“A man who had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.” That was former US President Bill Clinton’s tribute to President Barrack Obama after Michelle’s speech at the Democratic National Convention in early September. Since the US First Lady made that speech, the web has been awash with praise for the excellent speech. The same thing happened a few years ago when she gave an inspirational speech in Soweto, South Africa. The latter speech has since been forgotten and the DNC speech will soon follow suit. Both are just a blip in Michelle’s life.
This is not to say that I did not admire the speech. I did. But after watching Michelle over the last 4 years, I will say that she’s more than just a great speech. For a long time to come she will be remembered for who she is and who she is not. Let me explain.
When President Obama smashed the glass ceiling that determined how far a black man could go in US political life, Michelle blasted stereotypes of what a black woman is. Merriam-Webster defines a stereotype: something conforming to a fixed or general pattern; especially: a standardized mental picture that is held in common by members of a group and that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment. I’ll go further. A stereotype takes one aspect of a group of people, usually a negative one, which is then magnified by the media and subsequently engrained in people’s mind. The media can be movies, news, sitcoms or even stand-up comedy. Groups affected by stereotypes are usually minorities: Jews, Blacks, Women, Arabs, etc.
The stereotype of black women goes something like this: fat, loud, head-shaking anger, crying racism upon meeting any obstacle, fatherless children, life on welfare and little education. Remember Jerry Springer? The stereotype affects interactions with and expectations of people of the affected group. This induces fear and reduces favour. For instance, you may be wary of employing a black woman for fear of her anger. The thing about stereotypes is that they do not take statistics into account. No body for sure can tell you what percentage of black women are like that.
Michelle Obama is none of that. She is physically fit, soft-spoken, well educated, had her children in wedlock, elegant, was not on welfare even before being First Lady. Did I say educated? A very positive example is what she is. Over the past four years, just like the British royals, she has been followed and photographed endlessly. Impossible to log on to the news on the web, TV or magazine and not see her or read about her. I repeat, stereotypes do not take statistics into account. And the image of the US First Lady may or may not be representative of her entire race. But as we watch her in the media, hopefully for another 4 years, something comes undone.
Yes, over 4 (hopefully 8 years) there has been a slow unraveling of the old stereotypes. People across the world who see her, read of her and meet her are being introduced to another image of the African-American woman which extends to all black women without their permission. Blacks, around the world aren’t similar anyway but stereotypes don’t care. That means that a new expectation will be created.
I don’t know whether many black women want people to expect them to be as accomplished as Michelle. But most black people want to be seen as normal, as having possibility. They do not want to be feared or portrayed as angry bitches high on something. Michelle may have created some balance in that front and things will never be the same again. The image is no longer negative.
This is not just about how other people see black people. More important, it is how black people see themselves. Over the past 4 years (and hopefully 4 more) generations of black girls and other dark skinned varieties are watching Michelle and her daughters closely. It will take a few years before the outcome of that inspiration are felt. You see, inspiration is the beginning of success. People are inspired by positive images. People are more inspired by good images of people who look like them. The image of a black accomplished woman is very powerful for future generations of black women. That’s why I want to congratulate President Obama for having had the good sense to marry Michelle Obama.