Monday, December 01, 2008

On Michelle Obama and Stereotypes

In response to CNN's report "Michelle Obama breaks stereotypes"

CNN's Randi Kaye examines how Michelle Obama may help break down stereotypes of black women.

I’ve seen this segment aired on CNN at least three times and each time it’s made me more and more uncomfortable. Why? Because it’s just plain silly to suggest that Michelle Obama can single-handedly eradicate stereotypes about African-American women. By definition, stereotypes are images or ideas about a group of people that have become fixed by repetition or acceptance, to the point of cliché. If there are stereotypes about Black women being overweight, ignorant or angry, they exist because we have been inundated with those unflattering images over the course of decades and generations.

While I am genuinely excited about what Michelle will bring to the White House, I think we’re doing a disservice not only to the first family, but to our already derelict discourse on race and racism to suggest that one woman’s weight, skin-tone and parenting abilities could possibly reverse a stereotype that was built over several successive decades of white supremacist attitudes about black women being transmitted through every possible mouthpiece from music videos to US public policy.

To avoid yoking our next First Lady with unrealistic expectations, we’re going to have to give serious consideration to her context. What Michelle Obama’s visibility can offer is a counterpoint to the hundreds of negative images of Black women that are circulated daily amongst Americans. So, for the hundreds of mammies, hoes, bitches, Jezebels, welfare mothers, ghetto queens, baby’s mamas and chickenheads that exist in the songs, movies, news reports and anecdotes that comprise our national imagination, there is now one Michelle Obama. She’s powerful, she’s accomplished, she’s fortunate and she’s ambitious, but she’s just one woman, folks. And, to be clear, it’s going to take a lot more than one First Lady to transform or dismantle the caricatured image of black women that’s been crafted by the racist and misogynist attitudes of our white supremacist society.