Friday, October 30, 2009

assume that black women like michelle obama must be covering

When white people meet a person of color who doesn't match the stereotypes in their heads and hearts about that kind of person of color, they often assume that the person is "covering." Or "acting white." Or otherwise putting on an act, or a mask, and keeping their "real" self buttoned up until they get back home.

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.


  1. I learned a lot in the race class I took my freshman year. Less from the teacher and more from my white classmates. They revealed things I had no idea were true about what runs through the minds of white people in relation to black folks... and the ignorance (read, at the time as innocence) with which they shared it was astonishing. It was amazing to me.

    Anywho, I recall after one conversation, my professor saying: "When a member of the majority meets a member of the minority who does not fit into their stereotype of that minority, they oftnetimes do not change their minds about the stereotype, but rather classify the minority as an exception to the rule."

    I took that class 5 years ago, but I've long remembered that point. I wonder for how many people am I an exception to the rule.

    Meanwhile, Michelle's plight is interesting. Why can't she be who she is in front of the camera, behind the camera? What does it mean that many people can't accept that. It's deeper than racism... perhaps even irrelevant of racism...

    White folks aren't the only people who imagine that Michelle becomes the stereotypical neck-rolling, loud, finger-in-your-face black woman that seems to be so popular. Many black people believe that must be true as well...

  2. Thanks so much for writing this!!! I would totally agree with A. Smith's professor quote, it has just been too true in my experiece. I've been "complimented" as being an a-stereotypical black woman because I listen to rock and sing opera. Perhaps that's true to a certain degree, but what does it mean when you tell me I'm not like "those other black women" who what, listen to R&B and shake it in hip-hop videos? Also, please everyone see a book called: Shifting: The Double Lives of Black Women in America by Charisse Jones and Kumea Shorter-Gooden, Ph.D. for even more detail on this phenomenon.

  3. Right on. These assumptions, for whatever reason, seem to only apply to PoC. Nobody speculates on whether or not Hillary Clinton goes home at the end of a long day, puts her feet up on the table, and cracks open a Bud Light, but Michelle Obama is assumed to be vastly different than her public persona.

    What's interesting about Michelle Obama in particular is how, to some of us, she seems more genuine than other women in her position have. The way she talks to her children, the way she is unapologetic about shopping at Target or not wearing stockings - to me are all symbolic of a woman who is very much self-respecting and proud of her genuine self.

  4. I think anyone in the public eye might put on a "public face". Especially in the political world. But I imagine that extends more towards like, for example, not giggling when that overly obnoxious reporter gets elbowed in the face and sprawled on the floor during a press conference.

    However, I have never thought that Michelle Obama isn't acting like who she actually is. I tend to take people at face value and what they put forth is how I assume they are. I'm floored that people would think she's just "covering".

  5. "Nobody speculates on whether or not Hillary Clinton goes home at the end of a long day, puts her feet up on the table, and cracks open a Bud Light"

    Er, I actually recall quite a lot of nonsense about what is Hillary really like under that cool exterior and so on. She even titled her autobiography The Real Hillary, presumably because people do wonder.

    I've never heard of this issue before. I'll be interested to see how many people connect with this post.

  6. A lot of people with chronic illnesses or differences from the "normal" (e.g. Deafness) also cover.

    And god forbid you fit into multiple categories that deviate from the white straight able-bodied male ideal.

  7. @ Jillian

    >> "Right on. These assumptions, for whatever reason, seem to only apply to PoC."

    Actually, if we take into consideration women only, I think it's more that *opposite* assumptions are applied to WW and WOC. Like, the stereotype of a "real" white woman is that's she's feminine, know, ladylike. If a WW, in public, deviates from that stereotype, she is assumed to be showing her real self. If she follows that stereotype, there's sort of a nagging feeling that it is an act. On the other hand, if a WOC acts in accordance with the stereotype of women of *her* race, she is assumed to be authentic. Flouting that stereotype merits accusations of covering.

    I *think* this holds true for women of all races--i.e. it's not just about whether or not a woman fits into the proper-white-lady category, it actually has to do with whether or not she acts in accordance with the stereotypes specific to her race. But, um, when it comes to stereotypes of any sort I'm pretty oblivious, so I could be waaaay off about this part.

  8. It's called conforming and lots of people do it in different places. The fore that should not be condoned is hypocrisy.

  9. "When a member of the majority meets a member of the minority who does not fit into their stereotype of that minority, they oftnetimes do not change their minds about the stereotype, but rather classify the minority as an exception to the rule."

    This is absolute truth. I have had white people compliment me, or at least attempt to by telling me I am "different from the others", a "good black".

  10. Great post. I can definitely identify with this. I've heard some folks (including folks within the black community) wonder what the "real" Michelle Obama is like...and by "real" they mean the Michelle Obama of Wanda Sykes skit.

    And A. Smith, I think you captured it perfectly. Too many folks hold onto stereotypes, even when faced with the opposite, somehow excusing the person who doesn't fit the stereotype as "not like the others" or somehow "faking." I've run into that mentality way to often (and not just in the South, where I'm from).

    Macon, I hope you don't mind, but I posted this video on my blog as well.

  11. Every post you make, I read it - and every once in a while in the process of the post I'm like - oh damn, I've done that before. Sometimes I don't realize I've done it until I read the comments and see alllll of the variations of how whatever is being posted about is done. But this...this is one of those things I am beyond certain that I do not do.

