Michelle Obama And The Myth of The Black Superwoman

When Michelle Obama granted an interview with CBS TV to defend herself against rumours that she is regarded as “an angry black woman” I must admit, as a black woman myself, to being disappointed on several levels.

Firstly, because, as the most powerful black woman on the planet, I am astonished that she felt the need to dignify this type of racial stereotyping with any type of response whatsoever. After all - who she is speaks for itself. She is indeed one of the most powerful and influential women, black or white, in the western world.  Furthermore from what I have seen of her she deserves to be in that position.

She is educated, articulate, radiates warmth and humanity, is the mother of two beautiful children and manages her role as first lady impressively with grace and skill. Moreover she is clearly critical to having provided the support that has led to the visionary and ground- breaking historical change that put her husband Barack Obama in the White House as the first black US president.

So what the hell has she got to be angry about?

Could it be the small minded bigotry of the media and political intelligentsia who wrestle with their racist leanings, and seek reasons to express their obvious discomfort about Michelle Obama exercising her right to use her power and considerable management skills whilst – dare I say it - being a black woman?

Apparently the last straw that led her to defend herself, after years of rumours about her being “an angry black woman”, was the publication of a new book depicting tensions between Michelle Obama and her husband's White House team.

Whatever the truth or not of any behind the scenes rankles at the white house, it seems to me that the use of such a historically pernicious stereotype about black women being angry says much more about the anxieties and the preoccupations of the writer and the political media than any so called facts behind this this type of story.

As a sympathetic white journalist Kathleen Parker of the US Washington Post points out, the fact is that “that those calling her angry happen to be white.” Describing this stereotyping as a “racial slur” Parker goes on to say “I can’t speak for Michelle Obama, but call me an angry white woman. If the first lady isn’t angry, she certainly has every right to be. Like every woman I know, black or white, I’ve watched Mrs Obama with respect, admiration and arm-envy. Every woman. We talk about her unique role in American history, and we are proud and impressed. I’ve interviewed a former first lady’s chief of staff, various Republican operatives, and former staffers for previous presidents, and without exception, they all say the same thing: “I admire her so much.”

For myself, I must admit I felt the collective disappointment of every other black woman who has been subjected to this type of racist stereotyping, especially having to face up to the fact that even Michelle Obama is not immune. Indeed I do not know of many articulate woman of colour in any position, where she chooses to have an opinion, or God forbid be in a position of power, that has not been subjected to racial stereotyping about being “angry”, “aggressive” or even “scary”.

Just take a look at some of the offensive public stereotyping of famous black women in recent history from the black girl Mel B in the British pop group Spice Girls, having to be called “Scary Spice”, whilst the Daily Mail newspaper summing up the popular view of singer and actress, Grace Jones as “a living legend, and a scary one at that” after she was cast as a superhuman baddie in a Bond movie.

Historically  black women have been stereotyped as various forms of “superwomen”: either as slaves who were capable of doing back breaking work shoulder to shoulder with their men on the plantation fields – or alternatively as overbearing, outspoken and emasculating matriarchs who headed up their families and behaved like men working in the labour force to prevent their families from starving during harder economic times during the 20th century. 

This historical fight for survival has been distorted in popular ideology to justify the hardships heaped on black women, as if by defeminising her and giving her super powers, it somehow explained the obvious economic and racist oppression that led to these difficult circumstances.   Clearly if I we do our own speculative reverse psychology, we could surmise that this ideology had something to do with “guilt”, “discomfort” and “fear”.  “Guilt” that black women have been forced to live through such arduous and often brutalising conditions historically and  “discomfort” that the sexist concept of the weaker sex that informed white femininity has been so challenged and subverted by the obvious response to hardship by black women who have fought for the survival of themselves and their families.  As for “fear” I suppose it might be controversial, but it is not too big a stretch of the imagination that having meted out such injustices there may be some anxiety about the risk of a backlash – especially from a female revered for having super human tendencies!

So here we are in 2012 with one of the most powerful black woman on the planet feeling the need to defend herself from this ridiculous historical stereotyping… 

 

Sources:

 

  • Denigrating Michelle Obama with the "angry black woman slur" Washington Post, Kathleen Parker,  Opinion Writer, Saturday 14 January 2011
  • Wallace, Michele. "Black Macho and the Myth of the Superwoman" (1979), page 110 ISB 1859842968
  • Collins, Patricia. "Black Women and Motherhood." Black Feminist Thought second edition 171-199.
  • Feldstein, Ruth. "I Wanted the Whole World to See." Not June Cleaver, Women and Gender in Post-war America 1945-1960 (1994): 261-305.
  • 'It's hard being a freak!' Grace Jones has built a 30-year career on scaring the hell out of us. But, she says, she's really a big softie -By Lisa Sewards 7th November 2008

 

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