In her commencement address at Tuskegee University, Michelle Obama spoke of being held to a different standard during the time that President Obama was running for office in 2008. My regular readers will recognize this as a story of being cast in the role of Other. The full video can be viewed at CNN. In summary, the First Lady stated:
As potentially the first African-American First Lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations….sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I ‘too loud’ or ‘too angry’…or ‘too emasculating?’ Or, was I ‘too soft?’, ‘too much of a Mom,’ not enough of a career woman?
Indeed, we remember the great controversy over the fist bump with then-Senator Obama.
CNN’s already referring to these “bold statements” made during the address. No doubt, they are only bold in that people who don’t like Michelle Obama will deride her statements; those who like her will praise them. I happen to like her; but I see nothing bold in what to me is fairly obvious. She was the first, and therefore, her role as Other was cast for her. Irrespective of who she was going in, the expectations were set.
It seems that whenever there is a first, people have unrealistic expectations of the person that are based in prejudice and stereotypes.
John K. Kennedy.
Sandra Day O’Connor.
Those are the folks we know about (or if you didn’t know, they were, respectively, the first Catholic President of the United States, the first openly gay mayor of San Francisco, and the first female Supreme Court Justice). There are so many more, going into offices, climbing into buses, wheeling themselves into classrooms every day, and facing expectations that are based not on who they are and what they can do; but on the most basic visible features that people see. And this was the heart of the First Lady’s Tuskegee commencement address.
When people differ from the dominant group, our difference becomes the focus. We are placed under a magnifying glass. People are curious, fascinated, at the exotic person who is in this new situation. Even as we work to demonstrate our competence and all of the ways in which we share similarities with the rest of the group, we are still Other. When we demonstrate our individual goals or speak of cultural affiliation that differs from the dominant way of thinking or doing things, it is labelled and we are classified, dismissed with “I told you so.” Such is the case for Michelle Obama, whose speech at the BET “Black Girls Rock” Awards was labelled by her detractors as “racist.”
As each of us climbs our own ladder toward whatever our light is, this is the challenge to us. How do we retain our identity that is true to us without caving to people who are holding us to a different set of standards? How do we prove their stereotypes wrong?
We move with what feels most real and right to us. Existing as a shell of ourselves in order to show a dominant group that we’re just like them or to minimize their discomfort does nothing but harm us and our integrity. It is we who suffer when we choose to live without authenticity. If we have to divest ourselves of our identities in order to be accepted or appreciated, the favors we are attempting to curry are probably not worth it. It takes a courageous person to speak truths that are uncomfortable.