By: Ruani Ribe, ‘12
On November 4, 2008, people all over the United States rejoiced as Barack Obama was announced President and an era of change was ushered in. Indeed, the Obamas’ race was, and still is, a popular and widely discussed aspect of the 2008 presidential election. Having never seen a Black Democratic nominee or a Black woman come so close to gaining the title of First Lady, America closely watched and scrutinized the Obamas’ every move. On June 3, 2008 at a rally in St. Paul Minnesota, Barack and Michelle Obama “fist-pounded”# one another, causing a media storm. Called a “fist bump of hope” (McShane), the “fist bump heard ‘round the world” (qtd. in Sklar), and even “a terrorist fist jab” (“ACTION: The Obamas’ affectionate “fist bump” is no “terrorist fist jab”) a country accustomed to kisses and hugs on the political stage became obsessed with trying to interpret this gesture. What is interesting about the fist bump is its origins in African-American street culture among men. In this way, it symbolizes a moment where race, class, and gender intersect. This intersection was a point of serious debate and careful strategizing for the Obamas while on the campaign trail. In order to appeal to an entire nation of voters, Barack and Michelle Obama had to carefully construct their public personas as they involve race, gender, and their respective political offices. The need to understand and interpret what the “fist-bump” signifies and to move past society’s ills as they relate to race through a “post-racial” moment only highlights how deeply embedded our stereotypes and expectations concerning race, class, gender, and the offices of President and First Lady are. Here, lies the inherent risk in hinging the alleviation of these ills on the election of a Black President.
Much of the emphasis on race, during the days leading up to the election, dealt with the prospect of electing America’s first Black president, but also discussed the extent to which Barack Obama could be considered Black, especially in relation to his wife, Michelle Obama. Her visible African-American ancestry makes her the symbol of a “perceived ‘racial’ challenge, [which] only heightens, multiplies, and magnifies the antagonism toward her” (Horne and Horne-Wells 126). In other words, some say her dark skin tone, in comparison to the lighter skin color of her husband, has caused her to become the site of many of America’s displaced racial anxieties. Here, implicitly lies the issue of “colorism”, or color-based discrimination that suggests lighter skin is preferable to darker skin (Hunter 2), which in no way pits the Obamas as equals. Historically, “whiteness is believed to represent civility, intelligence, and beauty, and in contrast Blackness and brownness are seen as representing primitiveness, ignorance, and ugliness” (Hunter 49). In today’s society, one may no longer be as close-minded as to ascribe primitiveness or ignorance to skin color, but today’s colorism does conflate Blackness with ugliness, and dark skin still carries connotations of a sense of fear and danger that stem from these earlier ascriptions. This fear might be magnified by anxieties over the Obamas’ ability to represent America as a whole over the Black community which their race ties them to.
While it is clear that Barack Obama is not white, his lighter skin places him on the whiter end of this color spectrum, thus one, especially one eager to see the onset of a “post-racial” society, might readily attribute civility, intelligence, and beauty, if we are to think of beauty as possessing some level of social capital and increased likelihood of access to resources and upward mobility (Hunter 71), to Obama rather than the full weight of the connotations of the dark skin on the other end of the spectrum. To add to this, it is widely known that Obama is the son of a white woman and a Kenyan Black man. In this way, Obama can be seen as occupying a middle ground between dominant whites and oppressed racial minorities (Hunter 116) choosing to distance himself from race by downplaying his own race and avoiding racial issues whenever possible (Cooper 651-652). However, this middle-ground is further complicated considering he is descended from an immigrant father, which places him outside the “legacy of slavery and Jim Crow” and outside the history of racial oppression as it is related to constructions of Blackness in America (Hollinger 1035). For those who see him as representative of Black progress in America, this could be problematic and may contribute to views of Obama as “less Black”. In this sense, the white majority can rest assured that Barack Obama does not fully identify with the Black community of America, as a part of the anxiety over the Obamas’ race concerned their ability to represent America as a country over a biased focus which would champion the specific issues of Blacks. The construction of Obama’s race avoids outright appeals to both whites and Blacks and in this way, he gives off a sense of racelessness and quells fears of appearing “race-loyal” (Copper 653) or “too Black”.
Michelle Obama’s darker skin tone, on the other hand, may have made her a more likely candidate for this sort of bias in the eyes of the public. Margaret Hunter notes that “many African-Americans consider light-skinned members of the community to be less identified with other Blacks, and less interested and knowledgeable about Black culture” (Hunter 104). This idea then suggests that darker-skinned members of the community are more likely to identify with Blacks and more likely to be concerned with the Black community. Taken together, one might conclude that Michelle Obama’s dark skin caused people to view her less favorably, on the parts of both the general historical perceptions of darker skin in America, and also the perception that as a “more Black,” or darker-skinned, person she is more likely to place loyalty to her own race over her loyalty to American citizens as a whole.
