.S. Senate. That is no longer the case in my opinion. To be honest, although it is quite the balancing act for black women like me and like Obama to have to walk every day of our professional lives, dodging and deflecting stereotypes, we are good at it. It is second nature. But, I also know what it is like to keep your emotions suppressed all the time for fear that if you speak your mind, be authentic with people, or stand up for yourself, you will be called “strident,” “angry,” “mean,” “bitchy,” “not a team player,” or worse.
I could go on and on, but nothing—and I do mean nothing—that this woman has displayed over the past five years remotely resembles ‘angry.’
Obama as first lady has a unique role in history. She is the first. She has been consistently ranked as a Forbes Power Woman. And her influence on fashion and style has set records for companies like J.Crew, “off the rack” clothing in department stores, and “high fashion” couture. As a black woman, she has become the standard-bearer of how the world sees “us.” In this second term, she no longer has to worry about what people call her. It is what she answers to that matters most. Her confronting the heckler on Tuesday was a great American moment of human exchange, one that says to the world, “Ain’t I a woman too?” Don’t I deserve the dignity and respect of my role as first lady? Don’t I deserve to be respectfully heard? Yes. She does.
Here is the truth: Obama defies negative stereotypes about black women, and turns them square on their head. She is physically fit and toned (many black women in America are obese according to the CDC and health indices). She works out daily. She eats well and ensures that her family (and the nation through her Let’s Move initiative) does as well. She has an ongoing and open love affair with her husband, the president, that harks back to the Cosby era of the 1980s–’90s. She is a good daughter (her mom lives in the White House). She is a great friend (she has drinks with the girls). She makes us laugh with Jimmy Kimmel on late-night TV. She loves our military and is their greatest champion here at home. I could go on and on, but nothing—and I do mean nothing—that this woman has displayed over the past five years remotely resembles “angry.”
Where Do We Go From Here
In the final analysis, Michelle Obama, like me, and every professional “sister” I know, has to walk a fine line. I am hopeful that having her as first lady will change the game for us in ways that allow us to feel and express the same range of emotion that all human beings are allowed to have (except us).
The subtitle of my book, Black Woman Redefined, reads: “Dispelling Myths and Discovering Fulfillment In the Age of Michelle Obama.” The age of Michelle Obama is a creation in my mind of what I hope life will be like for black women after she is no longer first lady of the United States. My hope is that her candor on issues like racial stereotypes and gender, will allow “us” to be more candid without fear of backlash or social isolation. My hope is that her balanced approach to living and loving will inspire a new generation of young black women to do the same. My hope is that her disciplined example of taking time to exercise, rest, and frolic with her spouse and kids will force some of us to step back and do the same. My hope is that she will change the way that people see us, particularly as professional black women, as too much Olivia Pope (tough, fixers, side-chicks, always working), and not enough Michelle Obama (mom, wife, fit, easy, fun, sister, friend).
At the end of the day, stereotypes are not funny when they follow you everywhere. Obama’s latest controversy conjures up the age-old discussion of the “angry black woman.” The not-so-subtle message is this: be careful of the “angry black woman” because you never know when she might just “go off” on you. It keeps us in our place. It keeps us mute and it hinders our progress as human beings. My hope is that Obama will continue to speak her mind, honor herself, and stand her ground in such a way that helps the rest of us to do the same.