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ELIXHER | August 23, 2014

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Michelle O and the Curious Case of Cultural Assimilation

Michelle O and the Curious Case of Cultural Assimilation
ELIXHER

First Lady Second-Term Official Portrait

Five years and a tenuous honeymoon period later, the country is still wholly in love with our First Lady. Her reception by mainstream media outlets has been surprising not just in its warmth, but in its breadth: She has graced the covers of magazines ranging from Vogue, to Good Housekeeping, to Time. Her approval rating has soared higher than most First Ladies of the the past century—at one point, even exceeding the highest approval rating of Eleanor Roosevelt. Virtually unassailable, she is Maya Angelou in a sleeveless dress—and the surprising new face of All-American regality.

Yes, the country loves our First Lady at least as much as past First Ladies, and it has been a welcomed relief. A chocolate-skinned, relatable, stylish, Ivy League standout, Mrs. Obama represents to black women the President’s resounding rejection of the colorism, racism and ageism commonly seen not only in elite white circles, but among our most powerful black men. Still, her lasting influence remains in question. Will her acclaim result in a tempering of the racist sentiment maligning black women of all walks of life, or will it merely validate America’s stubbornly misguided campaign of “color-blindness?”

Perhaps as an indirect result of her emergence, we have seen an historical surge in the saturation of prominent black women in the media. Black women have never been more accepted, more present, and more respected than they are right now. In only the past year or so, major beneficiaries of this trend upward have included Quvenzhane Wallis, the child Oscar nominee for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild; Beyoncé, total world dominator; Kerry Washington, of Scandal; Shonda Rimes, creator of Scandal and the diverse cast of Grey’s Anatomy; Gabby Douglas, Olympic gold medalist gymnast; Melissa Harris Perry, college professor and news personality; and Ava Duvernay, winner of 2012′s Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for her film, Middle of Nowhere. Yet for all the victories gained in this “Golden Age” of black, female celebrity, the increased media exposure of our best and brightest has also limited our ability to broadly extend this social acceptance to the black masses.

Black women have always had strenuous prerequisites to fulfill before being granted mainstream visibility, with our history’s most pervasive and insidious qualification being the “brown paper bag test.” As more shades and varieties of black women are bursting into the public’s consciousness, however, this test is shifting from physical to cultural elements. If we want to be recognized as equals, all White America asks in return is that we erase our blackness from mainstream dialogue. This is not a new phenomenon—it is no mistake that black political pioneers like Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice, and Colin Powell are all Republican—but this subtle form of ethnocentrism is now overshadowing overt racism in its frequency of application. With each step upward on the social ladder, we are pulled down another three steps, seduced  by the benefits of cultural assimilation.

Kerry Washington in ‘Scandal’

The symptoms of assimilation are already showing in the budding era of more inclusive primetime television. Scandal‘s Olivia Pope is a powerful, sexy, reposed lead character with uncommonly nuanced morality for a black character, and a moderate amount of depth. She is also a Republican strategist, desperately in love with a married, white President, with no apparent black friends or family besides one coworker, and a mostly ignored black ex that is confined to the sidelines. Although the show revolves entirely around political maneuvering and an illicit, interracial love affair, race relations have yet to be a major topic of concern (one-liners, notwithstanding).

Olivia Pope, for all she may add to the self-esteem of black, female viewers, has not revealed herself to be a black character—hers is an interchangeable role, incidentally played by a black woman. Meagan Good’s lesser-known character on Deception is similarly entrenched in white society, with a white love interest, and almost exclusively white company. What is the purpose of these few black women’s increasing visibility if it does not serve to increase the agency of all black women in America? Seeing black, female faces in a traditionally white, male space is great and important—but visibility alone will not magically alter the circumstances of black women who cannot as easily transition into the white, upper echelon of society.

Meagan Good in ‘Deception’

The evidence of assimilation’s consequences were on display during a somewhat frustrating first Presidential term for black liberals. Barack Obama, desperately seeking acceptance from a skeptical white constituency, dared not address the failed War on Drugs, nor the country’s pathological prison industrial complex—two major political initiatives, vital to the health of inner city communities, that black voters hoped would be addressed by a sympathetic black Democrat in office. Since the Newtown shooting, he has introduced small, sensible gun control initiatives, nearly all of which completely ignore the far more widespread epidemic of gun violence in communities of color. These issues disproportionately impact black people, but their resolution would contribute to a healthier America, as a whole. Even so, the White House has clearly labeled any hint of solidarity with the black community as an unwise political gamble. Black people continue to pay, while we celebrate the same black people who have sidestepped around us for “making it.”

