Tag Archives: South Africa

Michelle Obama, Selfies, and Historical Stereotypes about Black Women

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Hell Thorning Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela's memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

British Prime Minister David Cameron, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, and President Barack Obama take a group selfie at Nelson Mandela’s memorial. The anger the media projected on Michelle Obama in this photo is rooted in old stereotypes about black femininity.

Nelson Mandela’s memorial ceremony was held in South Africa this week, and leaders and dignitaries from all over the world made sure to descend on Johannesburg to pay their respects to the civil rights icon. Among those at the memorial service for the first black South African president was Barack Obama, the first black American president (sorry Bubba, you have to relinquish that title). But of course, anyone whose been to any type of memorial ceremony — not least one the size and scale of the Mandela fête — knows that things can get kind of dull. Alas, world leaders are as human as anyone else (though sometimes less so) and they get bored like the rest of us. Hence, President Obama took some time out from the long, drawn-out mourning/celebration to clown around with British PM David Cameron and Danish PM Helle Thorning-Schmidt in a manner that exemplifies the contemporary narcissistic age: they took a group selfie.

A photographer captured the world leaders’ selfie and his images became mildly infamous, raising questions over whether such behavior was appropriate at a funeral. Even more controversy, however, arose from First Lady Michelle Obama’s apparently stern countenance as she cast a steely gaze off into the distance while President Obama and the Europeans goofed around with a cell phone. As Roxane Gay notes in an a perceptive article for Salon, the press quickly assumed that Michelle Obama was angry at her husband’s behavior. “The media,” Gay notes, “have reacted, trying to frame Michelle Obama as ‘angry’ or ‘disapproving’ when maybe she wasn’t even paying attention to her husband being silly with his world leader friends.”

Indeed, the Washington Post claimed that “the First Lady looks stern,” while the New York Daily News reported that Michelle Obama “sat at a distance, as if in disapproval of the digital display.” The fact that the First Lady was apparently not angry at all hasn’t dissuaded the media from playing into an old narrative of Michelle Obama as a standard “angry black woman.”

Gay identifies the “angry black woman” stereotype as the underlying theme driving this otherwise non-story about world leader funeral selfies. “More than anything,” Gay writes, “the response to these latest images of Michelle Obama speaks volumes about the expectations placed on black women in the public eye and how a black women’s default emotional state is perceived as angry…She never gets to simply be.” Indeed, the “angry black woman” idea in American culture is a powerful stereotype that’s deeply rooted in the nineteenth century and the legacy of slavery. The idea that black women are perpetually angry, aggressive, loud, and strong-willed in the most obnoxious ways is a cultural construction stemming from historical circumstances in which black women found themselves at the bottom of American social power structures for generations.

In her book Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America, political scientist and MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry notes how black women’s historical experiences in America, framed through the prisms of racism, slavery,  Jim Crow, segregation, and patriarchal dominance created a “specific citizenship imperative for African American women – a role and image to which they are expected to conform.” Harris-Perry calls this image “the strong black women.” It’s an image characterized by self-sacrifice, devotion to husbands and children, a dedication to endless hard work, and a seeming imperviousness in the face of trials and tribulations.* As Harris-Perry notes, the “strong black woman” image doesn’t consult black women about how they are, rather, it’s a social construct that has allowed American society to define black women in ways that society thinks they are.

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Michelle Obama looks angry in this photograph, which, of course, means that she is angry!

Although many elements of the “strong black woman” idea are, on their face, positive attributes, such as motherly devotion and courage in the face of adversity, when this ideal has been externally projected onto African-American women, it’s been warped to embody perceived negative aspects of black female strength — especially black women’s supposed unmitigable anger. This stereotype is an inversion of ostensibly positive virtues because it frames black women’s confidence and assertiveness in the face of domination as evidence of irrational anger. As Harris-Perry writes, “by its idealized description, black women are motivated hard-working breadwinners” whose “irrepressible spirit is unbroken by the legacy of oppression, poverty, and rejection.” Thus, black women who embrace the “strong” identity can imbue it with positive characteristics. When wielded by external sources, however, as in the case with the Michelle Obama selfie snafu, the “strong black woman” often transforms into an irrational “angry black woman” whose anger must be publicly pointed out and critiqued.*

The idea that black women are perpetually angry stems from the nineteenth century and African-American women’s experiences under slavery. Historian Thavolia Glymph notes, for example, that white mistresses in plantation households characterized black female slaves as “obstinate, self-willed, cross, and dirty” in order to deny the fact that female slaves were not just being “angry black women” but were, in fact, engaging in rebellious behavior that challenged the “civilizing” expectations of the southern slave system.*

