July 17th, 2008
12:49 PM ET

Michelle Obama: Armed and dangerous

[cnn-photo-caption image=http://i2.cdn.turner.com/cnn/2008/images/07/17/ac360blog.michelleobama.jpg width=292 height=320]
Faye Wattleton
AC360° Contributor
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.

Filed under: Faye Wattleton • Raw Politics
soundoff (58 Responses)
  1. Rosie

    To Mike in NY,
    I understand your thoughts, and from them it says that you are not familiar with the history of the past. And not having this understanding, I can see your reasoning.
    What we are doing is cutting off our freedom of getting to know the American family. This is because every word and expression is now labeled-racism. We are allowing ourselves to be caught up in a vacumn of the past, of which none of us were actual participant. So my suggestion is, that since this mindset is by choice, because no child is born into this world already a racist, we should first accept the truth, that the African-American's has had a different past in America's history.
    Just because we were not the one's to administer this wrong, does not excuse us from having compassion upon those to whom this wrong was done. But to not accept the truth, that the African-American endured a lifestyle, in America, that no other people would volunteer for, is to close your eyes and your heart to America's true history. And I would like to confess that I am not a racist. My parents never taught me that God made some people better than he did others. And when I met this type of teaching outside of my home, I chose not to let it into my heart. Which is a free choice we all can make, and now is a good time to examine your own heart, and see if it agrees with what you have been taught or heard alone the way.

    July 17, 2008 at 9:21 pm |
  2. John Gibbons

    Maureen T July 17th, 2008 6:12 pm ET

    Why are people afraid of an intelligent, educated black woman? Does America still believe that a black woman only resembles Florida from the show Good Times (struggling, poor, black woman?).

    ***can you show me in the comments where somebody said they are afraid of an intelligent, educated black women? I can't find your reference.

    July 17, 2008 at 8:51 pm |
  3. Loretta from California

    Hello Everyone

    People, let's not forget that Chris Rock is a comedian. I would advise people not to take his comments seriously.

    July 17, 2008 at 8:32 pm |
  4. GF, Los Angeles

    @ Mari most of us have seen satirical cartoons however I don't think this was one of them.

    July 17, 2008 at 8:16 pm |
  5. Rosie

    Why are we debating the word Racism, when we know that it is just one's own belief, and each individual is entitled to their belief. The problem is when you begin to persuade others to become partakers of your belief, which is based upon your own mindset.
    Racism is not the problem, its accepting reports from the past, concerning African-American's, as being truth, at face value, and never questioned its authenticity.
    Racism is an escape route one takes, to escape the truth; for truth can be very painful, and sometime very grevious to bear, especially when it deal with one people trying to forget the wrong done to another people, by those they love and trust.
    Its so sad to see such a beautiful country, being hid by works from the past: Works that could be put behind us, If only the White world could find in their heart, just three Christian words- I am sorry.

    July 17, 2008 at 8:08 pm |
  6. John Gibbons

    For 30 years or more all I have been hearing about is equality and diversity? Why now all I hear about are special interest groups and groups for specific genders, races, or sexes?

    July 17, 2008 at 7:40 pm |
  7. Mari, Salt Lake City

    The thing that made the New Yorker's cover awful, to say the least, is that MOST Americans wont understand that this is satire....... not many know what (sadly) satire is!

    July 17, 2008 at 7:18 pm |
  8. Mike in NYC

    Rosie wrote:

    “Racism is not a birthright, but is done through an educational process…”

    Most of the world is “racist,” in the sense of putting their own kind first, and considers it natural. It is permissible for all groups except whites.

    Larry wrote:

    “Is Chicago becoming the most politically important city in America?”

    God forbid.

    July 17, 2008 at 6:50 pm |
  9. Keith G. Wright

    "America doesn't become a great nation and world leader again, without developing a culture that supports, encourages, and honors women. For now, the demise of America's women and the imminent death of the Black woman continue its path." – Keith G. Wright

    I imagine the Presidency will be as difficult for Michelle as it will be for Barack... every word will be scrutinized, every move she makes will come under a magnifier, and every misstep that Barack makes will fall equally on Michelle's shoulders. But Michelle Obama is up to the challenge, as a beautiful, intelligent and powerful black woman, she understands what she must do, and what she must endure.

    July 17, 2008 at 6:46 pm |
  10. Larry

    Is Chicago becoming the most politically important city in america?

