On Racism and the First Lady.

The FLOTUS is a visual reminder of what it means to be American. A first lady is symbolic of family, motherhood, togetherness and beauty. Feminists are interested in what this heteronormative position means for creating a nation of people that are complacent with the ideals of family, economy and the rightful place of women. The first lady is a contested idea for feminists. Even though it would be nice if the FLOTUS wasn’t forced to reify standards of femininity and motherhood, I think there is something to be said about having a first lady that defies standard ideas of beauty and motherhood.
Media depictions of black women are not kind. Miriam posted a piece last week by Melissa Harris-Lacewell on black motherhood, Michelle Obama and the newscycle,

With Michelle Obama in the White House, consciously and conspicuously serving as mom-in-chief, I expected (even somewhat dreaded) a resurgence of Claire Huxtable images of black motherhood: effortless glamour, professional success, measured wit, firm guidance, loving partnership, and the calm reassurance that American women can, in fact, have it all.

But that is not what is actually floating around the news, instead she contrasts the vilifying of black mothers with Sarah Palin’s media campaign.

It is worth noting that Sarah Palin’s big public comeback is situated right in the middle of this news cycle full of “bad black mothers.” Palin’s own eye-brow raising reproductive choices and parenting outcomes have been deemed off-limits after her skirmish with late night TV comedians. Embodied in Palin, white motherhood still represents a renewal of the American dream; black motherhood represents its downfall.

Michelle Obama has not necessarily changed people’s racist ideas about motherhood and/or beauty, but it is interesting to watch people try and negotiate between the two stereotypes, as Harris-Lacewell lays out.
On beauty, Disgrasian brings to our attention to a picture of Michelle Obama that was running around the internets last week of her with the face of a monkey. Yes, you read that right. For rabid racists comparing people of color and specifically black people to monkeys is apparently par for the course and it is blatantly and historically racist. A less subtle form of racism as applied to standards of beauty can be seen via Tapped about an AP article that mentioned Michelle Obama’s gown at the State Dinner as “flesh-colored.”

First lady Michelle Obama chose to wear a gleaming silver-sequined, flesh-colored gown Tuesday night to the first state dinner held by her husband’s administration. She was tending to her hostess duties in a strapless silhouette with the beads forming an abstract floral pattern that was custom-made by Naeem Khan.

Ah, whoops. My flesh doesn’t look like that and either does Michelle’s. Wait! Michelle and I have something in common. We are both women of color. That is pretty cool isn’t it, seeing as she is the first lady and all…but I digress. It is really interesting that Michelle Obama has the potential to push the complexity of how we understand femininity, whether through motherhood or beauty, but I worry that an inability to have complex conversations of race will leave us high and dry in that awful space between the vilified black mother and Sarah Palin. Ick.

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