“By the late antebellum [pre-Civil War] period,” Glymph writes, the idea that black women were vessels of disorder and filth had become central to southern pro-slavery ideology.”* When female slaves refused to work, when they shouted at or spat on their mistresses, and when they beat their mistresses physically, white slaveholders characterized them as refusing to be “better girl[s].” In the eyes of white slaveholders, black female slaves were merely “angry black women,” not strong-willed individuals resisting the slave system. Framing female slaves’ behavior as merely “angry” or “cross” allowed whites to believe that it wasn’t the system of slavery that was wrong, it was merely black women who were wrong by refusing to conform to that system.

The idea of the obstinate, “angry black woman” survived slavery’s demise and surfaced throughout the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries whenever black women took it upon themselves to assume more public roles and assert their equal rights. This stereotype has legs because it taps into deeply uncomfortable and historically debated notions about what constitutes American social and civic identity. The American system of racial prejudice has, unfortunately, played a major role in every major debate about equal rights and American citizenship over the decades, particularly the debate over black women’s identities as U.S. citizens.

African American women who resisted this system in the 19th century were, according to slaveholders, just "angry."

African-American women who resisted this system in the nineteenth century were, according to slaveholders, just “angry.”

Even with historical advances like the abolition of slavery and the expansion of equal rights following the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s, stereotypes about black Americans in general — and black women in particular — have proven difficult to dispel. Deeply engrained ideas pertaining to the nature of African-American women have yet to be fully banished from public discourse, just as similar stereotypes about black men as shiftless, criminal, and crude continue to shape debate in contemporary society.

The persistence of the “angry black woman” idea is attested to by the fact that no black woman — even one with a law degree from Harvard who’s married to the President of the United States — can escape such a labeling. Of course, the various media outlets thought they were having some light-hearted fun by depicting Michelle Obama as being “angry” over her husband’s funeral selfie. But the fact that the “angry black woman”  stereotype is so universally recognized as to constitute the foundation of a joke speaks to its staying power and deep resonance in American culture. Michelle Obama might just as well be called “strong,” but then, that would be more of a positive than a negative description. Media outlets looking to poke fun at the “angry” First Lady are likely unaware that such a characterization invokes the legacy of slavery, racial inequality, and vastly unequal power structures that have so often been at the heart of African-American women’s experiences, and therein lies the problem.

* See Melissa Harris-Perry, Sister Citizen: Shame, Stereotypes, and Black Women in America (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011), 21, 184.

* See Thavolia Glymph, Out of the House of Bondage: The Transformation of the Plantation Household (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2008), 64-66.

Nelson Mandela and the Legacy of American Apartheid

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002  International Aids Conference.

Former South African President Nelson Mandela meets with former U.S. President Bill Clinton at the 2002 International Aids Conference.

This week one of the towering figures of twentieth century politics passed from his mortal coil. Nelson Mandela, the former President of South Africa, died at the age of 95, leaving a legacy that stretches beyond the limits of South Africa and even his own lifetime. Heck, Mandela’s legacy is one that challenges what had been among the core ideologies of the modern world dating back at least to the 18th century: white supremacy as practiced via the supposed inherent right of European powers to subjugate non-white, non-European peoples.

Mandela was, of course, the first black president of South Africa, a nation whose modern history is framed largely through the prism of its brutal system of racial segregation known as Apartheid. Mandela spent 27 years in prison as punishment for his lifelong fight against institutional racism, and his greatness as a symbol of human resistance in the face of adversity is now forever sealed. I mean, Morgan Freeman even played Mandela in a movie, and if that doesn’t attest to the South African president’s greatness, nothing else will.

I kid, of course. Mandela stands with Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohandas Ghandi, as one of the most influential world players in the battle against racism and segregation in the modern era. So what exactly was Apartheid, and why was it so awful? Legal historian Steven Ratner offers a good, comprehensive definition:

Apartheid was the system of racial discrimination and separation that governed South Africa from 1948 until its abolition in the early 1990s. Building on years of discrimination against blacks, the National Party adopted apartheid as a model for separate development of races, though it served only to preserve white superiority. It classified persons as either white, Bantu (black), colored (mixed race), or Asian. Its manifestations included ineligibility from voting, separate living areas and schools, internal travel passes for blacks, and white control of the legal system.

