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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16 Comments

  1. Posted November 30, 2009 at 10:51 am | Permalink

    Hopefully black women will not be villified for much longer. I think that having Michelle Obama as the first lady will challenge the stereotypes that women of color have- and eventually change them, but I don’t think that will be for awhile.
    I HATE it when people call clothing\shoes that are beige “flesh colored”. I always think in the back of my mind “uh….no not really” lol

  2. DeafBrownTrash
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 11:06 am | Permalink

    Michelle Obama is amazing, beautiful, intelligent, inspiring, and phenomenal. She’s worked hard to become a lawyer and she achieved the AMERICAN DREAM on her own, without any money from rich parents *cough Bush cough*. She is a great role model for women, whether black, white, brown, straight or queer.
    Anyone who doesn’t see that and tries to reduce her to a monkey, is a FUCKING WORTHLESS ASSHOLE and needs to eat shit.

  3. Comrade Kevin
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 11:29 am | Permalink

    I think I was so struck by the fact that we have a woman of color as the First Lady that I wasn’t quite sure how to perceive her role or function. What I am sure of is that someday few will subject her to the kind of criticism Hillary Clinton got for daring to take an active role in her husband’s administration.

  4. class phemy
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 11:44 am | Permalink

    notice how formal dress customs dictate that women can and should be adorned with floral garnishes and flashy sequins while men remain placid and staid in the universally-boring tuxedo. the effect is to deprive women of subjectivity, reinforce class norms, and uphold a white racial frame of beauty.
    Since the FLOTUS is not a constitutionally-defined office, Obama may be able to use her political capital to push hard policy and expand further the role of the first lady!

  5. Toongrrl
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:10 pm | Permalink

    I wonder why women like Sarah Palin are lauded as ideal mothers and shown as examples of great femninity? Why are women like Hillary Clinton, Michelle Obama, and well, millions of other moms demonized????

  6. earwicga
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    To my shame I had never thought about the context of ‘flesh coloured’ description in relation to race. The furthest I had got was that flesh coloured tights are not the colour of my very pale skin. So, I am very glad this overt example of privilege has been highlighted.

  7. earwicga
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:25 pm | Permalink

    “A first lady is symbolic of family, motherhood, togetherness and beauty”
    Samhita, where does the beauty part of this sentence come from? I wasn’t aware it was part of the gig (further than the normal beauty rubbish pushed onto all women and increasingly men).

  8. msmaddy
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 12:57 pm | Permalink

    Look at all the media attention and criticism FLOTUSes like Barbara Bush and Hillary Clinton received for not being beautiful or feminine and you’ll see that it’s an implicit requisite for the position. If beauty weren’t a part of the image, these two bright and powerful women would never have been so demonized by the media.
    The family, motherhood, and togetherness are all blatant expectations, but femininity is too and I’m sorry to say that fitting a specific standard of beauty is the key to being considered “feminine” by Western media.

  9. Jake N.
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 1:43 pm | Permalink

    Even for white people like myself, “flesh” colored items represent an idealization of skin color and texture. My skin does not look like that, which its freckles, splotchiness, and uneven tan lines. Obviously, even within the pre-defined racial categories, human beings come in an almost infinite number of shades, making it ridiculous to single out one specific pigmentation as the perceived natural or goal hue. (Another more anecdotal example: I was always confused as a kid playing with coloring books when neither the “flesh” nor the “white” crayons reflected my skin.)
    I’m not at all trying to take away from the effects of this normalization of whiteness on people of color, but rather, I’m trying to point out that the process of designating those outside a narrow definition as Other affects almost everyone, enough so that we should be able to work together and reverse this antiquated language of alterity once and for all, for the betterment of everyone.

  10. Jane
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 1:50 pm | Permalink

    just one thing: how do formal dress norms uphold white beauty standards? i just want a little more info, please.

  11. aletheia_shortwave
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    I agree with msmaddy here. I think Jackie Kennedy is the “classic” example. It’s not a very good state of affairs that the President deals with political issues while the First Lady has this Separate But Equal* job of gardening, cooking, fashion, and offering a model for motherhood. Unfortunately it’s a true state of affairs, nonetheless.
    It even extends to the point that when world leaders meet for policy discussions, the first ladies often have a separate meeting where they tour local historic landmarks, discuss ladies’ issues, and have high tea. The last time one of these summits and their corresponding lady-meetings happened, there was even a female leader, Angela Merkel, at the summit, but her husband was not invited to ladies’ tea time. There was an article on Jezebel about it…
    *Tongue-in-cheek

  12. earwicga
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 3:24 pm | Permalink

    Ok, thanks. It ties in them to all women in the public eye having to be beautiful/perfect.

  13. ellid
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 9:49 pm | Permalink

    Beyond the blatant racism of describing the First Lady’s gown as “flesh colored,” they weren’t even right on the traditional name of the color. That gown is what we used to call “champagne” or “candlelight.” “Flesh-toned” was that weird pinky thing they used to have in the Crayola box, which always creeped me out slightly because it wasn’t the color of me or my German-American mother or my Welsh-American father or really *anyone in the world*…..

  14. ellid
    Posted November 30, 2009 at 9:51 pm | Permalink

    Actually, the First Lady deliberately chose the metallic brocade of her gown to honor traditional Indian textiles.

  15. alixana
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 8:12 am | Permalink

    And it was designed by an Indian designer.

  16. Mytrr
    Posted December 1, 2009 at 1:48 pm | Permalink

    I was going to reply with something similar. The color is better described as champagne, or pale peachy-gold. Flesh is too subjective, since even among the white standard there is great variation. Even the same “flesh” color can vary based on yellow, blue, or pink undertones. To me, this is another example of lazy “journalism”.

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