“Lay off Michelle Obama: Why white feminists need to lean back”

I came across this article on Facebook, “Lay off Michelle Obama: Why white feminists need to lean back” by Brittney Cooper. I thought it was an interesting article because Cooper makes an explicit distinction between white feminists and black feminists. We haven’t really focused on this in class but Professor Parham also made this distinction at the beginning of the year. Here are a couple of excerpts from the article:

My message to white feminists is simple: Lean back. Way back. And take your paws off Michelle Obama. Black women have never been the model for mainstream American womanhood, and to act as though she takes something away from the (white) feminist movement is intellectually disingenuous and historically dishonest. Your molds were never designed to contain the likes of a Michelle Obama in the first place. And feminism’s biggest nightmare isn’t Michelle Obama; it is white feminists’ consistent inability to not be racist.



There are many problems with this assessment. Neither Cottle nor Hirschman manages to make her assessment of Michelle Obama’s gender politics or performance while holding race constant. But it is race that shapes black women’s access to narratives of womanhood, and the protection that comes with femininity. In other words, black women were never viewed as “unthreatening and bucolic.” (Let us not forget the routine dustups that emerge whenever the first lady shows her arms or her legs in public.) That narrative has been the sole and privileged access of heterosexual, middle-class white women. And white women do not want to acknowledge that this narrative has given them a particular kind of white female privilege — such narratives about delicate and unthreatening white femininity drove the creation of the black male rapist myth and necessitated the labor of black women domestics to maintain white women’s unsullied delicacy and virtue.




I am not here for the facile arguments from white feminists about what Michelle Obama is supposed to represent for all women. Until these mainstream white feminists really grapple with the history of racism and the ways it has shaped all of our performances of gender, then, frankly, I think they should be quiet.


I also acknowledge and agree with black feminists like Melissa Harris-Perry and Kirsten West Savali who have talked about the importance of Michelle Obama’s mom-in-chief role in countering persistent narratives about bad, delinquent black mothers.


As Savali notes, “In my feminism, we understand that raising intelligent, confident Black children in a loving family is one of the most revolutionary acts a Black woman can commit in America.”




But Savali also notes: “I enjoy the first lady’s dougie as much as the next person; but I would also love to see her use her position to say, “I have daughters and they are Renisha McBride.” I would love for her to engage in substantive conversations about depictions of Black women in the media, in addition to issues such as street harassment and sexual violence within the Black community.”


I join her in asking for more from Michelle.




So to be honest, I find the analyses from my fellow black feminists, who stand at the ready to defend the historical and social significance of Michelle Obama’s mom-in-chief role, to be wanting. Black women have always managed to raise good families, support their husbands and have a healthy level of political critique. And when we did invoke respectability politics in the past, there was a strategy behind it. The analysis didn’t begin and end there.




Black feminists want her to show up and show out for us, because black families and black futures depend on it. And until white feminists share this kind of anti-racist agenda, then they should stop calling black women nightmares and start acknowledging their own complicity as what Lillian Smith called “Killers of the Dream.”


Cooper talks about the intersection of race and gender or better yet white feminists incapability of intersecting the two. This goes back to the comment Professor Parham made about the difficulty of intersectionality. What makes having dialogues about intersected topics difficult is that people usually do not possess the adequate language or knowledge to successfully talk about several topics at once. I do agree with the author in that black feminists take race and history into account when criticizing black women and that allows for a more dynamic view of the individual whereas white feminists may not take these things into account and that gives a static view of the individual. I’m not sure if the best approach to combat this is. Should we take the author’s approach and exclude white feminists from race and gender related topics? Or should we try to educate white feminists on how to talk about race and gender at the same time? Ultimately, I think that this has been an issue since the rise of feminism and if white feminist are unwilling to acknowledge their racism then I do not see how to solve this issue. What do you guys think?





One thought on ““Lay off Michelle Obama: Why white feminists need to lean back”

  1. I don’t necessarily think that Cooper is pointing to a solution in which white feminists don’t speak to the issue of race at all. That’s buying into arguments that to be white isn’t to have a race at all (which is patently false). Rather, what she’s saying is that white women need to educate themselves on matters of race before they can speak, which is a fine proposition and one that many white feminists, myself included, need to continue to do.

    That’s why I don’t see the problem in talking intersectionally – mainly because I believe that to have a feminism without considering intersections of oppression (such as race and gender, but also class, sexuality, dis/ability, nationality, etc) is useless. What’s more, is that intersectionality is something that can be performed both at the individual level and at the wider societal level. I can speak as a white woman, acknowledging the privileges that whiteness affords me, but recognizing how I am still subject to discrimination because of my gender. I do this with an understanding of the history that has preceded me, and use this knowledge in order to be the best ally I can be. That doesn’t mean I will get it right all of the time, and by all means, I should be called on it when I don’t. But without co-operation on both sides (by white feminists who seriously need to start picking up history books and actually absorbing what they say, and by feminists of color), I don’t see how the struggles for liberation will ever succeed.

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