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.’ ”