Michelle O and the Curious Case of Cultural Assimilation
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.
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.
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.