As black women watch Michelle Obama on the national stage, they search — sometimes nervously — for nuances often lost on the larger culture. How she handles criticism, how she raises her children, even her style of dress, has the potential to counter negative stereotypes.
“She is mainstreaming to the world what a lot of us already know about ourselves,” says Dacenta Grice, a 37-year-old black woman who works as a physician assistant in Atlanta. “She reinforces the reality that so many of us live. She is a black woman who just seems fantastic in her own right, who just seems like every day people and is relatable.”
In a nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, black women described themselves as relating to Michelle Obama and sensing that she understands them. Nearly eight out of 10 black women say they personally identify with the first lady, and when asked to give a one-word description of Obama, among the words most commonly used were “intelligent,” “strong” and “classy.”
In follow-up interviews, black women say the first lady’s racial and gender identity are essential to the deep connection they feel they have to her. They call her a role model, someone familiar to them — like a sister or aunt.
That emotional stake makes watching Obama navigate the world stage both “thrilling and terrifying,” says Melissa Harris-Perry, a professor of political science at Tulane University who has written about the first lady’s impact on black women.
“Every time she flawlessly performs her role as first lady just by being who she is, she shows how extraordinary and exceptional we are,” says Harris-Perry, who is in her late 30s. “It is really fun to watch. It feels like, yes! Oh, this can never be denied.
“But every time she is booed at a NASCAR rally, the terrifying reality emerges that it will take so little for the love and admiration of Michelle Obama to go away. Anything she does that is construed as negative or stereotype-reinforcing will undoubtedly be held against us.”
In fact, the positive views of Michelle Obama cut across racial lines — with three-fourths of white women and two-thirds of white men saying they have a favorable impression of her. Other sharp contrasts do emerge in the Post-Kaiser poll between black and white women’s opinions of the first lady. Nearly nine in 10 black women say that the first lady understands their problems, compared with about half of white women. And nearly nine in 10 black women say she shares their values, compared with about six in 10 white women.
The importance black women place on the first lady’s racial identity is not universally shared, and some whites described her race as irrelevant.
“If I do consider her race — which I don’t do, to be quite honest — it’s really not a factor,” says Tracy Lynch, 42, a white freelance writer who longs to sit in her backyard and have a glass of wine with Obama as their kids frolic on the playground. “If I do consider her race, it’s more that I say, ‘Thank God my kids are a part of this history.’ ”
About four in 10 black women say their overall impression of black women has improved because of Obama, compared with fewer than one in seven white women. Some black women who said Obama had changed their view described her as being an alternative to racial stereotypes that regularly reach American homes through reality TV and other pop-culture programming. In the Post-Kaiser survey, which included interviews with more than 800 black women, more than half of black women without a college education say Obama has changed their overall impression of black women, compared with two out of 10 black women with college degrees.
The history-making marvel of a black family taking residence in the White House receded from the headlines soon after Barack Obama took the oath of office and got to work. But black women say they are still marveling.
When asked by students in South Africa last summer whether she felt pressure being the first black woman to serve as first lady, Michelle Obama described it as “a deep, deep responsibility.”
“I want to be good because this is a big job, and it’s a big, bright light,” she said. “And you don’t want to waste it. I’m constantly thinking, ‘How do I use this light?’ ”
Attention has been heaped upon Obama, both negative and positive. Everything she does has drawn intense interest — from which designer clothes she wears to the programs she has promoted. One of her signature initiatives, Let’s Move, which is focused on fighting childhood obesity, has had a starring role on the children’s network Nickelodeon. Beyonce wrote a special tune for it.
The first lady also has drawn attention to schools in underprivileged neighborhoods, visiting Anacostia High School in the District twice and including on international trips question-and-answer sessions with low-income students. She also has made mentoring one of her areas of focus, holding a luncheon at the White House for girls from several area schools, including Banneker High in the District and Wootton in Rockville.
Along with Latin night and country night, Obama has hosted Earth, Wind & Fire and Stevie Wonder in the East Wing. The first lady screened Tyler Perry’s “For Colored Girls” for about 50 guests in 2010. And last week, she attended Black Entertainment Television’s annual awards program, BET Honors, taking the stage with poet Maya Angelou, who calls Obama “the real deal.”
“She is a lady, and by that I do not mean in money or education or even power,” Angelou says, “but she has grace. She is meaningful to all women.”
Fashion magazines have tracked her outfits and labeled her a “fashion icon,” comparing her to former first lady Jacqueline Kennedy. Her favorable rating in the latter part of her husband’s term rivals that of recent first ladies. Seventy-three percent of Americans have a favorable view of Obama. At a similar time in her husband’s tenure, 66 percent of registered voters had a favorable view of Laura Bush; 32 percent had a favorable view of Hillary Clinton; 73 percent had a favorable view of Barbara Bush and 70 percent said the same of Nancy Reagan.