Standing before an enormous crowd of her husband’s supporters years later on June 3, 2008, there is no question that her current class status somewhat distances Michelle Obama from her working-class childhood. But it is also this new class status that has made her the prime target of attacks labeling her “as an unpatriotic angry Black woman nursing racial grievances despite her successful life story” (McGinley 722). This comment points to one area where calling our society “post-racial” becomes problematic: in that these critics inextricably tie race to class and social status. Citing Michelle Obama’s “successful life story” as a reason to refrain from continuing to find fault with the treatment of race in America suggests that her own life is proof that anyone from any racial or socio-economic background can rise to her level, and that race did not, and does not continue to act as an obstacle in the pursuit of this level of success. Interestingly then, she gets “labeled uppity” (Williams 834) by critics, as if she should remain forever humbled for having been allowed to achieve the American Dream. Barack Obama faces similar criticism, despite his own middle-class upbringing. Though his “Meet the President” biography seems to do a little more than necessary to emphasize his modest roots, it does make clear that he does not come from the same privileged background as many of his predecessors. It points out that he was raised by a single mother and his grandparents who didn’t have much money but brought him up with “values from the Kansas heartland” where they grew up (“Meet the President”). Still, he has been called an elitist and his aides have worried that “his intellect can be mistaken for condescension and that his composure can seem like detachment” (Saslow). After all, his upbringing, at least the way it is described in this biography, is in stark contrast to the Columbia, Princeton, and Harvard educations he received later in life.
Both Obama’s education and humble background were critical to presenting himself as what Frank Rudy Cooper calls the “Good Black Man”. His intellect makes a certain degree of fairness and level-headedness attributable to him, and his composure lends itself to combating the temperamental nature that is easily attributable to Cooper’s “Bad Black Man.” In essence, Barack and Michelle Obama’s education levels, lifestyles, and comportment are assessed with relation to their race or are used strategically to avoid fulfilling stereotypes or fears of what could potentially come from a Black President and First Lady. The focus of these sorts of discussions may be on class, but race is present, even if it is implicitly exposing the contradiction of our want to see our President and First Lady representative of a particular Black narrative and struggle, yet with the education and experience to be fit for these roles, which have been traditionally defined by the white, upper-class. For President Barack Obama, this means finding middle ground between appearing fit for the strong, powerful, and masculine role of President of the United States while avoiding stereotypes of hyper-masculine, angry, aggressive Black man and also that of the “Black Buddy”, a “safe, but non-threatening Black identity”, that is “physically Black yet lacking a racial identity” (Collins 168). In other words, masculinity is interpreted in very different ways where race is concerned, both in presentation of one’s self and in the reception of that self.
The American presidency is usually framed through “experience, toughness, feistiness, stubbornness, [and] grit” (Cooper 650) in the vein of traditional masculinity, however, while these characteristics are admired in the American [white] presidency, they evoke a certain level of fear when attached to Black men. Cooper argues that Obama’s race in conjunction with fulfilling the typical masculine characteristics of the American presidency would cast him as the angry, “Bad Black Man. In order to avoid this stereotype, and in turn, avoid losing voters, Barack Obama had to feminize many aspects of his public persona. In this sense, his “restraint, calm demeanor, collaborative style, willingness to speak with enemies, and finely honed language” (Cooper 650) helped to distance him from the “Bad Black Man” images associated with people such as Black Nationalists or Al Sharpton in that all of these people’s politics are exclusive, race-affirming and condemning towards whites. In feminizing himself in order to construct a Black masculinity that was palatable to the American masses, he risked appearing not manly enough for the Presidency, yet Cooper notes that as a Black man, “Obama had more room to negotiate a partly feminized masculinity.” Further, lest critics cast his feminine characteristics as evidence of homosexuality#, he had his marriage and picturesque family to thwart those claims. Still, as his feminization tactics are largely attempts to distance himself from race, he risks fulfilling other stereotypes, specifically of what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “Black Buddy,” one who’s Blackness is only present externally, but not on a behavioral or cultural level (Collins 168) and therefore, appearing as an insufficient representative of Blacks. In deemphasizing his masculinity, Obama is “stripped of the seemingly dangerous parts of Blackness, leaving the useful parts of difference to satisfy the tastes of a multicultural America” (Collins 168). If this is what people view as post-racial about Obama, one should question whether it is race we are trying to move beyond or if it is the differences caused by separate racial identities and cultures. The Black vote was heavily skewed in Obama’s favor, but appearing “in conformity with dominant, White sensibilities” and too detached from Black culture could have cast him as an insufficient representative of Blacks and as using race to his advantage.
