In my junior year of high school, I ran for Student Council president. In my 17-year-old mind, this position was not that different in prestige and power from being president of the United States except that being the head of the Student Council boosted my chances of getting into Yale. I put posters along the hall where most of the black students hung out. Each one featured a drawing of an Oreo and proclaimed: A VOTE FOR RAINA IS A VOTE FOR RACIAL UNITY. I was playing on the conceit that I did not fit the stereotype of a young black woman (I worshiped the "Preppy Handbook" and Gloria Steinem) but was still too dark to be homecoming queen. The response was, well, galvanizing. My classmates were furious with me for being condescending and inappropriate. I realized that stereotypes cannot be controlled unless you think that grabbing a tiger by its tail is controlling it.
And as Michelle Obama captures the media's attention, I am reminded of my past foolishness. She is a strong, smart black woman who does not hesitate to speak her mind—and that has been the source of her appeal. But as her husband rises from underdog to front runner, and Michelle becomes more visible and vocal in the campaign, those "feisty dame" stereotypes that had been her strengths might be turning around to bite her. Critics are now taking her to task for being emasculating, sarcastic and bossy—characteristics that are just on the other side of the looking glass from strong, smart, black and female. So now the question is: which stereotype will stick?
Part of Michelle's strength is that she has been immune to the mommy wars that tripped up Hillary during Bill's campaigns. The baking-versus-working tension is irrelevant for her; black women have never been burdened with the luxury of choice. Our heritage does not include the gilded cage, and we certainly never fought to labor outside the home—black women have always worked. This is why many of us never inherited the remorse about balancing work and family that plagues our white counterparts. For Michelle, voters have read this as self-assurance—appealing to young voters who are optimistic that they will find a balance between career and home. For older women, Michelle seems to speak with real candor about the realities of domestic life—including her complaints about Barack's aversion to picking up his socks and putting away the butter. In an interview with Glamour magazine she said, "People understood that this is how we all live in our marriages. And Barack is very much human. So let's not deify him, because what we do is we deify, and then we're ready to chop it down. People have notions of what a wife's role should be in this process, and it's been a traditional one of blind adoration. My model is a little different—I think most real marriages are."
In the eyes of African-Americans, it doesn't hurt that Michelle makes her husband seem more black. Obama does not fit the trope of the black president as defined by Toni Morrison—"single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald's-and-junk-food-loving boy"—and black voters may have been slow to trust him for that reason. Michelle does fit the public's idea of a black woman (unafraid, confident and blunt). But this stereotype can also work against her if her strength and honesty are viewed as undermining her husband. The New York Times's Maureen Dowd wrote: "Others worried that her chiding was emasculating, casting her husband—under fire for lacking experience—as an undisciplined child." But if Hillary had done a little public emasculating, Bill might have had less trouble in his second term.
Michelle told NEWSWEEK: "I've been caricatured as this emasculating wife. Barack and I laugh about that. It's just sort of, like, 'Do you think anybody could emasculate Barack Obama?' Really now." If white women are handicapped by a sense of their own vulnerability, black women are hobbled by their strength and directness—or have you never seen those Aunt Jemima salt and pepper shakers? I admit it: I am louder than the average human being and have no fear of speaking my mind. These traits don't come from the color of my skin but from an unwavering belief in my own intelligence. Do I worry about being seen as emasculating? Not since I was looking for a date to the junior prom. But I worry that the caricature of Michelle is what will gel in people's minds, and this Ivy League-educated executive and mother of two will become nothing more than a henpecking mouth that won't let Barack alone.
I'm pregnant with a biracial boy due in June. I'm not worried about feeling guilty for returning to work after his birth. But I already fret that he will not see women as the unique people men are allowed to be. So I will encourage him to be a Yale legacy and maybe even president of the United States. But he will learn to pick up his socks and put away the butter first.