    This is done by WP who think they know POC, namely BP, because they watched Martin in the 90s and "have black friends". I can't count how many BW I know who DO NOT fit the gesticulating, lip-smacking, neck-bobbing stereotype because I don't see anyone like that. I don't think anyone belongs to their race like it's a group with a group-consciousness and group mannerisms. And I certainly don't presume to know someone's personality until I've actually gotten to know them for a while...and by the time that happens, I know them as individuals.

    When I read about some of the things WP say to to POC thinking it's a compliment, or when I hear what they say because they think they're in good company with me because I'm white, I just want to hide under a rock and hope that no one has seen me associating with them. I've lost so many connections with WP because they assume that I'm a part of their group.

  12. I have found that if you are a woman of color who does not use the stereotypical manner of self-expression-it can cause your problems period. It seems that the idea that WOC's are supposed to have that go off gene ingrained inside of us. I know quite a few of my family members and friends who can rip a person up verbally and never twist their neck one time. That seems to set off other WOC who feel that is not a authentic response. I believe that this is generational as well. Being loud and drawing negative attention to yourself or your problems was something we were taught to avoid. It would fit us into the stereotype.

    However, I suspect that if the public every saw an angry Michelle Obama-the effect would be totally stunning. I cannot imagine her twisting her neck and getting ghetto loud. I can see her laying down some straight from the hip truth that would probably be as stunning as a shot from a taser.

  13. I've heard "you're cool for a black girl" more times than I care to remember

  14. @shermyb

    You know what the flipside of your comment is? When people salute you for being a black woman who sings opera as atypical for blacks, it's like they assume most white people can sing opera. When whites compliment blacks for correct grammar or extraordinary speaking skills or being phenomenal at anything, the assumption is that most whites are that stellar. For me, the appropriate response to "You sing opera well for a black woman or you are so articulate for a black person" is "I am a good singer/have good grammar for anybody..."

  15. As a Latina, I love the "SPEAK ENGLISH!" because of course, my response is "I DO SPEAK ENGLISH!" and I am choosing to speak Spanish. Of course, that only infuriates the "SPEAK ENGLISH" crowd further.

  16. M, I agree! When I told someone I was converting to Judaism, they said, "Why the hell would you do something like that? You're already poor, female and Hispanic? Why would you want to ADD that?!"

  17. It's not just black and white. If you're Hispanic or Asian, people are surprised you can speak English at all, much else "standard" English.

  18. But Aliza, at least if you're a non-black POC, bigots assume you can speak something correctly : )

  19. Apple Crisp, not exactly!

    If you are POC period, the expectation of speaking English properly is nil.

    Also, when you add colorism into the mix, it's a lot worse. It's expected for lighter-skinned POC to have all the knowledge and social capabilities not expected in darker-skinned ones. I've dealt with this aspect directly and it's ugly.

  20. I don't know if I would call it "covering". I don't think it's a matter of lying, but I do think most black women have two sides to our personality. Especially those of us who have grown up in places where we were the only POC, or POC were not in abundance. There are aspects to our personality that we keep reserved when we feel we have to represent. We have a responsibility to ourselves and our people to not encourage stereotypes, but with that responsibility we lose the ability to be human- to get angry, sad, depressed, nervous, high strung.

  21. I totally agree with many of the points here but I do take issue with the assertion that speaking expressively (as some would call it "neck rolling") is some how ghetto and negative. This is simply a mannerism found in many AA communities (not all) and it bothers me that a BW who engages in this is somehow deemed "socially unacceptable". So what of one chooses to add a neck roll into the mix..why should they have to apologize for being physically expressive and engaging in something that hurts no one and is a product of the community the grew up in? Fact is there ARE some things that resonate deep within the AA culture whether WP (or BP for that matter) see it as a positive or not. My thing is, why do other PoC feel its necessary to band wagon hop by also assuming that this is somehow a negative thing..

    Fact is AA culture is a convergence of African culture AND American/European culture. And since culture influences the way ppl behave and interact in their world the fact that body language and a connection to movement is a big part of African culture gives you a gimps of how behaviors can modify overtime and become a part of a culture. Sometimes I feel like ppl label things stereotypical when they don't want to acknowledge that certain sociobehavioral cues are indeed real. As in the case of neckrolling.

    I can accept a BW who neckrolls as she speaks passionately, expressively and intelligently about the things that matter to her. I'm not going to shun her or look down on her because she colors her comments with a neckroll.. that just feels like another way of imposing a certain mainstream standards on a group of ppl and it's unnecessary. I'm not saying that ALL black ppl do this, but for those who do, let's not look down our noses..I sense a bit of that here...SO WHAT IF MICHELLE DOES She’s still smart and every much a lady. It doesn’t change a thing. She may not neckroll of course but my point is it shouldn’t matter..

  22. So what of one chooses to add a neck roll into the mix..why should they have to apologize for being physically expressive and engaging in something that hurts no one and is a product of the community the grew up in?

    Excellent point. No one thinks of Italians, the French, the Spanish, the Irish and several other "expressive" white races as something negative deleterious to those interacting with them. In fact it is seen as sexy and even as a source of strength and creativity but with Black women--it is always seen as a negative--as evil, as somehow completely and utterly alien.

  23. I cover by acting conservative.

  24. Pure ignorance at it's finest.

  25. its the catch 22 of being a minority.

    if you act within a stereotype--you are judged

    if you act in any way outside of the stereotype then you are just acting. SMH. because ebonics must be included in our DNA. Ignorance.

    What I've noticed is that the Whites that think this way tend to be the ones that don't matter. :)


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