    July 17, 2008 at 6:16 pm |
  11. Rich, Phoenix, AZ

    I agree that many people don't like women who are smart, ambitious and successful. But in politics, Americans seem not to like men who are smart, ambitious and successful. either. Twice in a row, we've elected George Bush to the White House - a guy who has spent his whole life proving that he's not smart, not ambitious and not successful. Truthfully, I think the issue is not about ambition or success. It's about not liking people who are perceived as too smart, too elite, too ivory tower. That's why Republicans have succeeded every time the Democrats have run someone who seems "too intellectual." We prefer to vote for the guy (and I do mean GUY) who seems like he'd be fun to throw back a few beers with. That's why we got W. And I still haven't gotten my beer.

    July 17, 2008 at 6:13 pm |
  12. Maureen T

    Why are people afraid of an intelligent, educated black woman? Does America still believe that a black woman only resembles Florida from the show Good Times (struggling, poor, black woman?). Take a look around at the intelligent, eduated black women on CNN for example, Soledad, Suzanne, Fredericka, Amy Holmes, to name a few. I can't wait for Michelle to be the first black first lady and for Barack to be the first bi-racial president!

    July 17, 2008 at 6:12 pm |
  13. JC- Los Angeles

    Donnell, please re-read my comments and you will see that I deal in facts; there is absolutely nothing in my post that suggests I believe that the Obama's have never, at times, been slighted.

    The Obama's, like the McCain's, are true politicians; to suggest that they are anything more is erroneous.

    Whether it's book advances, monthly retainers, scholarships to the finest universities, sweetheart loans or deals on homeownership, the Obama's are like every politician today.

    Your unwillingness to accept facts leads me to believe that you, not me, must have sand caked in your eyes, ears and hair.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:43 pm |
  14. GF, Los Angeles

    @ Larry I don't think it'd matter what race Obama would've picked for a wife. People in general are threatened by smart, ambitious and successful women. If Michelle Obama was a homemaker like Barbara Bush and just smiled when appropriate – no one would bat an eye.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:38 pm |
  15. Rosie

    What is happening to our country? It is sad to see that a country, so blessed, do not have a kind word to say about one another. There is no more conversation, just comparison one of another. We all seem to have lost our hope and our vision for a better tomorrow. We all seem to spend our time searching for the bad, rather than searching for the good.
    We seem to enjoy putting one another down, rather than to speak words that would build one up. Why are we wasting precious time speaking of that which we are powerless to change. We can not change the past, but we can learn from it and work together to build a better future for our children.
    Racism is not a birthright, but is done through an educational process, therefore its by choice and not hereditary. Its came out of a fear which rose up, when President Lincoln put forth the idea of the Emancipation Proclamation, and Congress put into law the 13th Amendment. So this country was not built upon racism, but racism became a tool, of restraint, in 1864: A restraint which has divided this country for 144 years.
    Oh, if we could just become as beautiful inside, as this glorious country is, in which we live, what a beautiful message we would send to the rest of the world.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:27 pm |
  16. Rich, Phoenix, AZ

    This is absurd. I am generally aligned with Ms. Wattleton, and I actually agree with most of what she said here - EXCEPT for everything she said about the New Yorker cover itself. It was not in bad taste, and the only people who are going to view a CARTOON as a source for validating bigoted notions about Obama are the bigots who aren't going to vote for him anyway. It was just satire. You make think they did a bad job of it, but it's still just satire and not racism. Has anyone read Leonard Pitts's column on this topic? He hit the nail on the head...the problem with the New Yorker cover wasn't racism; it's that most Americans are too lazy or ill-informed to bother even trying to get the point.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:08 pm |
  17. Larry

    Is african american a generic term for people of african heritage who do not know which african country their enslaved ancestors were from? Like we know Barack is a kenyan american.

    July 17, 2008 at 5:06 pm |
  18. Cynthia

    Faye, I agree wholeheartedly with your article. The blog is open to everyone to offer their comments but until they have walked a mile in an African American woman's shoe some of them don't get it.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:46 pm |
  19. Eduardo Gonzalez

    Arent you doing exactly what the New Yorker did by giving your article that title? People who see the title and dont read the article might think Michelle Obama is dangerous. Isnt that the attack on the New Yorker's joke? Theyre obviously criticizing the myths people have about them and then they clarify them...they did exactly what you just did... People need to get a grip and have a sense of humor.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:37 pm |
  20. Mike in NYC

    Public figures are fair game for criticism.

