April 10, 2009

Michelle: A Mirror Reflecting On A Painful Facet of Black Identity

Vanessa William, writing at the Root.com opens a conversation on how Michelle is elevating the profile of black women.

"I won’t apologize for taking note of Michelle Obama’s physical appearance. Plenty has already been said about how she, with her double Ivy degrees, six-figure salaries and two adorable daughters, is crushing the image of the struggling black single mother. She is a real life Clair Huxtable! But the true breakthrough here is that sisters who look like Michelle Obama seldom become cultural icons, aesthetic trendsetters—a proxy for the all-American woman.

And don’t roll your eyes and ask why we have to go there; we haven’t completely gotten over our prejudices about skin tone and hair texture. Despite years of scholarly, literary and popular debate—from Dr. Kenneth Clark’s baby-doll tests, to Toni Morrison’s tragic characters in The Bluest Eye, to the showdown between jiggaboos and wannabes in Spike Lee’s School Daze—too many of us continue to accept a standard of beauty that does not favor ebony-hued skin, woolly hair and full lips (and not those surgically enhanced smackers, either)."

She continues:

But consider the complexions of most of the black women who smile or stare seductively at the world from the covers of celebrity and beauty magazines—cream, café au lait, golden honey. Gorgeous sisters, yes, but we come in other good flavors, too. The failure to showcase dark-skinned beauties feeds the notion that pretty black girls are an exception. Not so much dark and lovely as dark but lovely.

APS's Response: I am pleased to see a black First Family of the United States. It is heartwarming to observe the obvious love and affection between the President and the First Lady. I enjoy seeing a black "everywoman" be honored at home and abroad as the First Lady.
I enjoy the way the First Lady handles her responsibility and role. I take immense pleasure in the fact that my nine year old daughter is highly attuned to the words, actions and travels of the First Lady and that she considers her a model to emulate on a variety of levels - mother, wife, Harvard educated professional and intelligent woman, well spoken, well dressed, clearly home trained, in married partnership with a man who loves, respects and affirms her.

At the same time, it is somewhat ironic, sad and bittersweet that for so many black men and women (but particularly women) of various complexions, that Michelle's elevation as the First Lady is affirming because she is a dark skinned woman and we perceive her as more "representative" of "blackness" and black women than if she were a fairer skinned woman. I have this reaction to Michelle Obama myself. My wife is fair and she takes great pride in Michelle in part because she is a dark skinned black woman. That reaction is one of the psycho social legacies of America's past on race, a kind of emotional and psychological detritus that has not been completely flushed from our emotional system.

This curious in its own way reaction perhaps speaks to the resentment that fair skinned black men and women feel towards a culture that rewards a fair skinned appearance and is more negative towards a dark skin appearance. My wife is also the daughter of a dark skinned black woman who experienced prejudice intra racially as well as across races , so there is an affirmation there because Michelle is a mirror to that experience.

So Michelle's role as the First Lady provokes many positive emotions of pride and joy and admiration among blacks. But those emotions are partly wrapped up and intertwined with our own complicated relationship to our racial identities. Michelle's tenure as the First Lady will continue to affirm us on the one hand and confront us with this complex inner dialogue about ourselves.

I have no idea what its doing to white folks, though I suspect it might be something equally complex.