There she is – the Angela-Davis-Afro-wearing, machine-gun-toting, angry, unpatriotic Michelle Obama, greeting her husband with a fist bump. The caricature of Barack Obama and his wife on the New Yorker was supposed to be satire. But among black professional women like me and many of my sisters in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, who were gathered last week in Washington, the mischaracterization of Michelle hit the rawest of nerves.
We've watched while Michelle has been called unpatriotic for a single offhand remark, dubbed a black radical because of something she wrote more than 20 years ago and plastered with the label “angry black woman.”
Fighting the stereotypes
It's nothing new to professional African American women. We endure this type of labeling all the time. Many of us are hoping that Michelle – an elegant combination of successful career woman, supportive wife and loving mother – can change that.
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“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 stereotyped since the days of minstrel shows. In more recent times, they've been portrayed as either sexually available bed wenches in such shows as the “Sally Hemings: An American Scandal,” ignorant and foolish servants such as Prissy from “Gone With the Wind” or ever-smiling housekeepers, like Aunt Jemima.
Even now, black women are 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.”
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.
In just a generation, many black women have become astronauts, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, engineers and PhDs. And yet my generation of African-American women is still looking for respect in the workplace, where we feel invisible.
Successful black women pay a significant price in their private lives. The more money and education a black woman has, the less likely she is to marry and have a family.
Consider these stunning statistics: As of 2007, according to The New York Times, 70 percent of professional black women were unmarried. According to Department of Education statistics cited by the Journal of Blacks in Higher Education, black women earn 67 percent of all bachelor's degrees awarded to blacks, 71 percent of master's degrees and 65 percent of doctoral degrees.
We hope that Michelle will bring to light what we already know: that an accomplished black woman can be a supportive wife and good mother and still fulfill her own dreams.
Recently, a friend who's a married professional mother of three girls wrote to me: “I think one of the most interesting things about Michelle Obama is that what she and her husband are doing is pretty revolutionary these days – and I don't mean running for president. For a black man and woman in the U.S. to be happily married, with children, and working as partners to build a life – let alone a life of service to others – all while rearing their children together is downright revolutionary.”
It's how so many black professional women feel. And our hope is that if Michelle Obama becomes first lady, the revolution will come to us at last.