She’s Michelle Obama, not Claire Huxtable

After reading the second paragraph of this weekend story in the Washington Post about Michelle Obama, I had to manually prevent my eyeballs from rolling into the back of my head:

So far, the first lady has chosen to be a food bank volunteer with an outsize entourage and an education activist with the largest soapbox imaginable. But Michelle Obama also fills a role that is not of her choosing but that may, in fact, be the most influential: She serves as a symbol of middle-class progress, feminist achievement, affirmative action success and individual style.

And she has done all this on the world stage . . . while being black.

Thank goodness for Bill Cosby and Co. Otherwise, I doubt any of us Negroes would have ever known how to act in public.
But really, the audience for this piece is clearly people who don’t know black people or know anything about them other than what they see on TV. Because if they did, they would know that Michelle Obama is no alien, no anomaly, no actor.
Indeed, Michelle Obama could be your mom, your next-door neighbor, your elementary-school teacher, your attorney. She’s an actual human being, and most of all, she didn’t grow up feral on some remote island. I think it’s safe to say Michelle Obama didn’t “become a symbol of middle-class progress” all on her lonesome – her older brother was also an Ivy League grad, after all.
Maybe this is a foreign concept to some people but I’ve known Michelle Obamas and Claire Huxtables all my life. Hundreds of them. And I didn’t have to watch TV to figure that out.

8 thoughts on “She’s Michelle Obama, not Claire Huxtable

  1. Sam June 23, 2009 at 9:25 am Reply

    Well said generally. What really bugs me, though, is the fact that Michelle Obama, despite being a Princeton and Harvard Law School grad with an admirable career of her own, still only gets credit for living up to the standard of a character on TV… because she’s married to the POTUS. Because otherwise, who would believe that there are attractive, smart, successful black moms out there?

  2. Coward June 23, 2009 at 9:38 am Reply

    I was talking to someone on Sunday who read this same article and then said to me “Michelle Obama is such an inspiration to Black people” (the speaker was white). Is the suggestion that she can only inspire Black people? Or that Black people are the only people who need inspiration?
    I am exhausted with the presentation of Mrs. Obama as an outlier … it reeks of cultural racism and is starting to work my nerves …

    • Jeremy June 23, 2009 at 10:29 am Reply

      Yes, this is exactly the problem with the characterization of Michelle Obama in the Washington Post piece–it seems like the target audience was supposed to be white people with limited interaction with minorities, and the intended reaction was hoped to be “Wow, I guess black folks aren’t all that bad.” Instead, the reaction is just as you wrote: White folks are going to say, “See, now why can’t all you black people just act right like Michelle?” In this sense, she is painted as the exception rather than the standard or the norm.

      It just sucks that the Obamas could have been seen as regular human beings (or as blackink wrote, “your mom, your next-door neighbor, your elementary-school teacher, your attorney”)–thus challenging existing stereotypes. Instead, they are being portrayed as some sort of aspiration that the mass of black people have yet to attain. It’s frustrating how this can reinforce stereotypes and cultural racism, as you point out Coward.

      As much as I wish it wasn’t the case, this post is right on point, blackink.

  3. karas June 23, 2009 at 9:38 am Reply

    the writer should’ve taken a nod from chris rock and just been succinct about it;
    “she speaks SO well! she’s SO well spoken!”

  4. shani-o June 23, 2009 at 9:46 am Reply

    Well friggin’ said. Ugh. Last July, at my sorority’s Centennial Boule in D.C., it was announced that Michelle had accepted honorary membership, and we all lost it. Not just because it was a coup for the sorority, but because she’s just like the thousands (literally) of black women who were in the convention center.

  5. My Name's Not Rick!! June 23, 2009 at 10:20 am Reply

    Can’t say that I’m either surprised or upset at the ignorance (I mean that in the most neutral terms) that others (especially non-blacks) have when making generalizations of African Americans.

    We don’t generally control how we are displayed in the media and when we are, it is more than most not seen either positively or more than a one dimensional character.

    So I don’t usually bat an eye to this sort of thing. While as a group of individuals we are dynamic we are generally not seen that way. But that is a bigger issue however.

  6. bitchphd June 23, 2009 at 6:14 pm Reply

    I will say as a token white person that I have *not* known tons and tons of Michelles or Claires in my life, and I think that this might be, in part, a cultural distinction. IME, the kick-ass on-top-of-things mama is a creature of another (white) generation. *My* mom’s generation was into professional achievement but really did denigrate domesticity. Not across-the-board, of course, but as a general trend. So for me, seeing women who take parenting/home life *as* seriously as they take their professional lives is kind of new. If popular feminism (including the “feminism” of young women who expect to have education, interesting work, and families but “aren’t feminists”) is a pretty white phenomenon, surely part of that is because white women of a certain generation were inclined (and able) to disparage domestic life in a way that black women weren’t?

  7. MoreAndAgain July 6, 2009 at 6:23 am Reply

    I hesitate to be annoyed by these type of articles because while I have known Michelle Obamas and Claire Huxtables all MY life (my own mother is a member of that club), I also know that I am pretty lucky in my upbringing.

    This idea that Michelle Obama is an outlier is not just something that comes from White people. I remember having a discussion with some of my Black peers in college who said they couldn’t really get into the Cosby show as kids because they didn’t know any families like that. And, it was pointed out to me that when you get away from the urban educational hubs in this country the presence of Michelle Obamas and Claire Huxtables are not as common as we are used to them being in places like NY, LA, Chicago, and Atlanta (it actually kind of hurt to learn that.)

    Don’t automatically assume that these types of articles are for people who know nothing about Black people, because there are still plenty of Black people who don’t know what it’s like to have a two parent middle class household. Supposedly 50% of Black children are still born to single moms. So, have a little patience.

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