Sunday, December 16, 2007

Rebuttal to Jezebel's "Michelle Obama is not a lighter shade of 'trophy' wife."

I'm not sure how I feel about Anna's recent post on Jezebel, titled "Michelle Obama is not a lighter shade of 'trophy' wife." Like the author, I am thrilled to see Michelle Obama, a beautiful, super-smart, powerful black woman, gaining attention on the world stage. I think Obama would make a wonderful first lady--a true role model for the nation's girls and boys alike.

Here's where the Jezebel author perplexes me:
It was an awe-inspiring show of celebrity, but, looking over the many
photographs of the duo's three-state tour on Saturday and Sunday -- something
other than Oprah's outfits stood out: The fact that Michelle Obama, the
personable, whip-smart 43-year old Harvard law grad and take-no-prisoners wife
of the senator from Illinois... is black.

"Black" is both a commonly-accepted and extremely loaded description of
skin color in this country. (And no wonder: used as an adjective, the word
connotes everything from "characterized by absence of light" to "thoroughly
sinister or evil" to "sad, gloomy or calamitous.") It is also a description,
I've noticed, that rarely pertains to the spouse, girlfriend or life partner of
most well-known, extremely successful and/or powerful black man. From Clarence
Thomas to Bill Cosby to Spike Lee to Chris Rock, the commonly-seen and accepted
assumption in America is that behind every successful black man is a
lighter-skinned (or white) woman.

I have absolutely nothing against interracial relationships, but why is it surprising that an accomplished black man is married to an accomplished black woman? According to Wikipedia, in 2007, only 4.6 percent of black Americans married white Americans. While black men are more likely to be a part of interracial relationships, those that are married are most likely to be married to black women. The notion that successful black men are flocking to abandon black women is oft-repeated, divisive and untrue.

Also confusing is the assertion that Bill Cosby, Spike Lee and Chris Rock are not married to black women. They are. The author seems to be suggesting that because Camille Cosby, Tonya Lee and Malaak Rock, are of a lighter hue than Michelle Obama, she is more legitimately "black"--an unfair assertion that diminishes black women of light skin. I always thought that being black was determined by ancestry and culture, not skin tone.

It is true that there is a lot of disturbing sickness surrounding skin color in the black community. I have written often about our colonized preference for the Eurocentric beauty idolized by the mainstream. Our culture worships light skin, light eyes and light hair. And it is true that many powerful black men, even those active in seeking equality for black people, seek the ultimate Western beauty for a "trophy," which may mean forgoing black women. (I should add that it is unfair to pretend that all relationships between black men and non-black women are the result of European beauty worship, rather than genuine love and affection. That is not true.) Indeed, it is refreshing to see a brown-skinned woman unarguably feted in public as both intelligent and gorgeous. But in pointing out our community's pathology, Anna seems to reveal hers:
Michelle Obama's marriage to Barack turns that template on its head. As she
stood next to Barack and Oprah on the Des Moines dais, it was difficult (for me
at least) not to notice that Michelle was the "darkest" of the three.
And as much as Barack's candidacy and its nexis of idealism, diversity and celebrity
can't help but foment the feeling that history is in the making, for me, a woman
of color bombarded by Caucasian ideals of beauty and sex appeal as seen in
everything from Reese Witherspoon's button nose to Beyonce Knowles' highlighted
hair, Michelle's presence feels just as revolutionary. (Emphasis mine)

It did not occur to me to compare the skin tones of Barack Obama, his wife and Oprah Winfrey. And, though I read many blogs daily, this is the first time I've seen a blogger with this particular take away.
The fact of the matter is that, while Barack Obama's highly-charged run for
the presidency can give us something to hold onto in an era in which black men
are more likely to die or end up in jail than to graduate college, the presence
of his wife -- his unplasticized, uncontoured, undeniably black wife -- gives
those of us tired of the disproportionate amount of attention given to the Halle
Berrys, Vanessa Williamses and Beyonces of the world a little hope as well.

Actually, the whole idea of judging Michelle Obama's looks and positioning her as a beauty icon for girls of color makes me feel squicky. She is trying to get her husband elected to be leader of the free world; she's not angling for the Miss Universe crown. All the mates of the male Democratic presidential candidates appear accomplished and smart. Few, save 30-year-old Elizabeth Kucinich, fit the current female beauty ideal. But is that really the point?

There is so much bad news floating around about black women, it is good to see an example of a successful, married, beautiful black woman, since the world so often views us as unlovable, unattractive and struggling. On this, I think Anna and I agree. However, I think her post's general thesis is supported by some biases and faulty memes, which makes it difficult for me to wholeheartedly agree with the piece.

Read the Jezebel post. What do you think?

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