When I was a child, American culture always seemed to trump it’s British counterpart, particularly when it came to representations of black identity. As a little black girl, it pervaded my understanding of myself amongst a whitewashed backdrop of what it meant to be British. It was the country that offered me a fully formed and popular black scene when its parallels were being buried in the UK. The US had the Fresh Prince and the Cosby Show- canned laughter sitcoms with main characters that had black faces. They were narratives that presented being black as the norm, not as other. We could be at the centre of the narrative, not that token black family on Eastenders. Where black felt erased in Britain I could always look across the Atlantic for validation. Eight year old me found it pretty subversive.
So it stings when I read a wildly misguided, pseudo optimistic US based comment piece proclaiming that Michelle Obama has redefined black women. Based on the first lady’s appearance at the Democratic National Convention, Sophia A. Nelson herald Michelle as ‘a strong, beautiful, accomplished black woman…elegant, educated, and full of grace’. Apparently she’s now redefined black women- implying that we weren’t any of those things already. But the question that Nelson asserts really has two meanings- does Michelle Obama redefine what it means to be a black woman, or does she redefine perceptions of black women? I’d hazard a guess that the author’s intention is the latter, but both questions are seriously problematic.
I’ve written before about my frustrations with black women’s representation in an appropriated culture- we’re fiery homemakers or oiled up fleshy decoration and there’s no in between. And it’s nice to see that Michelle Obama changes the horizon.
Undoubtedly she is one of the most high profile black women in the world- and she is unique in that, despite repeated attacks ,her notoriety is not bogged down by negative stereotypes.
There’s a lot to dislike about the Obama family’s politics- the fact that, in every public word and gesture, race is continually the elephant in the room- but the worldwide cultural significance of a black family in the white house is undeniably palpable. The very fact that they exist in country as racially segregated as the US is gloriously trangressive. But it’s foolish to consider their occupancy as anything other than the exception to the rule. So it stings when that beaming CNN piece proclaims Michelle Obama’s transformative effect on the representation of black women. Yes- she’s dented racist, sexist stereotypes of black women as welfare queens. But I can’t see anything in her representation that suggests a deviation from her white predecessors, and more importantly, her mere existence is not enough to change what bell hooks called the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy. I want a world where black women can exert ownership over our own identities- not a compromise in which we rely on the ever composed first lady to subvert some stereotypes. And we need an identity that goes far beyond imitating the patriarchal constructed, sweet docile wife like white woman of old. We need more than an exception.
Black women don’t need redefining, instead we need to challenge who owns our definition in the first place- because it certainly isn’t us. Of course, owning it is easier said than done, and bell hooks didn’t speak so deftly about the white supremacist capitalist patriarchy for nothing. Unlike Nelson’s projections, we do not need humanizing, we do not need softening, because we were already these things another thousand more- and if you didn’t recognise that black women are full human beings through your racism and sexism, that’s not our problem.
As long as we uphold Michelle Obama as the perfect black woman, we further reinforce this virgin whore dichotomy and throw other black women under the bus- because, frankly, it’s impossible to reach her standard. The position of the president’s wife is already taken.