Michelle O And The Curious Case Of Cultural Assimilation

By Guest Contributor Ajené “AJ” Farrar; originally published at Elixher

Five years and a tenuous honeymoon period later, the country is still wholly in love with our First Lady. Her reception by mainstream media outlets has been surprising not just in its warmth, but in its breadth: She has graced the covers of magazines ranging from Vogue to Good Housekeeping to Time. Her approval rating has soared higher than most First Ladies of the the past century—at one point, even exceeding the highest approval rating of Eleanor Roosevelt. Virtually unassailable, she is Maya Angelou in a sleeveless dress—and the surprising new face of all-American regality.

Yes, the country loves our First Lady at least as much as past First Ladies, and it has been a welcomed relief. A chocolate-skinned, relatable, stylish, Ivy League standout, Mrs. Obama represents to black women the President’s resounding rejection of the colorism, racism, and ageism commonly seen not only in elite white circles, but among our most powerful black men. Still, her lasting influence remains in question. Will her acclaim result in a tempering of the racist sentiment maligning black women of all walks of life, or will it merely validate America’s stubbornly misguided campaign of “color-blindness?”

Perhaps as an indirect result of her emergence, we have seen an historical surge in the saturation of prominent black women in the media. Black women have never been more accepted, more present, and more respected than they are right now. In only the past year or so, major beneficiaries of this trend upward have included Quvenzhané Wallis, the child Oscar nominee for her role in Beasts of the Southern Wild; Beyoncé, total world dominator; Kerry Washington of Scandal; Shonda Rimes, creator of Scandal and the diverse cast of Grey’s Anatomy; Gabby Douglas, Olympic gold medalist gymnast; Melissa Harris-Perry, college professor and news personality; and Ava Duvernay, winner of 2012′s Best Director award at the Sundance Film Festival for her film, Middle of Nowhere. Yet for all the victories gained in this “Golden Age” of black female celebrity, the increased media exposure of our best and brightest has also limited our ability to broadly extend this social acceptance to the black masses.

Black women have always had strenuous prerequisites to fulfill before being granted mainstream visibility, with our history’s most pervasive and insidious qualification being the “brown paper bag test.” As more shades and varieties of black women are bursting into the public’s consciousness, however, this test is shifting from physical to cultural elements. If we want to be recognized as equals, all White America asks in return is that we erase our blackness from mainstream dialogue. This is not a new phenomenon—it is no mistake that black political pioneers like Clarence Thomas, Condoleeza Rice, and Colin Powell are all Republican—but this subtle form of ethnocentrism is now overshadowing overt racism in its frequency of application. With each step upward on the social ladder, we are pulled down another three steps, seduced  by the benefits of cultural assimilation.

Kerry Washington in Scandal.

The symptoms of assimilation are already showing in the budding era of more inclusive primetime television. Scandal‘s Olivia Pope is a powerful, sexy, reposed lead character with uncommonly nuanced morality for a black character, and a moderate amount of depth. She is also a Republican strategist, desperately in love with a married white President, with no apparent black friends or family besides one c0-worker, and a mostly ignored black ex that is confined to the sidelines. Although the show revolves entirely around political maneuvering and an illicit, interracial love affair, race relations have yet to be a major topic of concern (one-liners, notwithstanding).

Olivia Pope, for all she may add to the self-esteem of black female viewers, has not revealed herself to be a black character—hers is an interchangeable role, incidentally played by a black woman. Meagan Good’s lesser-known character on Deception is similarly entrenched in white society, with a white love interest, and almost exclusively white company. What is the purpose of these few black women’s increasing visibility if it does not serve to increase the agency of all black women in America? Seeing black female faces in a traditionally white male space is great and important—but visibility alone will not magically alter the circumstances of black women who cannot as easily transition into the white upper echelon of society.

Meagan Good in Deception.

The evidence of assimilation’s consequences were on display during a somewhat frustrating first presidential term for black liberals. Barack Obama, desperately seeking acceptance from a skeptical white constituency, dared not address the failed War on Drugs nor the country’s pathological prison industrial complex—two major political initiatives that are vital to the health of inner-city communities–that black voters hoped would be addressed by a sympathetic black Democrat in office. Since the Newtown shooting, he has introduced small, sensible gun control initiatives, nearly all of which completely ignore the far more widespread epidemic of gun violence in communities of color. These issues disproportionately impact black people, but their resolution would contribute to a healthier America as a whole. Even so, the White House has clearly labeled any hint of solidarity with the black community as an unwise political gamble. Black people continue to pay, while we celebrate the same black people who have sidestepped around us for “making it.”