    This should help keep MO in line should her hubby become POTUS.

    Mike, Syracuse, NY wrote:

    "Your statistics provide proof of that. If you walk like a duck…"

    Agreed. And there's no shortage of people ready to ignore those statistics, with lines like "...but I know someone who's not like that." Blame that on a lousy educational system, plus outright stupidity.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:18 pm |
  21. Larry

    Would we feel any different if Barack, being bi-racial, had married a non-black woman, ie: white, asian, hispanic, etc.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:14 pm |
  22. Larry

    Vietnam was lost by JFK, Johnson & Nixon.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:06 pm |
  23. SpookyX

    Its funny how people worry about Michelle being a "loose cannon". McCain is the one that is volatile. Should call him Mr. TNT.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:02 pm |
  24. Margie

    I agree with most of your observation regarding the poor taste of the New Yorker Cartoon especially Obama wearing Muslim gear, Osama's picture, and the Burning US Flag. But I thought Michelle looked very hip, just take the gun off her back. You referred to her hair as Kinky, who decided what hair is fashionable. Thats the natural look of our hair. If we became self actualized and looked the way our creator created us, Black folks should have curly hair. I rock on my Afro once in a while, its such a relief maybe you should try it. Perms and Weaves is not what you were meant to have. Where is your self esteem people? Those who like you will like you whether you have permed hair or not. The environment and your savings would benefit if all the women would quit waisting all the money on hair or the idea of a few telling everyone how to look or to be in fashion. Michelle and Obama are anointed by God they will succeed no matter what the haters say about them. You go Obamas, we love you.

    July 17, 2008 at 4:02 pm |
  25. Donnell

    You really should take your head out of the sand…Let me give you just a few examples of how race has been used to attack the Obamas.:

    -Fox news calling their fist bump a "terrorist fist jab"
    -Fox news referring to Michelle as "Obama’s baby mommy"
    -Republicans whisper campaign that he is a Muslim
    -The silly New Yorker cover
    -The add that ran in North Carolina claiming Obama was “Too Extreme” (code for black)

    Just to name a few…

    July 17, 2008 at 3:58 pm |
  26. GF, Los Angeles

    I'm happy to see women like Hillary Clinton and Michelle Obama living their life beyond what was traditional for women. They're smart, ambitious and strong – traits not admired by most since they're (both men and women) threatened by a woman like that.

    July 17, 2008 at 3:46 pm |
  27. Kim in NY

    Everybody keeps saying the cover was a mistake..... But we are still talking about it. Ridiculous – yes. A mistake – absolutely not. It got so serious dialog started.

    And "Thank you," Emily. It is good to laugh out loud, at ourselves and each other. I am half Irish, and I'll drink to that......

    July 17, 2008 at 3:32 pm |
  28. Ayse

    Why is it that an assertive woman has to be stereotyped as a brass domineering control freak?

    July 17, 2008 at 3:30 pm |
  29. Karen

    I think Michelle Obama will make a very strong First Lady. She has possession of her own mind, much like her husband. She is intelligent and very capable of handling herself. I don't look at her "color". I will be voting for Barack because he is the right man for the job, not because or not because of his race. If it matters, I am a white, middle class female and am looking forward to have him as our next president.

    July 17, 2008 at 3:19 pm |
  30. penny

    If they choose to ridicule president's wives, why did they not ridicule GW Bush's wife as a teacher, She also came from humble beginnings. She certainly was no "JACKIE O" with awesome "class". She was just smart enough to marry a rich man. Also McCain's wife who was hooked on pharmaceutical drugs. Why don't they show her as displaying satire as being a drug addict.

    July 17, 2008 at 3:19 pm |
  31. Jay, Denver CO

    Women should be at home baking cookies... just ask Cindy McCain.

    July 17, 2008 at 3:13 pm |
  32. jt

    I think she is dangerous a a lose cannon.

    She seems like she cannot control herself.

    July 17, 2008 at 3:12 pm |
  33. Mike, Syracuse, NY

    Sounds like most of these issues (accepting subprime loans, AIDS infection rate, unwanted pregnacncy rate) are the result of poor personal choices. There is always some factual basis behind stereotypes. Your statistics provide proof of that. If you walk like a duck...

