But it’s not really as easy as blaming Michelle Obama for not being as radical as we want her to be. Racist constructions of black motherhood play a large role in how she is perceived, and she has to work double time to avoid being cast as an “angry black woman.” Michelle Obama had to win the appeal of the American mainstream with qualities that make her seem like she’d be a good First Lady: being feminine, appeasing, and focused on home; being successful in her own right (but willing to give it all up for her husband’s career and her children’s well-being) is just an added bonus. Her choice (even if on behalf of their PR team!) to play up her more traditional leanings has a lot to do with the fact that American conceptions of black motherhood not only are racist, but harmful in how they position black motherhood in opposition to white motherhood as a type of failure.
Don’t believe me? Think about how differently Sarah Palin’s campaign coverage would have looked had she been a black woman. Palin was a working mother with five children, one of whom, Bristol, was a teenager and pregnant while Mom was on the campaign trail. If Palin had been black (or Latina for that matter) she would have been cast as ignorant and uneducated and characterized as a drain on the system. Heteronormativity is not just about being straight; it is also about class, race, and lifestyle choices.