When I was in college, I very briefly dated a Chinese guy I’ll call Lee, for the purposes of this story. At one point, he decided to bring me home with him on a long weekend, because his home was reasonably close to the college, and mine most certainly was not. He told his parents he was bringing home his girlfriend for the weekend, but he neglected to mention something. My race.
When we arrived at the house of his parents, they hurried down the walk to greet us, and stopped short when they saw me.
“Oh,” his mother said. “She’s so…small.”
There was a long and awkward pause, because all four of us realized that what she really meant was “She’s so white.”
As it turned out, Lee’s parents and I got along fairly well after the initial surprise. I think that they were really hoping that Lee would end up marrying a Chinese girl, so they were pretty disappointed when he brought Whitey McWhiterson home, but I think they also knew on some level that our relationship probably wasn’t one for the ages, so they didn’t have a whole lot to worry about. They were right, as it turned out; I went to his wedding to a perfectly nice Chinese girl a few years ago.
This interaction, though, has recently come to mind for me, because I’m noticing a sort of disturbing trend among white people when they talk about the First Lady of the United States. In this brave new “post racial” society, race has apparently become a totally taboo topic, which is really a tragedy on a number of levels, not least of which is that I think that white Americans are having a really tough time with a Black family in the White House. This is not to say that all of these whites are racist, or are angry about the fact that we have a Black President, but it’s an event so far outside their experience that they are having difficulty grasping it. I know that sometimes I am randomly driving down the street and I suddenly think “woah, there’s a Black man in the White House,” because, you know, it really is a strange thought. I think it’s an ok thought to have.
I think that what a lot of white Americans are thinking when they look at a picture of the First Lady, or at pictures of the President and the First Lady together, is “she’s/they’re so…Black.” It’s a reminder of the fact that things are changing, and it takes some time to get used to for people who are used to seeing pictures of people who look like them in power.
But, of course, you aren’t allowed to openly remark on Michelle Obama’s race, so what do you do?
You comment on the looks you are allowed to talk about. Every time I see a photograph of the First Lady posted, one of the first comments is always something along the lines of “she’s so beautiful!” “She has such a great sense of style!” “She’s so gorgeous.” No comment about the context of the photograph, like “how interesting that the husbands of G20 leaders aren’t in this group photograph,” or “I wonder how accessible this farmers’ market really is to DC residents.” Nope, it’s always “oooh, she’s so pretty.” “I love her headband.” “Is that sweater from J. Crew?”
Maybe I’m wrong here, but I have a niggling sensation that some white Americans may be coping with their feelings of unsettlement about a Black First Family by fetishizing the First Lady. Not necessarily in a sexual sense, mind you. These comments about her attractiveness are supposed to make her more palatable and acceptable; “well, she doesn’t look like me, but at least she’s pretty,” and to help people grapple with something totally outside their experience. If you can reduce Michelle Obama to her looks and ignore everything else about her, she becomes less frightening and more accessible.
And I think that some people are under the mistaken impression that their comments about her physical appearance are some sort of affirmation or signal of acceptance. “It’s ok that you’re Black,” the subtext of their comments reads, “we love you anyway.” Yet, those comments also remind her that she needs to stay within the boundaries of propriety. Something tells me, for example, that we aren’t going to see her with natural hair, given the uproar which occurred when Malia Obama set foot outside the front door of the White House with twists. Mrs. Obama will apparently only be acceptable as long as she stays “beautiful,” which preferably means that she adheres as closely as possible to white standards of beauty.
I’ve remarked before that American First Ladies tend to get put in a box, and the same appears to be happening to Michelle Obama, but on an entirely new level. I may be wrong on this point, but I certainly can’t think of any First Lady in my living memory who attracted so much discussion about her looks. Fashion choices, sometimes, but much of the public critique of First Ladies seems to have centered around their cookie recipes and the occasional audacity to attempt to actually become involved in the American political process, rather than whether or not they are “gorgeous.”
It makes me deeply uneasy to see Michelle Obama’s looks become the focus of what everyone has to say about her. Race has become the elephant in the room in the United States, the thing which we are all seeing and thinking, but which no one will talk about. And that’s a great pity, because this is an elephant which really needs to be dragged out of the corner and discussed. This becomes more evident every day, what with the dangerous level of racially-charged rhetoric happening in this country.