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As Mom-in-Chief, Michelle Subverts Stereotypes

Womens eNews - Sat, 5 Nov 2011 16:24 GMT
Author: Womens eNews
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Repudiating the Mammy Role Michelle Obama's insistence on focusing on her children is also a sound repudiation of the Mammy role. Mammy is a symbol of black women as competent, strong, and sassy, yet she is beloved among white people because she uses all of her skills and talents to serve white domestic interests. Mammy makes sure that white children are well fed, that white women are protected from the difficulties of household labor, and that white men have a safe and comfortable home to return to at the end of the day. She ensures order in the white world by ignoring her own family and community. Her devotion and attention are for others, not for herself or her family. Calling on Michelle Obama to take a more active policy role while her children are still young is in a way requesting that she use her role as First Lady to serve as the national Mammy. Michelle refused. Instead of assuming that the broader public sphere was necessarily more important than the needs of her own children, she made a choice that has been denied to generations of black women. There is a danger in this strategy. Michelle Obama's traditionalist public persona could be used as a weapon against women who do not conform to this domestic ideal. The majority of black mothers are working women who struggle to raise their children without husbands and often without adequate financial support from partners or the state. It would be easy to use Michelle Obama's choice, a choice fostered by a unique circumstance of privilege, to reassert that black women who labor for pay outside the home are inadequate parents. Given the pervasive myths of black women as bad mothers, this narrative could easily be deployed to undercut support for public policies focused on creation of a just and equal political and economic structure and to focus instead on "marriage" and "family values" as solutions to structural barriers facing black communities. At the same time, these conservative discourses have never needed any particular excuse to exist. Michelle Obama's framing herself as mom-in-chief does not make her complicit in the demonization of black mothers that began long before she became First Lady. Her decision does, however, deliver a blow to the Mammy image that many might have preferred that she embody.

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