In a recent HBO appearance, comic genius Wanda Sykes briefly satirized this common white suspicion about "the real Michelle Obama."
I think Wanda Sykes is making a great point here: it's ridiculous for white people to assume that Michelle Obama's persona as the nation's First Lady is just that -- a contrived persona. And more to the point, that it's ridiculous and racist to assume that when Michelle Obama is relaxing behind closed doors, she acts like the loud black woman stereotype, complete with stock phrases and wild, aggressive body language.
As a white American, I don't think it's any of my business to speculate in terms of race about what Michelle Obama, or her husband, or any other non-white person, acts like in private.
Anyway, we all act differently in public to some degree, don't we? If we don't "cover" and "code-switch" in terms of race, then most of us do it in other ways. As Abagond pointed out awhile back in a post on the topic (the bold print is Abagond's),
Covering is where you cover your true self to fit in with mainstream America, downplaying the ways that make you different. Gays call it acting straight, blacks call it acting white. But most Americans do it to some degree because few are perfectly mainstream.
Covering comes out most clearly with gays, blacks and women, particularly at work. Women, for example, will downplay their duties as mothers, gays do not bring up their love lives, blacks speak Standard English, etc.
Again, knowing that some people of color do cover doesn't make it right to assume that any particular person is actually doing so, let alone to assume that he or she acts in specific, stereotypical ways when they're not out in public.
Of course, covering is nothing new for people of color. More than a century ago, the African American poet Paul Laurence Dunbar wrote about it as a necessity:
We Wear the Mask
WE wear the mask that grins and lies,
It hides our cheeks and shades our eyes,—
This debt we pay to human guile;
With torn and bleeding hearts we smile,
And mouth with myriad subtleties.
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
We smile, but, O great Christ, our cries
To thee from tortured souls arise.
We sing, but oh the clay is vile
Beneath our feet, and long the mile;
But let the world dream otherwise,
We wear the mask!
White Americans usually like to assure themselves that "race relations" have come a long way in America, and that the particular anguish articulated in Dunbar's poem no longer exists.
But then, thanks to ongoing white hegemony, a set of whitened expectations and standards does still exist, and when non-white people don't meet them, consequences must still be paid. And on top of that, when non-white people do manage to meet those standards, no matter how precisely, they still encounter white suspicions that they're not quite being "real," which actually means "stereotypical" (all of which is why, I think, this kind of Obamination gets so much traction again and again).
In a way, white suspicions about racial or ethnic covering are sadly ironic. As with the common white demand -- an arrogant, condescending demand -- that Latinos "Speak English!", there's little recognition and admiration for other people's mastery of multiple social registers. Monolingual white Americans who don't have to do much covering when they move throughout the different settings of their daily lives lack something -- a finely honed set of skills that they should admire, and even envy.