The historic moment we're experiencing — in which a black man could be the president of the United States of America — has lead to a colossal conundrum: What are we going to do about Michelle Obama? Over on Salon, Erin Aubry Kaplan eloquently explains why some conservatives don't "get" Ms. Obama: "She went to Princeton, excelled, retained her racial conscience but also eventually commanded a six-figure salary. All of this confuses white people mightily, far more than Barack's biracial status. In their frame of reference, Michelle has no reason to be angry and every reason to be content." Of course, she's being painted as that go-to stereotype: The Angry Black Woman. Kaplan points out: "It's interesting, by the way, how John McCain's hotheaded ways are admired as part of his so-called maverick qualities, a willingness to follow his passions and go against the grain; it's part of his essential Americanness. Michelle Obama's candor, by contrast, is seen as entirely foreign and not a little threatening."
The truth is, this country loves to label people, put them in boxes and keep them there. Let's say you're watching TV and keeping track: White guys are businessmen and politicians; black guys are athletes, entertainers or criminals; black women are video hoes or Oprah. Or The Angry Black Woman, you know, the one who is always telling somebody off, working her neck and letting the insults fly. (See: Omarosa, thousands of bit parts in movies, multiple seasons of The Real World.) It's been more than 20 years since The Cosby Show debuted but it seems like people have a tough time wrapping their heads around the idea of a black female lawyer. And so, in typical American fashion, we attack what we don't understand.
Michelle Obama — who is not even technically the one running for office — has been accused of being hateful. Unpatriotic. Too elite. A baby mama. But she's something the media, the news and the pundits hardly even recognize: An extremely modern woman, a product of her history, background and age. As Kaplan writes: "A recent New York Times profile, in distinguishing Michelle's background from that of her husband, described her as being 'a descendant of slaves' — as if that's a unique fact rather than a collective one that applies to the vast majority of the millions of black Americans whose families have been here for hundreds of years."
But critics are determined to tear down Michelle. The "whitey" comment she claims she never said from a source that does not appear to exist? It's basically a smear campaign, declares Paul Waldman for The American Prospect. Are people are so uncomfortable with a woman in power that they don't know what else to do? Writes Waldman:
"Cindy[McCain] seems to have undergone the same Stepford reengineering that produced Laura Bush, complete with loving gazes and immovable smile. You'd never know that she actually runs a company worth an estimated $250 million.
Which might suggest that if you're a woman married to a man who wants to be president, the best thing to do is pretend you neither have, nor ever harbored hopes of having, a career. But there's not much you can do about your skin color — nobody is going to be calling Cindy her husband's "baby mama". What you want to be, above all, is gentle and timid. Not your own person, with your own ideas and ambitions. Not a threat to anyone."
(Just as an aside: Where does the "black women are threatening" thing come from? Is it because all black people are seen threatening? Wild somehow? Unpredictable? Fierce? Savage? Or is it related somehow to sexual power and matriarchal households, which, if successful, would somehow doom the beloved American patriarchy?)
The crazy part is that Michelle Obama should be treated as a great American success story, someone we can all relate to or be inspired by. Without being forced to "soften" her image. She's a working mom! With brains! What's not to like? It's a paradox: Her story — growing up not rich but not poor in Chicago, making it into Princeton and becoming a lawyer commanding a six-figure salary — is actually the American dream. So why is she being treated like she's the American nightmare?
Then there's this: With all of the attacks against Michelle Obama, why is no one rushing to her defense? Mary C. Curtis recently asked this very question in the Washington Post. "Where are Obama's feminist defenders?" she writes. "I want to know: What does Gloria Steinem think? She was out front with her support of Clinton, promoting the importance of a female president. She has even endorsed Barack Obama. What's her reaction now that the knives are out for another strong woman?" Ms. Curtis seems to lean toward the age-old concept that feminism has elitist, racist roots: "The woman who employed my educated mother to clean her house never quite saw her as a sister in the struggle for equality," she writes. "But in America, there's seldom a cost for disrespecting black women."
Barack Obama's campaign is built on a single word: Change. Isn't it about time it applied to the way a black woman is treated in this country as well?
Who's Afraid Of Michelle Obama? [Salon]
Smearing Michelle [The American Prospect]
Memo Pad [WWD]
Michelle Sells [Politico]
The Loud Silence of Feminists [Washington Post]
When It Comes To Michelle Obama, Where Are The Feminists? [Jack And Jill Politics]