As a mostly apolitical government fixture, Michelle Obama has been effectively shielded from any criticism of the President’s failure to engage the black community. But she is one of the few black women with the platform to have her voice heard. Instead of passively congratulating and applauding her for her mere presence in the White House, we must challenge her, and all black women like her, to make use of their standing. If the First Lady is a spokesperson for children’s health, she can also be a spokesperson for children’s lives. Make the societal failures that have killed thousands of children like Hadiya Pendleton as important as the ones that killed the children in Newtown. In a country where only 1 in 15 black women report domestic violence, Michelle is a perfect spokeswoman for the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. As a proponent of organic foods and proper nutrition, she can more vocally speak to the struggles poor mothers, especially those of color, have in accessing healthy foods. Michelle Obama has a voice, and it is time for her to use it. Continue loving her for her fierceness; but now is the time to tell the most powerful among us that simply being there, a darker reflection of white American values, is no longer enough.

- Ajené “AJ” Farrar

AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.

 

Comments

  1. frayray

    “erase our blackness”? Please list what constitutes “blackness,” and then explain how you would respond to a white nationalist who says that Michelle Obama isn’t “authentically” black. Maybe he can use your list as a guide. Other people certainly are.

  2. Olivia Pope, for all she may add to the self-esteem of black, female viewers, has not revealed herself to be a black character -

    I feel some kind of way about statements like this because I wonder why must she reveal the obvious?

    What does it mean to be black? What does it mean to be a back character? Is there only one type of black character?

    Black people, black women, are not monolithic. I would far rather watch a black character who doesn’t harp on her race than one that constantly goes on about it.

    Shona Rhimes lives in a colorless world and I like it.

  3. gene

    Agree, love the First Lady and Pres, but we still need to get on them and be critical of their positions of war, guns, prison industrial complex, the destruction of the middle and lower class, racism, etc. Many are still suffering and we need action, not words.

  4. Hanifah Walidah

    One other thing since you brought it up. Olivia Pope is not just Kerry Washington, she is Shonda Rhimes. A black woman who has been working as a writer in the belly of the white male beast that is Hollywood for years. I cannot imagine the ass busting she has done to get to where she is now and still pitch a show like this. Can you imagine her position when finally getting this kind of opportunity and not playing it safe? She knows that business better than any critic could in opposing her script and character decisions. Can we respect that just for a breathe of a minute?

    I think the story line of Olivia Pope, could be critiqued, of course, but in the end she has performed a miracle of race and gender balance on screen. She knows what would fly and wrote a darn good character despite her apparent and indisputable limitations. What is a black character anyway!? I like that this character can be interchangeable. Isn’t that what we have been screaming for, a complex character that doesn’t have to speak, react or dress a certain way to hold space on screen? The writing is just good, the acting is on point. I think we like Scandal in part because its messy when it comes to race, sex and morality and Ms. Rhimes gets her straight no-chaser lines in that makes no bones about the black woman that is Olivia Pope. She does this skillfully only because she understands the game as it is played in 2013. Because she has played it since 1995. And as far as the believability of the character in this white world, I’m sure you are aware that the Olivia Pope character is based off of a real-life political “fixer”, Judy Smith, who is a black woman? I wonder what her “black” world was like working for Bush? FYI: I am happy Elixher is here and your voice is apart of it, if that hasn’t gotten lost in my rant.

  5. Kenyetta

    I was asked to repost my comments from another site to show support for elixher:

    I wanted to give this essay a few more reads and sit with it before responding. While I agree that it doesn’t fall short of a small slice of wonder, I’m not quite sure if it’s ultimate intent is meant to be dialogic. I sense antithesis and subtext that do a marvelous job in debunking a common narrative promoted and accepted about our blackness, cultural experience and artistic expression. However, there are many caveats: First, what is blackness? Is there a way to contemporize black experiences in media and art without tying it to cultural assimilation, which I believe, is potentially an anachronistic and loaded concept to index? And must there always be a political imperative in black artistic expression?

    Defining blackness is a challenging task, and I welcome shifting representations of ourselves that illustrate black agency in creative ways outside of the typical binaries with which we are familiar, notably white oppression:black submission. For instance, when Olivia Pope was approached by Edison in the opening scene of an episode, I specifically remembering him saying, “Liv, I know you more than you know yourself. I’ve watched you press your hair,” and that resonated with me more than the keep-it-in-the-closet sex scenes between Olivia and Fitz. Liv made a choice to pursue a sloppy and sad relationship with an emotionally unavailable man period, because as an endowed and enlightened woman that was her conscious decision. But must we forget Rhimes’ strong and sincere characterizations of the black men featured in the series who are, in so many words, profoundly in touch with their feelings and actions? The idea that our country is a cultural melting pot and that assimilation is so easily attained and downright desirable by the “new negroes” highlighted in the essay is somewhat of a farce. So, it is beyond me why we continue to assert these postulations when there is a lovely salad bowl full of color and variety sitting in our faces. One of my favorite critical theorists, Wole Soyinka, focused on our cultural tendency to politicize black art. I believe that it’s our own agency, which we should be employing when approaching “black art” not just as a didactic vehicle but also an experiential one. In other words, we should at times afford ourselves the privilege of experiencing art for art’s sake as our non-black counterparts guiltlessly do.