As a mostly apolitical government fixture, Michelle Obama has been effectively shielded from any criticism of the President’s failure to engage the black community. But she is one of the few black women with the platform to have her voice heard. Instead of passively congratulating and applauding her for her mere presence in the White House, we must challenge her–and all black women like her–to make use of their standing. If the First Lady is a spokesperson for children’s health, she can also be a spokesperson for children’s lives. Make the societal failures that have killed thousands of children like Hadiya Pendleton as important as the ones that killed the children in Newtown. In a country where only 1 in 15 black women report domestic violence, Michelle is a perfect spokeswoman for the renewal of the Violence Against Women Act. As a proponent of organic foods and proper nutrition, she can more vocally speak to the struggles poor mothers, especially those of color, have in accessing healthy foods. Michelle Obama has a voice, and it is time for her to use it. Continue loving her for her fierceness, but now is the time to tell the most powerful among us that simply being there, a darker reflection of white American values, is no longer enough.

AJ has been working as an air traffic controller since 2009, after attending Old Dominion University and George Mason University as a journalism major. She currently lives in upstate New York.

  • Nicole T

    This seems heavily biased in terms of what it is to experience blackness and the unnecessary racial baiting women in certain tax brackets, educational levels, and personal interests are subjected to. I’ve never seen Scandal, however, I don’t think it’s unrealistic that Kerry Washington’s character not really interact with or have black friends given her position. There are lots of black people that don’t exclusively hang out with black people. It could mean a lot of things — maybe there aren’t that many things in common. Maybe her character is an atheist, that’s considered a thing that isn’t black enough. Maybe she wasn’t “down” enough and the “sistahs” are jealous. Maybe she doesn’t care for the company of black people. I don’t think it’s weird at all that she not really interact with other blacks, bascially. The comments about Michelle Obama are completely absurd. She’s been very active in several high profile, and heavily criticized initiatives. What exactly are you expecting her to do aside from what she does? Why all the criticism? She’s a woman in a prominent position, but honestly, she doesn’t owe anyone anything. She seriously could not do anything at all short of go to the mall and spend her free time and the day spa and it wouldn’t be wrong. President’s wife isn’t an elected or paid position.

  • John

    Is this article a joke? I didn’t find any humor in the blatant divide within the race, thinking one not “black enough” for not acting a certain way. I hope this is just a disgusting joke and not a true reflection of how you view your brothers and sisters.

  • Cindy Lou Who

    I was bothered for some reason when the article mentioned that Scandal had no “black” storylines, or race-relations storylines. Quite frankly, I am turned off by shows when they trot out the “black history month” storyline, or relegate the two black characters into interacting with only each other, which usually draws them away from the core message of the show – effectively writing them out over time. The fact that black female actresses can FINALLY be cast for “non black” storylines is HUGE, and the key for encouraging real equality, IMHO. As an aspiring actress, I hope I see the day that I get sent on auditions for something more than KFC commericals, sassy-black friends or chitlin-circut church plays.

  • Dee

    Basically what you are saying is that these women are not “black” enough for you? What level of “blackness” would be appropriate? Because we don’t want them to be too black but they musn’t not be not black either. This is ridiculous. Black people are not a monolithic group. Stop trying to enforce your definition of “black” on to everybody.

  • Patrick Golston

    Not being monolithic is not relevant.

    To whom much is given, much is required, and like Rabbi Hillel says, “if not now, when?”

    It’s not that deep, all she has to do is “mention” the travails of the disenfranchised and underprivileged, and she only needs to do it ONCE. And watch what happens…

    Not being monolith is not relevant, but being selfish and stuck-up, well THAT leaves very little to be desired!

  • Aaron Smith

    AMEN

  • mianaja@gmail.com

    Living in the Lion’s Den that is the DMV, this is a really nice fictional wish list. But if Michelle Obama deined to comment on gun control (which is already being marched around the country by Biden with terse comments from the President), the media would turn on her like rabid dogs. She would immediately be castigated for stepping outside her role, reminded that she is NOT an elected official and the focus would turn onto her and her role totally obscuring the real issue which the media love to do anyway. Anything to avoid focusing on gun violence and communities of color ANYTHING to avoid covering Black children being gunned down daily. Michelle O learned from Hillary’s mistakes with health care and she is smart enough to avoid any kind of controversy. The political right are already trying to say she represents the govt trying to control what people eat and we won’t even get into the horribly derogatory cartoons, comments about her behind, the bangs, the cardigans, etc. They even attack the children. At one point Michelle had more death threats than the President. As much as we would like to think Michelle has a voice, that voice belongs to her husband whom we elected. Yes she has influence, but she will have more influence when she leaves the White House.

  • http://vulvs.tumblr.com/ oofstar

    meagan good’s character has a black love interest as well. that is probably not relevant to this analysis.