Not even the first lady of the most powerful nation in the world is immune to stereotypes that have plagued Black women since first setting foot on American soil. Stereotypes of being the “angry Black woman” and curiosity about differences in appearance still persist from the academy to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.
As African-American women rise in ranks, their accomplishments, education, successes and contributions are frequently shadowed by the realities of misperceptions and stigmas that can potentially mar their legacy.
Since slavery and post-slavery, African-American women were seen as strong, but typically had no voice. Even during the feminist movement, African-American women fought for inclusion and were largely overlooked.
Humanist and feminist theorist bell hooks (Gloria Watkins) has been a cultural critic for decades. In her essays Killing Rage: Ending Racism, she wrote about how a Black woman’s rage must always remain repressed, contained, trapped in the realm of the unspeakable. In the title essay, Hooks writes about the “killing rage” — that fierce anger of Black people stung by repeated instances of every day racism.
Though published 16 years ago, it remains relevant as national conversations about the portrayal of African-American women are placed under a microscope after a recently released book titled The Obamas written by New York Times correspondent Jodi Kantor. The book has raised ire as first lady Michelle Obama is scrutinized and depicted as controlling and restless in her role in the White House and remains in a constant state of frustration.
She is a wife, mother, a highly accomplished lawyer, Princeton cum laude graduate and Harvard trained, but, for many, Michelle Obama is an anomaly. Some have tried to reduce her to a fashionista or shift focus to her physical stature.
In the spotlight
As first lady, in 2010 she launched “Let’s Move!,” a campaign to bring together community leaders, teachers, doctors, nurses and parents in a nationwide effort to tackle childhood obesity.
In 2011, Obama and Dr. Jill Biden launched “Joining Forces,” a nationwide initiative that has been working with American businesses that are committed to hiring or training 100,000 unemployed veterans and military spouses by 2013.
Some critics admonish Kantor’s book for overreaching through secondhand reports and reading into the meaning and significance of even the nodding of the first lady’s head as the president delivered a speech.
In a Jan. 11 interview with “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King, the first lady acknowledged that some have tried to portray her as an “angry Black woman” since the national spotlight first focused on the couple.
“Who can write about how I feel?” Michelle Obama said in the interview. “What third person can tell me how I feel or anybody for that matter?”
“I guess it’s more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here. But that’s an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry Black woman.”
The stereotypes resonate deeply with many women in the academy who know all too well what it means to have every movement scrutinized.
“I’m certain first lady Michelle Obama has the additional burden of being the first woman of color to occupy the White House,” said Dr. Marilyn Mobley, vice president for inclusion, diversity and equal opportunity at Case Western Reserve University. “Because she is the first and the nation has not fully embraced how Black women are both unique from and similar to other women, she is hypervisible and, therefore, under greater scrutiny.
“The problem is that popular culture and the media glorify and foreground Black women in so many caricatured and undignified ways that Michelle Obama appears to be more of an anomaly than she really is. In the African-American community, we are accustomed to seeing good looking, intelligent, well-educated Black women.”
While college campuses are replete with highly intelligent, well-educated African-American women, there is a common thread of walking a tightrope in managing perceptions and avoiding stereotypes.
“I have experienced White people assuming I was angry simply because I persistently disagreed with them or called their perspective into question,” Mobley said. “There remains a great deal of work to do around unconscious bias to assist people with understanding that inclusion and diversity are not just nice words but strategies for success and for bringing excellence to the classroom, the workplace, the boardroom and our communities.”
The White House view
The White House officially responded to the book in a blog written by Eric Schultz, White House associate communications director.
“A recent book titled ‘The Obamas’ is the author’s take, reflecting her own opinions, on a remarkably strong relationship between the president and first lady – both of whom share an unwavering commitment to each other and to improving the lives of Americans.
“The book is about a relationship between two people whom the author has not spoken to in years. In fact, the author did not interview the Obamas for the book, so the emotions and private moments described in the book, though often seemingly ascribed to the president and first lady, reflect little more than the author’s own thoughts.”
Dr. Yolanda Moses, professor of anthropology and associate vice chancellor for diversity, excellence and equity at the University of California-Riverside, said there is unfair pressure placed on Black women in high-ranking positions.
“Michelle Obama is in an unprecedented place in this country,” Moses said. “At some level, I do not think people know what to do with her or how to get their heads around the fact that she is the ‘first lady.’ You saw over the years the backlash against other strong first ladies, such as Rosalind Carter and Hillary Clinton.
They both had to dumb themselves down and to ‘know their place.’”
Moses added, “It is really a partnership. Michelle Obama is expected to support her husband, and her true personality, intelligence and drive will be muted until she is out of the White House.”
Even beyond Kantor’s book, the first lady has been criticized about her physical appearance from showing her toned arms to being photographed deplaning Air Force One wearing shorts.
“Our physicality is always scrutinized,” Mobley said. “Some found our bodies caricatures or objects of desire and everything in between. We are often dealing with that in the academy. We walk into classrooms and we are there to teach, but our minds are in our bodies. We bring our whole selves to work.”
“Michelle Obama brings her whole self to the work, and she is doing a stellar job as first lady. We are witnessing her role in the context of millions of people who have never seen a Black woman in a position of power. There are those who can’t see outside our physicality and people who bring their biases through cultural contact lenses they’ve been wearing for years. Unfortunately, those same people try to judge her in ways that reveal their own ignorance.”
On campus, intelligent African-American women are facing similar challenges of attempting to navigate environments where they must balance the burden of being sometimes overtaxed in all things diversity, while attempting to gain tenure.
“I bring a consciousness that can feel like a burden,” Mobley said. “I’m here because I believe it’s important to hear perspectives they normally don’t. We bring something different to the table. The academy loses out when we try to blend in.”
“There is a hyper visibility when universities realize they want diversity. We are often the only Black person at the table. That one person will get stretched thin. Women are socialized to go along to get along. While doing all of that service, another committee is waiting to see how much work you’ve done toward gaining tenure.”
Without tenure, many non-HBCU college campuses throughout the country are missing out on diverse perspectives.
According to a YourBlackworld.net survey, 42 percent of Black college graduates had never had one Black professor in four years of college. Seventy-four percent only had one Black professor in a field outside of Africana studies.
The absence of diversity has a far-reaching impact on gaining a broader perspective about the world and helping college students gain a balanced viewpoint.
“I taught courses on Zora Neale Hurston and Toni Morrison, and after class an older White woman came to me to ask for help to tell the Black women in class to tone it down, that they were too angry,” Mobley said. “I said perhaps you are not used to hearing their voices.”
“This is as old as I am. And if I am angry, it’s because the status quo needs to be changed,” she said. “When you silence, dismiss and marginalize some people — I am going to look angry to you. But what if I’m not mad but just want to bring a different view? As soon as you tell your story and it doesn’t go along with everyone else, you are thought to be angry. There is righteous anger. We want people to care about the nation that everybody gets so angry that they understand the fierce urgency of now.
“I am a joyful woman, but there are things about the academy that need to be changed.”