    • ” Liv made a choice to pursue a sloppy and sad relationship with an emotionally unavailable man period, because as an endowed and enlightened woman that was her conscious decision.”

      Define “emotionally unavailable.” From where I’m sitting, Olivia is in love with a man who loves her back (this is the difference between her relationship with Fitz and her relationship with Edison. She clearly didn’t love Edison…not the way he loved her). Fitz would rather be with Olivia than his wife, who he doesn’t appear to love at all.

      • Kenyetta

        Ummm, was it not made clear in the series that Fitz is “emotionally unavaliable,” because he is married with children, and that post-coital bliss between the two typically takes place clandestinely in hotel rooms and dark corridors? I must admit, it must be thrilling to be boned repeatedly upon the desk of the leader of the free world; however, can we really accept that as divine love? If you were in Liv’s shoes would you? I can see how despite all of its morosity and pathology why viewers perceive their relationship as love, because it has confusingly transpired in both sacred and profane ways. The point of my response to AJ’s essay was to elucidate reasons as to why we should also look to Rhimes’ representations of black men in the show who all appear to be, in my opinion, devout, loyal and empathetic. Those representations are kind of like rare gems don’t you think, especially in this day and age.

  6. Hanifah Walidah

    I’m sorry sista. Get over yourself, if you please. I get your argument, but I know an domino op-ed piece, that is reaching only to echo the latest barack wave of criticism just to generate content, when I read one. I’m also over the rhetorical riga-ma-row of evaluating people we do not know and only view through the lens of the media. Could we really have a no nonsense discussion about the duty of being black, fabulous and only ONE of three branches of the US government. As far as Michelle, oh please, she did the ‘dougie” on kimmel for christ sake and the girls double-dutched on the WH front lawn. She worked with youth in the projects of Chicago before you even knew her name. The Obamas are a black family in a position where balance is not an option, but a strategic prerequisite. What the hell do any of us truly know about that kind of pressure. I know I know not a damn thing, but I am not running for President either. If we must judge, can we maintain a sense of context.

    And don’t count Barack’s second term out so early. In the end, trust, he and his family will NOT satisfy us all, so lets appreciate what they have done, who they have affected and possibly will achieve, for their time in the light. We are not removed from America as we are its victims and its cohorts. FOcus the criticism where we all stand. The presidency is as much a publicity show as any other media based profession. That is America and we all eat it up as we spit it out. As my mother would say when she found me talking shit about shit, “Watch out for the bones in your fish and don’t suck too hard on the ones in that chicken girl!.” With respect to my mother’s crazy sayings, it would be a shame if Barack and Michelle’s legacy is judged on their limitations by the national and cultural absurdity that is America. A damn shame.

    • AJ

      Hanifah–Thanks for your comment. I read your response, and to most of it, all I have to say is that the point of this piece isn’t to criticize anyone mentioned in it, but to point out what I feel are inherent dangers of becoming a mainstream media product. I followed that up with some current examples of powerful black figures who have, in some ways, sacrificed day to day “black” (whatever that is) elements of themselves so that they could become more marketable to other groups. My intention was not, nor do I think I’ve ever said, that Michelle Obama has done nothing for black people or that she has fully assimilated. If that’s what you got from it then perhaps I’ll look at different ways of presenting my material. While I take slight umbrage with the notion that anything I’ve written is simply a reach to generate content, I do appreciate the feedback. At the end of the day, the whole point of writing isn’t to always be right and have people agree with you, but to get other people talking. So at least I’ve done my part on that front, even if you didn’t love what I had to say. :)

  7. Rose T

    I’m a bit surprised by the high approval ratings. I’ve kind of perceived Michelle Obama’s reception by the public and the media differently, but maybe that’s just because I pay attention to criticism a lot. I remember all kinds of silly banter in the media about her “revealing” too much skin by showing her arms, which I understood to be fueled, at least in part, by white supremacist fixation on hypersexualizing black women’s bodies. Also, was it last year that all of those pundit types were calling her an angry black woman (as if that were a negative thing!), and it seemed like it was because they just wanted her to, like, smile more, and hide those muscles!