    July 17, 2008 at 3:10 pm |
  34. Emily

    The cover was a bad judgment call on behalf of the magazine, however, I think that it was also meant as a satyrical statement about the way that some right-wing, religous zealots have been portraying Obama throughout the entire campaign. I can understand why Obama and his wife (along with a good percentage of the American public) feels that this is a horse that was beaten to death a long time ago. It's beyond me why they would decide to focus on these points instead of the many other topics that are of greater importance.

    That being said, I think its a shame that as a country we have become so easily insulted and we can no longer laugh at ourselves and each other without calling our lawers.

    Take a deep breath ladies and gentalmen and try to remember what it was like back when we could still take a joke.

    P.S. I think it's about time we had another strong, independant, proud and effective woman standing behind the man that works in the oval office! So what if she is demanding, pushy and proud?! Isn't that how we could define MOST of the leaders of this country?! When did that become a negative thing?!

    July 17, 2008 at 3:07 pm |
  35. Angel Montero

    In recent statement John McCain stated that 'he knows how to win wars'...did I miss something? What wars has he won? Certainly not Vietnam?

    July 17, 2008 at 3:05 pm |
  36. Ruby Coria, LA. CA.

    Faye, we all fit into a stereotype.. & we must admit that some of it is true.. yes all stereotpes are in bad taste, but we all go through it.. if the N.Yorker was talking about Hillary, would it show a "dumb blonde on her knees"... if it was a hispanic it would show 13 kids in the picture .. and so on.. the only bad part of the cover was the flag burning, they should had put the "Confederate Flag" instead.. now I'm being rude.. no crying in politics.

    July 17, 2008 at 2:22 pm |
  37. Carol

    Michelle Obama is not a popular person. As an individual, she is just not perceived as warm or likeable. Why can't the media just leave it at that?

    That is not an attack on all African American women, or all tall women, or all women is general. I don't know why any discussion of her always seems to be interpreted as an attack on an entire group.

    Awful things have been said about McCain's wife, too. Anyone could write a similar article claiming attacks on her are "scare politics" of a class system in our future. ".....Megalo-millionaires, like Cindy McCain, will take over our government and cut all social programs for poor people, since she has no concept of any lifestyle but her own...." Spin is spin, and a persuasive argument can be presented either way.

    I am an Obama supporter. I did not care for the New Yorker cover, but I am not buying this argument.

    July 17, 2008 at 2:21 pm |
  38. Larry

    Correct me if I'm in error here. Did black women get the vote the same time as white women, 1920? Black men got the vote in 1870? So why were ALL women not screaming out ( as they rightly should have) for the right to vote many years earlier? Why were black men not trying to support the right for black women to vote? When I look at the black community I see women in strong positions in the home but not in positions of power, especially in the most powerful of all positions in the black community, the church. Black men of faith continue to dominate and suppress black women within the influence of the black church. When we see Reverends & Pastors cry out about racism they are all men. Do black women not have dreams, or are they only told by black men what their dreams should be.
    Whie women may have only got the vote in 1920, but they were still subjugated by the society of white men. It is only within the past few decades that white women have had the courage to demand equal rights. When will black women, as well as hispanic and asian join their white sisters and say 'free at last!'?

    July 17, 2008 at 2:00 pm |
  39. Renee

    @ Faye:

    Stop blaming! Start rallying strong black women to ban together and take charge of the communities in which they live.

    It's called "personal responsiblity." Please inspire folks to do better for themselves.

    @ Cindy:

    Your vast knowledge of all subjects never ceases to amaze me.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:55 pm |
  40. Mike in NYC

    From the article:

    "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."

    The former is largely the result of down-low behavior on the part of many black men, who become infected and then transmit the virus to their women, and sexual irresponsibility among blacks in general. As for the latter - I'm not aware of any stats regarding "unintended" pregnancies, but the illegitimacy rate among blacks is over 70%, as opposed to 28% among whites. Not twice, but almost triple the white rate.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:52 pm |
  41. Kim in NY

    Excuse me.... how can Chris Rock's racist remarks be blamed on The New Yorker? What part of this equation am I missing? If a white man would have said that same exact thing, the black community would want his head (or other body parts ala Jesse Jackson) on a platter.

