President, Center for the Advancement of Women
Last week my daughter Felicia and I attended the Essence Music Festival in New Orleans. As usual, Chris Rock brought his profound comedic talent to sharply insightful social commentary. “It’s going to be hard for a sister to be first lady … because a black woman can’t play the back role of a relationship,” he said.
Mr. Rock alluded to the common racial stereotype that burdens African-American women: by virtue of our well-documented historical role as the strength of the family, we’re characterized as domineering and aggressive. The latest cruelty, extreme even for political satire, was cast in a cartoon of a kinky-haired, armed and dangerous Michelle Obama, on the cover of The New Yorker.
Mrs. Obama, a Princeton- and Harvard-educated health care executive who may become the nation’s first African-American First Lady, has shown nothing in her character to justify an insult of this magnitude. While all women are denigrated by the New Yorker’s cover, the attack on Mrs. Obama resonates even more deeply with African-American women.
Even in such ascendancy, the candidate’s wife can’t escape the place African-American women continue to occupy whether in the media or in the doctor’s office; at the bottom of the image totem pole; a spot not even the most accomplished among us can avoid. African-American women face wage disparities reflective of the race and gender gap, earning 15 percent lower than white women and 10 percent lower than African-American men. We’re the recipients of 54 percent of the nation’s subprime loans. AIDS is the leading cause of death among black women between the ages of 25 and 44, and the rate of unintended pregnancies is twice that of our white counterparts. Yet, one in five African-American women doesn’t have medical insurance.
The New Yorker attempted to explain the cover as exposing the issues of scare politics in this year’s presidential election and only an example of the magazine’s legendary satire. This rationale fails to measure the impact of the visual absorption of a magazine that will be on display at most news stands and supermarket checkout counters throughout the country for those who don’t get the point and accept the messages consciously or subconsciously at face value. No explanation of the intent behind the denigrating cartoon will prevent the damage caused by reinforcing stereotypes that African-American women’s “intimidating presence” is to be feared, rather than being given the credit for playing a crucial role, through strength, fortitude and nurturing to advance the aspirations of our race.
We will survive racist satire. For those who thought the debate over the intersection of race and gender, in this year’s election, was over with Sen. Barack Obama’s call for a post-racist society and Sen. Hillary Clinton’s demise, the news is that Michelle Obama is her proxy. The atmosphere is turning over the cover of our ugliest social tensions: women and race.
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