By Sophia A. Nelson
Sunday, July 20, 2008
There she is -- no, not Miss America, but the Angela-Davis-Afro-wearing, machine-gun-toting, angry, unpatriotic Michelle Obama, greeting her husband with a fist bump instead of a kiss on the cheek.
It was supposed to be satire, but the caricature of Barack Obama and his wife that appeared on the cover of the New Yorker last week rightly caused a major flap. And among black professional women like me and many of my sisters in the Alpha Kappa Alpha sorority, who happened to be gathered last week in Washington for our 100th anniversary celebration, the mischaracterization of Michelle hit the rawest of nerves.
Welcome to our world.
We've watched with a mixture of pride and trepidation as the wife of the first serious African American presidential contender has weathered recent campaign travails -- being 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 crowning stereotype: "angry black woman." And then being forced to undergo a politically mandated "makeover" to soften her image and make her more palatable to mainstream America.
Sad to say, but what Obama has undergone, though it's on a national stage and on a much more prominent scale, is nothing new to professional African American women. We endure this type of labeling all the time. We're endlessly familiar with the problem Michelle Obama is confronting -- being looked at, as black women, through a different lens from our white counterparts, who are portrayed as kinder, gentler souls who somehow deserve to be loved and valued more than we do. So many of us are hoping that Michelle -- as an elegant and elusive combination of successful career woman, supportive wife and loving mother -- can change that.
"Ain't I a woman?" Sojourner Truth famously asked 157 years ago. Her ringing question, demanding why black women weren't accorded the same privileges as their white counterparts, still sums up the African American woman's dilemma today: How are we viewed as women, and where do we fit into American life?
"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 mischaracterized and stereotyped since the days of slavery and minstrel shows. In more recent times, they've been portrayed onscreen and in popular culture as either sexually available bed wenches in such shows as the 2000 docudrama "Sally Hemings: An American Scandal," ignorant and foolish servants such as Prissy from "Gone With the Wind" or ever-smiling housekeepers, workhorses who never complain and never tire, like the popular figure of Aunt Jemima.
Even in the 21st century, black women are still 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," or of the only two black female characters in "Enchanted," an overweight, aggressive traffic cop and an angry divorcée amid all the white princesses.
On the other hand, 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.
The reality is that in just a generation, many black women -- who were mostly domestics, schoolteachers or nurses in the post-slavery Jim Crow era -- have become astronauts, corporate executives, doctors, lawyers, engineers and PhDs. You name it, and black women have achieved it. The most popular woman on daytime television is Oprah Winfrey. Condoleezza Rice is secretary of state.
And yet my generation of African American women -- we're called, in fact, the Claire Huxtable generation -- hasn't managed to become successfully integrated into American popular culture. We're still looking for respect in the workplace, where, more than anything else, black women feel invisible. It's a term that comes up again and again. "In my profession, white men mentor young whites on how to succeed," a financial executive told me, but "they're either indifferent to or dogmatically document the mistakes black women make. Their indifference is the worst, because it means we're invisible."
As someone who recently left a large law firm to work in the corporate sector, I have to agree. I liked my firm, but I always felt that I had to sink or swim on my own. I didn't get the kind of mentoring that I saw white colleagues, male and female, getting all around me. The firm was actually one of the better ones when it came to diversity, and yet of 600 partners, only five were black women.
A 2007 American Bar Association report titled "Visible Invisibility" describes how black women in the legal profession face the "double burden" of being both black and female, meaning that they enjoy none of the advantages that black men gain from being male, or that white women gain from being white.
Invisibility isn't the only problem. I run an organization dedicated to supporting African American professional women and often run empowerment workshops at various conferences. At a recent such workshop, I asked the participants to list some words that would describe how they believe they're viewed in the workplace and the culture at large. These are the kinds of words that came back: "loud," "angry," "intimidating," "mean," "opinionated," "aggressive," "hard." All painful words. Yet asked to describe themselves, the same women offered gentler terms: "strong," "loving," "dependable," "compassionate."
Where does the disconnect come from? Possibly from the way black women have been forced into roles of strength for decades. "Black women are the original multitaskers of necessity," says one nonprofit executive. "We've perfected it because we've been doing it for so long. But people don't appreciate the skill it requires, and they don't recognize the toll it takes on us as human beings."
For all our success in the professional world, we have paid a significant price in our private and emotional lives. A life of preordained singleness (by chance, not by choice) is fast becoming the plight of alarming numbers of professional black women in America. The fact is that 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. Black women are five times more likely than white women to be single at age 40. In 2003, Newsweek reported that there are more black women than black men (24 percent to 17 percent) in the professional-managerial class. 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, as well as 71 percent of all master's degrees and 65 percent of all doctoral degrees.
With all the challenges facing professional black women today, we hope that Michelle Obama will defy the negative stereotypes about us. And that, now that a strong professional black woman is center stage, she'll bring to light what we already know: that an accomplished black woman can be a loyal and supportive wife and a good mother and still fulfill her own dreams. The fact that her husband clearly adores Michelle is both refreshing and reassuring to many of us who long to find a good man who will love and appreciate us.
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.
Sophia A. Nelson is a corporate attorney and president of iask, Inc., an organization for African American professional women.