    And as a woman in NY – educated, own my own business, and volunteer in my community, I didn't at all feel insulted by that ridiculous cover.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:51 pm |
  42. Helen

    Stop with this cover crap. They mad a bad call by underestimating the mood outhere. The New yorker is not racist. Please stop complaining about the magazine.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:49 pm |
  43. Nicole in Alabama

    I was not at all surprised by the negative attacks directed @ Michelle Obama during this entire campaign. Most Americans in general view black women as lazy baby makers that depend on the gov't to take care of them (i.e. welfare & food stamps). So when you see this strong, educated black woman that isn't on some TV show you don't know what to make of her. I think its unfortuate and disappointing because the steorotype of us couldn't be no further from the truth.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:46 pm |
  44. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    Cindy you have so missed the point of the post. I don't think Faye was blaming white women or anyone else for AIDS affecting black women or unwanted pregnancies. She was pointing out a very true fact that affects black women like no other group in this country.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:38 pm |
  45. JC- Los Angeles

    The suggestion that how Michelle Obama is perceived within society is based upon race and gender is extremely troubling.

    I would suggest that Michelle Obama's actions, positions and delivery have more to do with how she is viewed than her skin color or gender.

    Although your statistics about African American women may be accurate, they certainly do not pertain to Ms. Obama.

    Ms. Obama was educated at Princeton and Harvard; she may have received scholarships and financial aid; she may have been given business opportunities others would die for; for someone who has been afforded many breaks, she comes off as a bit thankless.

    Michelle Obama and her husband worshiped for twenty years with a separatist and racist; one could ask if the Obama's are able to accept all people equally.

    With her husband's book advances and Tony Rezko's assistance, the Obama's were able to buy a million dollar plus home.

    Add in the $8K monthly retainer the Obama's received from a Chicago entrepreneur who Obama eventually paid back with $300K in Chicago tourism board money and Michelle Obama should be one of our nation's happiest citizens.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:36 pm |
  46. Ron

    Can this country afford to have another trigger happy president like Bush in John McCain? Can we afford to keep the middle class down. The more people without jobs the less tax revenue collected. So do we keep printing worthles paper and borrowing from other countries?

    July 17, 2008 at 1:35 pm |
  47. Kristen- Philadelphia, PA

    Very nice post. Black women in this country do have a very different experience than black men and white women. Our story does not often get told and I enjoy seeing Michelle Obama out on the campaign trail. She speaks her mind and shines a light that has yet to been seen on black women. She speaks a truth her experiences in this country have given her and no body else but a black woman could know what that is.

    I like that you called it "racist satire" because that is just what it was. Unfortunately The New Yorker wasn't the first and they won’t be the last to portray racial stereotypes in this election.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:31 pm |
  48. M. Thomas Howard

    Is the New Yorker cover in poor taste? I believe so. Is it offensive and insulting? To many, yes. One thing the cover does not do however, is touch about stereotypes of women. The cover is simply intended to be a satire on the perception that many citizens have toward the Obamas.

    Michelle Obama could have a gun on her back or not, but in no way does that portray that she is domineering and aggressive in her capacity as a woman. There is a flag burning in the fireplace, and a picture of Osama Bin Laden on the wall, as well as Senator Obama dressed, well, not very senator-like. On a cover littered with extremes, I think Michelle Obama's presence and presentation on the cover, is simply another satire at the way many perceive them both.

    I certainly don't take the cover as an attack on women. What if They gave Barack Obama the gun on the cover? Would we then be arguing that black men are perceived to be abusive and prone to gun violence? Likely no. The cover is in poor taste in its presentation of both Barack Obama and his wife, end of story. It should certainly not be the launching pad for a feminist outcry.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:19 pm |
  49. Cindy

    Black women do get the short end of the stick but don't all women regardless of race? We all get paid less and are thought of as the "B" word if we are strong and speak our minds. You can't just say that is only done to black women.

    And you can't blame white women or any one else for the AIDS epidemic or the rate of unwanted pregnancies in the black community. That falls on each individual and how they behave and take care of themselves. There are health departments in every city that you can go to, even for free! There is no excuses and no one to blame but yourself.


    July 17, 2008 at 1:18 pm |
  50. pati mc., camp hill, pa

    Bravo Faye!

    I have been a New Yorker reader all of my life, but I can honestly state that what they have done was wrong on a number of levels. It is horrid, insulting and vitriolic. Not to mention unneccesary and not the least bit humorous. Trust me, I have a great sense of humor!

    The only thing that we can do it wirte about this intelligently, as you have done here and hope that it brings the real issue forward for discussion. We need solutions, not insulting cartoons, people.

    Thank you for your insightful and intelligent handling of this matter.

    July 17, 2008 at 1:18 pm |
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