To digress slightly, it is interesting to consider Barack Obama’s campaign involvement with popular culture in trying to understand why Blacks did not perceive him as a “Black Buddy” of sorts. As both Blacks and whites may attribute “authentic” representations of Black culture to the over representation of images of Blackness in popular culture that stem from stereotypical images of working-class Blacks. Maybe then, Barack Obama’s level or engagement with popular culture during his campaign placed him, to some extent, on the level of these perceivably “authentic” Blacks. Additionally, it may have been doubly advantageous in that it made him more prominent in the minds of Americans while acting to place some distance between himself and the elitism and stuffiness of dominant [white] political culture. We might also understand the “fist-pound” gesture as being representative of Black culture and popular culture simultaneously, much like his gesture during a speech in Raleigh, North Carolina, which alluded to Jay-Z’s “brushing dirt off your shoulder” #.
Michelle Obama is not exempt from appearing unfit for the role of First Lady as a Black woman. The stereotype of the angry Black woman, or what Patricia Hill Collins calls the “‘bitch’”, pits Black women as “aggressive, loud, rude, and pushy” (Collins 123) and “is designed to defeminize and demonize them”(Collins 123), both of which would be quite tactful for critics who wish to show Michelle Obama as incompatible with the First Lady role. Even the more positively connoted “Bitch with a capital ‘B’”, “super-tough, super-strong women who are often celebrated” (Collins 124) that has been associated with Michelle Obama is problematic. That “she was considered too outspoken and too critical of her husband, and perhaps not as domesticated as many of the public would like” (McGinley 722) serves to contribute to fears that she is capable of her own, independent agenda and further, to emasculate an already feminized President. In the face of criticism, fears mounted that she could ruin “her husband’s chances for presidency, tainting him as ‘too Black’” (McGinley 723). In conformance with the traditional role of First Lady, which “personifies domesticity and traditional womanhood”, who is “regarded as a good wife and mother” and in more recent history, is credited with pursuing some sort of social cause, as long as it is compatible with the President’s policies (Watson and Eksterowicz 366), Michelle Obama adopted a more “feminine” image as the election drew nearer and began to place emphasis on her own struggle to balance work and family and her goal to help American women do the same (De Nies). Now, Michelle Obama is probably most well-known for her fashion sense, which is uniquely affordable and accessible, perhaps to combat the attribution of materialism associated with Black women (Collins 126), and has received considerable press on how she structures family time, chose a school for her children, and created a home in the White house (McGinley 723). While this might be seen by some as retrogressive (Williams 842) especially succeeding such active First Ladies as Hilary Clinton, Michelle Obama’s race affords her less freedom to portray herself as active and independent minded, since most stereotypes masculinize Black women as the anti-thesis of the feminine “lady”, a status that then becomes attainable only by white women (Williams 841-842).
While Michelle Obama began to fit the fashionable First Lady mold that we have come to expect because of past First Ladies like Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, her controversial image faded into the background. The iconic “fist-bump”, on the other hand, sparked conversation because it was different—even as America stands for inclusivity and embracing difference, the media coverage alone is evidence that no one knew what to do with this seemingly out of place gesture. It was analyzed and dissected in exactly the same way that the Obamas’ camp knew they would be picked apart on the basis of their race. None of this is to say that the Obamas meant to downplay or exploit any aspect of their identities, but in their careful projections of their identities as they relate to race, they also had to figure in class and gender. If the image of post-racial is constructed by altering perceptions of various other things, all that this is evidence of is a certain amount of fluidity in each of these constructs, but certainly not a society that is beyond race, or any other markers of difference. Not even Obama himself is post-racial. His attempts at remaining in-between Black and white are only effective because of the stereotypes and rigid notions we have of gender and race. When gender, race and class are no longer the basis for determining who is fit and not fit for roles like the President and First Lady, then we might be on our way to being post-racial. We may be past de facto racism in the US, but the days leading up to the election show evidence that colorism still exists. Furthermore, the attention to both Barack and Michelle Obama’s backgrounds demonstrate that class is tied to certain levels of authenticity concerning race, and finally, the negotiation of their images between various gendered Black stereotypes to ensure public approval reveals that gender biases are deeply entrenched in perceptions of race, as well. For right now, calling this point in American history post-racial completely ignores the large role that both class and gender played in this election and downplays the many inequalities and disadvantages that still exist there, especially when they are combined with race.