    I rarely read sources like the Washington Post, but did anyone read that article about Obama from last month, “Four years later, feminists split by Michelle Obama’s ‘work’ as first lady”?

    It’s terrible by comparison, but makes for an interesting one if anyone cares to check it out!

  8. ninyafresa

    Do women of color who have “made it” have a responsibility to advocate for POC folks who haven’t or don’t meet the cultural standard to even have the opportunity? Have FLOTUS and Olivia Pope made it? What does that even mean? AJ, you’ve got me thinking.

    Folks with power or access to power have the responsibility to use it, but should we be using All-Stars to politely plead with power holders to throw us a bone or pat us on the head, maybe even ask them to be nicer to us, not shoot us, feed us, say “hey, we’re brown and black people, and we’re just like you!” Does normalizing or mainstreaming people of color diminish or disrupt the constructs that bind us, or are we using our All-Stars to loosen the straps?

    It’s hard to see through the flash bulbs long enough to see who’s taking the pictures and what they’re doing with them. Thanks for calling this out, AJ, while still giving props where props are due. I mean, I may return to banged locks because of FLOTUS.

  9. AnonymousEva

    This was a very well-written, thought provoking article. Few African-Americans dare tackle the First Lady, but when done in a manner that shows actual thought and understanding of the real issues, it doesn’t sting quite as bad.

    I understand the Obamas need to toe the line. I’m somewhat allowing them that during their terms in office. I see steps that they’ve taken like putting to work numerous African Americans in the Executive Office and attending the funeral of Hadiya Pendleton, or having Beyonce and Jennifer Hudson perform at inaugural events as their nods to the African American community that they’re “still down.” However, the platform that they have been given would allow them to go so much further. I’m not holding my breath, but I’m hoping that the freedom of the second term will permit them to take those additional steps. Newtown broke America’s heart, but the tragedy of children being shot in the streets of Chicago is only breaking the hearts of their mothers and the few that bother to pay attention. The Obamas could make that more well known.

    If not during these next few years, then hopefully after exiting office, the Obamas will be able to let their afros go and embrace the black community and become more outspoken for the issues plaguing us. If not then, then perhaps we’ll have to accept them as two individuals living thier lives who have chosen to be who they want to be and not who the black community demands that they be. Perhaps, that’s not so bad either.

  10. V.

    Yes! Excellent read.

    I’d like hear less about the designer she’s wearing, her great arms or her perfectly coiffed bangs, and more about her utilizing her position to do something beyond being “fierce”.

  11. Kelly Greer

    KristinDC- I had the same reaction!

  12. monica

    Awesome article. Our First Lady is, indeed, fierce and most definitely has the power to use her voice for the greater good. Let’s hope this article falls in her lap and she calls you to discuss further…. ;)

  13. Kelly Greer

    Brava :) I loved it… down to the closing “Continue loving her for her fierceness; but now is the time to tell the most powerful among us that simply being there, a darker reflection of white American values, is no longer enough.”

    There’s this tendency for any Black person in politics, entertainment, etc to be sidelined to a voice solely for the black community the second they bring up race. Hell, even when they don’t bring up race someone will find a way to say they did. So the President can slide in “inner cities” in a speech about Newtown, and the first lady can slide in a point about food access for lower income families on Ellen… but it seems that’s as far as it can go. BUT there’s no third term so I say ban handguns, legalize marijuana, do something (anything!) with the prison industrial complex, etc.

    And on an unrelated note- I like the logo

  14. D

    Great job AJ. I think this is a great article.

  15. KristinDC

    I immediately jumped in defense of Michelle Obama. Ah, she’s amazing! How dare you? She made star-studded appearances on Late Night and The Oscars this week!

    Then I realized that I was absorbed in adoration. And my rebuttal actually supports this article. The Mom Dance with Jimmy Kimmel was worshiped and shared but with very little recognition of intent. I look forward to more voice and less gimmick.

    • KML

      I really applaud AJ for articulating what I think many Black people are experiencing but are afraid to say or cannot find the words to express— it’s this certain uneasiness that you feel about this projected final acceptance America has with blackness. It’s like yea we made it, but why don’t I feel like it 100%??? For a moment seeing the ascendancy of the First Black President made your feel like it could be you. But then creeps this 2nd guessing and you wonder, Can it? And I would argue for tons of little black boys, it doesn’t seem so. The president has very peculiar set of variables that make him who he is. If you point out the little details you get accused of calling people not black enough. That is not really what anyone wants to do but by comparison, Black people appear to be more accepted with they are dressed with a certain set of variables. And as it progresses the formula is becoming increasingly clear. AJ is the first person to notice this.

      • kelly

        EXACTLY!

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