And yet, says Harris-Perry, the political scientist, Michelle Obama has had to contend with the kind of stereotypical depictions that have long been the bane of black women throughout history: black women as hypersexual, as bad mothers, as angry, as mouthy. Rep. F. James Sensenbrenner Jr. (R-Wis.) was overheard twice commenting on the first lady’s posterior. He later apologized. During the 2008 presidential campaign, she was depicted in a satiric New Yorker magazine cover as an Afro-wearing, machine-gun-toting radical. Fox News commentators said she looked angry as she campaigned in ’08.
Since the mid-1990s, academics have been studying implicit bias, or the ways in which negative racial images and stereotypes shape people’s biases without their awareness.
Now researchers have begun studying the impact the Obamas have had on changing attitudes and whether any changes will last.
“If you are white and male with little contact with black women and you are seeing multiple representations over time that are negative, seeing one black woman counter to stereotype — who you have no hope of meeting — is not as likely to help you overcome it,” says Maya Wiley, a civil rights attorney and policy advocate who has studied bias.
Caren Goldberg, whose research at American University focuses on diversity and discrimination, is more hopeful. “Any time there is a successful individual who belongs to a group of which negative stereotypes are held, it makes tiny dents. It sort of chips away at it,” she says. “In the case of Michelle Obama, who is in this very influential position, it is human nature for her success to reflect more positively on the group.”
Interviews with black women seem to support Goldberg’s view. Ama Saran, a 63-year-old doctoral student who lives in Upper Marlboro, calls Obama the “titular head of all good-looking, smart, high-earning black women. We look at her and say, ‘Look at our daughter — doesn’t she make us proud?’ ”
Obama, however, has not made much of her elite education or legal credentials while serving as first lady. Instead, she describes herself as “mom-in-chief” and has poured her time and attention into a program to combat childhood obesity, which she says she was inspired to do when she realized her own daughters were not eating enough healthful foods. Another of her initiatives has been to help military families.
Corianne Cowan, a 29-year-old mother and fitness instructor, finds Obama’s approach to motherhood inspiring and says the first lady has changed the way she sees herself. Cowan, who is black and lives in an integrated neighborhood in Atlanta’s suburbs, says she identifies with the first lady all the more because she’s African American.
“I can feel overwhelmed. How do you create some balance and still do what needs to be done in terms of being a parent and paying bills? I look at her and say you can do what you need to do and take care of you and you can still take care of your children and handle business,” says Cowan. “She shows that it’s not impossible.”
Leola Johnson, associate professor and chair of the media and cultural studies department at Macalester College, says the presence of Michelle Obama in the White House has encouraged some black women to consider broader possibilities for themselves.
“Michelle Obama has increased the visibility of black women, and sometimes that’s enough to make you redefine and think about yourself and your place — as opposed to the days when very rarely would you see African Americans in the public sphere like you do routinely now,” she says.
Trisha Goodman, who lives in Arnold, Md., says having a black first family carries special meaning for her and many of her friends at the church she attends. After a recent Bible study session, they discussed all the ways Obama has changed the way others see black women and how they see themselves.
“In everything she has gone through just being the first lady, she’s been graceful, elegant, very supportive of her husband . . . and she always has a smile. That would be the opposite of the angry black woman,” says Goodman, 40. “She helped America to see that all black women are not ghetto fabulous. . . . We’re not all single, not all on welfare, not all uneducated.”
Daphne Valerius calls Obama a “poster woman.”
“For a long time all we had was Oprah,” says Valerius, 30, a filmmaker who has made a documentary exploring whether negative media portrayals are harming the self-image of women of color.
She met Obama briefly when her film, “Souls of Black Girls,” got her an invitation to a White House screening of the motion picture “For Colored Girls.”
Margaret Hawkins, a Los Angeles security officer in her late 50s, thinks the attention heaped upon the first lady, whom she admires, comes at the exclusion of unsung black women — like those who teach in rough neighborhoods, serve on city councils or run businesses.
“When you look at our history and see the role of African American women, it should not be surprising at all to see a Michelle Obama, but for many it is,” says Hawkins, who is active locally in the Service Employees International Union. “We have powerful African American women in leadership everywhere, but people are not paying attention to them.”
It’s hard not to notice Obama — first ladies make news and appear on the covers of magazines.
Two years ago, Judy Jourdain-Earl, a nurse and diversity facilitator who lives in Montgomery County, was sitting in the audience as Obama gave the commencement address at Spelman College, a historically black women’s university. Tears streamed down Jourdain-Earl’s face.
“Just listening to her tell her story, seeing her being who she is, moved me,” says Jourdain-Earl. “She knows who she is and whose shoulders she’s standing on.”
For other black women, much of Obama’s power derives from her simple familiarity.
They feel a deep empathy with the challenges of her life — being in the public eye when your hair is permed or the special dynamics of an African American intergenerational family or dealing with being called “angry” when you know you were just being direct.
“She is so unbelievably ordinary even in her specialness,” says Harris-Perry. “She is brown-skinned and she’s shaped like a black woman. She has regular black-girl hair. She’s just there looking like a sistah. Part of what she means is she gives us the ability to imagine America through ourselves.”
Polling Manager Peyton Craighill contributed to this report.