A few days ago, my mother sent me a neat Washington Post article about Michelle Obama. Building off of recent news about a national survey that highlights the lives, experiences, and values of Black women, the article discusses the significance of the Obamas being the First Family, especially Michelle Obama as the nation’s First Lady. The article is decent enough, pointing to concerns about racism, harsh criticism that Michelle Obama has faced (some likely nothing more than a double standard relative to previous First Ladies), and how meaningful it is for Black women (and other people of color) to see someone like them occupying such an important position.
Toward the end of the article, I started skimming, feeling as though I had already gotten the point. Yes, yes — I feel tingles every time I see Michelle Obama on television, as well. She is simply phenomenal. And, though others aim for politeness in denying that the Obamas’ racial identities matter to them or in general (for better or worse), I admit that I am more interested in the Obama family because they are of color. After over two centuries of white men in office, it is exciting to see a (mostly) Black family in the White House.
Though I appreciate the article, I was left wondering, “why now?“ Michelle Obama has been First Lady since the start of 2009. The attention to her racial and gender identities is, well, a tad late. But, wait! Why are we just now interested in the lives of Black women after centuries in this country? The survey, while important and interesting, leaves something to be desired, as well. Fortunately, I found that another blogger shared my discontent with the media’s new found interest in Black women in the US:
When faced with earnest but confusing efforts like the Washington Post/Kaiser Family Foundation’s survey and interviews with 800 black women, I find myself getting all Etta James, righteously nasty. Frankly, I’m sick of using my brain cells and laptop-worn vision to parse out the latest examination of the rare species Blackus Womanamina Americanus.
First, the media attention to the survey speaks about Black women’s lives as though they exist in an ahistorical, racism- and sexism-free vacuum:
This is a nifty, irritating trick because it absolves the very institutions that have consistently denied or marginalized black women’s voices. While the article briefly covers underemployment, tokenism and the stereotype of the “welfare queen,” it doesn’t dig into structural racism past or present. We don’t get how and why reductive ideas of black womanhood have been created, manipulated and consistently sold by mass media. This is an article about black women and stereotypes that doesn’t mention pesky ills like slavery, Jim Crow, reproductive injustice and mass incarceration but name-checks “Basketball Wives.” Without proper context, the black women respondents become self-sacrificing victims who haven’t learned to define themselves, shadowboxing with mysterious ghosts.
Second, the media attention emphasizes the importance of these findings in relation to white women and men, and Black men, as if they are not important in their own right:
And when media don’t listen, they publish black-women centered surveys that compare our responses to those of white women, black men and white men, as if there are no other groups of people in this damn country who help shape our collective experiences. They ask by-the-numbers questions about fundamental aspects of human life through the lens of race without interrogating why one would even need to ask these questions.
Despite Black women’s existence from the beginning of US history, we are just now beginning to see greater representation of Black women in mainstream media. Though this representation has improved in some ways, others argue we still have a ways to go. Let’s hope that this sudden attention to Black women will be sustained, no matter the race or ethnicity of whoever our First Lady is in 2013.