Do Michelle Obama's comments on race resonate with black women? Panel verdict

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The first lady has entered into nationwide discussion about race by speaking candidly about her experiences as an African American woman

Michelle Obama
First lady Michelle Obama said that “knocked back” by race perceptions in a recent speech. Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP
First lady Michelle Obama said that “knocked back” by race perceptions in a recent speech. Photograph: Brynn Anderson/AP

First published on Tue 12 May 2015 10.45 EDT

Danielle Moodie-Mills: Her struggle mirrors many of ours

danielle moodie mills
Danielle Moodie-Mills Photograph:

When First Lady Michelle Obama addressed the graduates of Tuskegee University she did so with a level of realness we’ve come to expect from Flotus, but we also received a glimpse of her very real struggle – which mirrors that of many African Americans.

The jabs that have been taken at her femininity and personality are similar to the kinds that black women have been dealing with for eons. Our bodies literally poked and prodded – never measuring up to the European standard of beauty. Our demeanor questioned as being “sassy”, “angry”, “hostile” etc.

In her speech the first lady gave us insight into how being ridiculed, stereotyped, overlooked and verbally abused by right wing conservatives can take its toll – not just on her and the first family, but on all black Americans who have been wrongly judged and labeled as “thugs”, “troublemakers”, “rioters” and worse, for daring to challenge a system that was created to ensure our silence and submission.

We have yet to reach the mountain-top and the arc hasn’t reached the promise land of justice – but her sheer presence, grit and fortitude as first lady of the United States reminds us just how far we’ve come and yet her treatment as a black woman shows us just how much further we need to go.

  • Danielle Moodie-Mills is a contributor with NBC BLK and Chief Creative Officer of Politini Media.

Hannah Giorgis: This honesty is refreshing but it’s not enough

Hannah Giorgis Photograph:

To be a black woman of stature in America is to have slow-climbed to power on a tightrope of resilience and circumstance, never free to forget the valley of stereotypes below.

The first lady named a number of racialized, gender epithets she received on her path toward the White House, as well as during her time there. Among the vitriol she’s heard were phrases almost numbingly familiar to black women in America: accusations of being “loud” and “angry,” being derisively referred to as the “baby mama” of the man to whom she is married, and having her hair caricatured. The speech marks a departure from her more watery (if also pleasant) previous public addresses by publicly – and personally – acknowledging the stinging reality of black women’s uniquely perilous journey.

At first listen, I found myself almost embarrassed to feel refreshed at the prospect of hearing the first lady speak candidly about her painful experiences with a social ill that enacts wide-ranging, multi-faceted, fatal harm against people who look like her in the country her husband runs (and well beyond its borders). It is 2015; to simply ask for honesty from public figures as black people lie dying in the streets feels like a paltry, retrograde request.

And yet, juxtaposed with Barack Obama’s track record of patronizing, pathologizing speeches to Black America – most notably, a 2013 speech at Morehouse College in which he told an audience of black graduating students that they no longer had “time for excuses” – Michelle Obama’s statements are indeed a breath of fresh air. But when our communities are suffocating, even that isn’t enough.

  • Hannah Giorgis is a columnist for The

Rebecca Carroll: She knows the stereotypes all too well

Rebecca Caroll Photograph:

As someone with a similar racial background to President Barack Obama – biracial born but black identifying, raised by white parent(s), racial authenticity under frequent scrutiny – I recognized immediately at the start of their public lives his pull to someone so entirely assured of her blackness. From the fist bump to the chiseled arms to a seminal speech to the 2015 graduating class of Tuskegee, Michelle Obama has not, does not and will not waver in her sense of self, humor and intellect as a black woman.

Her black womanhood predates the now all too commonly employed stereotype in mainstream media of the “strong, loud, emasculating black woman” – she was holding it down at the intersection of black and female long before folks decided to turn it against her, and black women all over America. She is strong enough to say now and feel then, in reference to her first magazine cover depicting her as a black militant with an afro and a machine gun: “If I’m being honest, it knocked me back a bit.” Loud enough to focus on her “own truth” and approach her family life at the White House in “creative and unconventional ways.”

I question the perception of Michelle Obama as an emasculating black woman in a largely matriarchal culture. There are many deeply rooted complexities within the dynamic between black women and black men – while we stand out here in the street marching for Trayvon, Walter, Michael, Tamir, and Freddie, emasculating our men isn’t at the forefront.

Michelle Obama stood in front of that graduating class and hit point by point – race, class, hope, intersectional identity, education – with humor and grace, and full-on repped the beauty of a self-realized black woman Zora Neale Hurston-style: “I love myself when I am laughing … and then again when I’m looking mean and impressive.”

  • Rebecca Carroll is a columnist for the

Pam Spaulding : We have all experienced these slights

pam spaulding
Pam Spaulding Photograph:

It was cathartic to see the first lady focus on the “little indignities” as well as the coarse, violent struggles we see in Ferguson and Baltimore. Every black woman has experienced belittling, damned-for-your-color treatment like being followed in stores by clerks assuming you will shoplift or being mistaken as “the help.”

In New York City, a friend and I used to conduct experiments about what it was like to “hail a cab while black”. We watched cab after cab pass us by. When her husband, who is white, went to hail one, well glory be, the cab stopped on a dime.

Often I would hold a business call with a vendor and later see the shock and astonishment register on their face that I meet them and they realize I What, was I not speaking in “urban dialect?” The number of assumptions people make about me are frustrating in their consistency: from the boldness of people wishing to touch my hair, to asking me if I’m biracial and inquiring after my taste in music (what, a woman of color can like ... Journey?). When it isn’t offensive it borders on the comical. I have learned to let the small stuff slide and prefer to educate with kindness rather than defensiveness. But I understand how for others, these indignities can get the hackles up.

Michelle Obama’s remarks are remarkable only in that these discussions rarely happen in public. It is essential that we address the horrors of blatant racism that results in death, incarceration and socioeconomic despair. But let’s remember the smaller things that profoundly affect quality of life in ways white America doesn’t see and often doesn’t deign to understand.

  • Pam Spaulding is the former editor of the award-winning national progressive blog Pam’s House Blend

Syreeta McFadden: She was right about the New Yorker cover

Syreeta McFadden Photograph:

I’ve been rooting for Michelle Obama since 2008. There’s a bone deep honesty that she speaks with that keeps me grounded less I get caught up in sweeping narratives of what kind of America we think we are. She speaks the truth of these “little indignities” that I know too well.

I remember that 2008 New Yorker cover and I knew that the images were perpetuating a very specific stereotype and anti blackness by one deliberate representational change … the afro. Michelle Obama doesn’t have an afro, so why do that?

While it read small or harmless to a non black person, that change meant to communicate nasty biases about black women, and in doing so, sought to diminish and silence her and by proxy, all black women. I’ve had white people respond fearful and hostile because of my hair. I’ve had to temper my voice in meetings for fear I be understood as a stereotype, rather than a confident professional.

Michelle Obama’s hindsight so crystallizes points we constantly note about anti blackness and racism in America. I’ve been the only black woman in a room, party, meeting, dinner where I’ve had to negotiate my presence and footing with people projecting retrograde impressions and biases. “You’re so articulate” is never a compliment when uttered with such wide eye astonishment by white men and women. I hear and see and know that you’ve already underestimated me and my nappy hair.

It is a joy to watch black femininity negotiated in this space; Michelle Obama is representationally significant in that complexity of being a black woman with power in the 21st century.

  • Syreeta McFadden is a columnist for the

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