Michelle Obama Mom in Chief Controversy Highlights American Fears of Strong Black Women

I am not black, nor am I a mother. But I am a general appreciator of mothers, in all shapes and sizes. Being raised by a single-mother, I am also the proud owner of a shirt that says I heart mom. As an appreciator of Michelle Obama, who recently stirred up a flurry for dubbing herself mom-in-chief, I wonder: What is the deal with all this criticism for being a strong black woman, who is also a nurturing mother?

Perhaps it is the harsher criticism black women leaders face. In a recent Huffington Post article detailed a new study by Professors Ashleigh Shelby Rosette of Duke University’s Fuqua School of Business and Robert W. Livingston of Northwestern University’s Kellogg School of Management, which found, “228 participants read fictitious news articles about a company’s performance, including permutations in which the leader was black or white, male or female and successful or unsuccessful. What they found was that black women who failed were viewed more critically than their underperforming white or male counterparts -- even those of the same race.”

According to a report released by the League of Black Women Global Research Institute, “professional black women made up only one percent of U.S. corporate officers, despite the fact that 75 percent of corporate executives believed that having minorities in senior level positions enables innovation and better serves a diverse customer base.”

In an article by Tami Winfrey Harris entitled, "A Black Mom-in-Chief is Revolutionary: What White Feminists Get Wrong about Michelle Obama," she argues, “While white women have historically been thought, by default, to be possessed of ideal femininity, (sexistly) defined as demure, sacrificing, quietly strong, beautiful and maternal,black women have not. The picture of black woman as Sapphire; welfare queen; baby mama; ball-buster; unmarriageable harpy who is too black, too fat and too nappy can be seen lurking behind much of the right’s–and some of the left’s–criticism of Michelle Obama.”

As if the general view of black women were not enough, Mrs. Obama was absurdly labeled “Stokey Carmichael in a Dress,” heaven forbid she should show too much emotion, or even more taboo, display any anger.

In “Ain't I a Mommy” (the pun of course on “Ain't I a Woman,” the speech by abolitionist Sojourner Truth), Deesha Philyaw says:

“Low-income and working-class women, black women, and other women of color don’t see their mothering experiences and concerns reflected in the mommy media machine, and we get the cultural message loud and clear: Affluent white women are the only mothers who really matter.”

As Philyaw and Harris highlight, historically, black women haven't had the privilege to choose motherhood over a career.

For now, Michell Obama chooses motherhood, and “She is a black woman free to make that choice,” says Harris.

Atlantic writer Ta-Nehisi Coates perhaps says it best in Fear of a Black President, when he writes of a double standard, “An equality that requires blacks to be twice as good is not equality — it’s a double standard. That double standard haunts and constrains the Obama presidency, warning him away from candor about America’s sordid birthmark.” 

Perhaps the double standard that black women are held to is slowly being altered with Michelle Obama as “Mommy-in-chief,” or maybe I would just like it to be.

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Lakshmi Sarah

Born and raised in California, Lakshmi is an educator and journalist. With roots in Kochi, Prague and San Francisco she divides her time between the places she feels at home. Over the past few years, Lakshmi has worked with newspapers and magazines from Gaborone, Botswana to Los Angeles, California. Lakshmi has several years of experience working with the National Student Leadership Conference. In 2009 and 2010 she directed the NSLC program on Journalism & Mass Communication at American University in Washington, DC. She is a graduate of Pitzer College in California where she studied Global Communications and Studio Arts. She is currently pursuing her Master's in Journalism, Media and Gobalization in Aarhus, Denmark.

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