Sad to say, but what [Michelle] Obama has undergone, though it’s on a national stage and on a much more prominent scale, is nothing new to professional African American women. We endure this type of labeling all the time. We’re endlessly familiar with the problem Michelle Obama is confronting — being looked at, as black women, through a different lens from our white counterparts, who are portrayed as kinder, gentler souls who somehow deserve to be loved and valued more than we do. So many of us are hoping that Michelle — as an elegant and elusive combination of successful career woman, supportive wife and loving mother — can change that.
“Ain’t I a woman?” Sojourner Truth famously asked 157 years ago. Her ringing question, demanding why black women weren’t accorded the same privileges as their white counterparts, still sums up the African American woman’s dilemma today: How are we viewed as women, and where do we fit into American life?
“Thanks to the hip-hop industry,” one prominent black female journalist recently said to me, all black women are “deemed ‘sexually promiscuous video vixens’ not worthy of consideration. If other black women speak up, we’re considered angry black women who complain. This society can’t even see a woman like Michelle Obama. All it sees is a black woman and attaches stereotypes.”
Black women have been mischaracterized and stereotyped since the days of slavery and minstrel shows. In more recent times, they’ve been portrayed onscreen and in popular culture as either sexually available bed wenches in such shows as the 2000 docudrama “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” ignorant and foolish servants such as Prissy from “Gone With the Wind” or ever-smiling housekeepers, workhorses who never complain and never tire, like the popular figure of Aunt Jemima.
Even in the 21st century, black women are still bombarded with media and Internet images that portray us as loud, aggressive, violent and often grossly obese and unattractive. Think of the movies “Norbit” or “Big Momma’s House,” or of the only two black female characters in “Enchanted,” an overweight, aggressive traffic cop and an angry divorcée amid all the white princesses.
On the other hand, when was the last time you saw a smart, accomplished black professional woman portrayed on mainstream television or in the movies? If Claire Huxtable on “The Cosby Show” comes to mind, remember that she left the scene 16 years ago.
The reality is that in just a generation, many black women — who were mostly domestics, schoolteachers or nurses in the post-slavery Jim Crow era — have become astronauts, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, engineers and PhDs. You name it, and black women have achieved it. The most popular woman on daytime television is Oprah Winfrey. Condoleezza Rice is secretary of state.
And yet my generation of African American women — we’re called, in fact, the Claire Huxtable generation — hasn’t managed to become successfully integrated into American popular culture. We’re still looking for respect in the workplace, where, more than anything else, black women feel invisible. It’s a term that comes up again and again. “In my profession, white men mentor young whites on how to succeed,” a financial executive told me, but “they’re either indifferent to or dogmatically document the mistakes black women make. Their indifference is the worst, because it means we’re invisible.”