Take some time to absorb that for a second: “a model for the separate development of the races.” If you’ve ever studied American history, for example, you might be aware that such institutionalized racism was not unique to South Africa. And how did South Africa’s racist regime go about instituting Apartheid? Policymic has a good roundup of the policies that built Apartheid:

Blacks were denied citizenship and the right to vote. They were forcibly relocated into impoverished reservations. People of color were barred from operating businesses or owning land inside white areas, which comprised most of the country. Sexual relations or marriage between people of color and whites was strictly forbidden. Racial segregation was enforced in public areas, including schools, hospitals, trains, beaches, bridges, churches and theaters. To enforce apartheid, the government often resorted to police brutality, the imprisonment and assassination of political dissidents, and the murder of black protesters.

The type of racial segregationist program known as “Apartheid” in South Africa, however, was far from limited to that country alone. Racial segregation in the name of white supremacy was a guiding principle that came to characterize the age of discovery, when European powers explored, settled, and colonized other parts of the world from the 15th century all the way up the 20th century. What Mandela fought against in South Africa reverberated throughout the world, as long-subjugated groups in former and current colonized nations fought for the equality that had been denied them in large part based on the color of their skins. It wasn’t an easy fight: as Mandela’s life demonstrates, those who have the power to dominate others won’t give it up that power easily, and they aren’t shy about enforcing their power through violence and intimidation.

The nation that emerged at the top of the world power heap by the mid-20th century was the United States, and nearly all of America’s history as a modern nation involved a reckoning with its own form of American Apartheid that manifested in the system of racial slavery that was enshrined in its Constitution and, over time, created one of the most racially divided societies in modern history. This development was all the more ironic since it took place in a country that supposedly cherished the notion that “All men are created equal.”

This American Apartheid echoed through the centuries via a Civil War fought over the right to enslave black bodies. After slavery’s demise, American Apartheid took the shape of the racial terrorism of Reconstruction. By the late 19th and early 20th century, it became institutionalized in the barbaric Jim Crow system that witnessed the smoldering stench of immolated flesh as lynching swept the American South and African-Americans were relegated to nation-wide second-class citizenship. American Apartheid only finally began to collapse in the mid-20th century, the same era during which Mandela waged his fight, following a sustained attack by Civil Rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Medgar Evers. But as recent attacks on minority voting rights indicate, Apartheid casts a long shadow in America and throughout the world.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

An August, 1930 lynching in Marion, Indiana. This was American Apartheid at its worst.

America’s reckoning with its own apartheid explains why many elements in the U.S., up until very recently, viewed Nelson Mandela as a racial terrorist rather than a freedom fighter. As Sagar Jethani of Policymic notes, American conservatives long-defended South Africa’s anti-communist, white minority government in the name of anti-communist zeal. Mandela’s support for liberal policies, including worker’s rights and social justice, when combined with his early support for violence against the Apartheid government before he embraced peaceful resolutions, did not endear him to the American Right.

Over at Student Activism, for example, Angus Johnston reminds us how in 1986, William F. Buckley, the silver-spooned National Review founder and “intellectual” godfather of modern American conservatism, vehemently opposed universal suffrage in South Africa. “The government will not … grant political equality to everyone in South Africa. Nor should it,” Buckley wrote. “It is preposterous at one and the same time to remark the widespread illiteracy in South Africa and to demand the universal franchise.” Buckley had already made it abundantly clear that he opposed racial equality in the American South, both on prejudicial grounds and because he associated equality with a threat to established political and economic hierarchies, hence his distaste for South African universal suffrage.

In the 1980s, American conservative luminaries like Jesse Helm (R-NC), Strom Thurmond (R-SC), Phil Gramm (R-TX), and Dick Cheney (R-Hell) followed Buckley by opposing the Congressional Anti-Apartheid Act of 1986, which imposed sanctions on South Africa.

For many Americans, not just conservatives, the specter of racial equality also suggested economic equality and the threat to capitalism that would supposedly undermine social hierarchies across the land. Race and class have always been inextricably linked in American history, which helps explain why American conservatives in particular viewed Mandela as a threat: he tapped into old domestic fears that conflated anti-racism with economic and social revolution.

Proponents of American Apartheid have defended racial segregation since the beginning, but they’ve been at their most defensive when white supremacy, with all of its economic benefits, has been explicitly challenged. Such was the case during the run-up to southern secession and the outbreak of the Civil War in 1860-61. As historian Charles Dew notes, southern secession commissioners (whom I discussed in an earlier post) charged with promoting secession throughout the South endorsed slavery and the Apartheid that bolstered slavery as a justification for the South’s forming the Confederate States of America to fend off northern anti-slavery aggression.

Commissioner William L. Harris of Mississippi, for example, complained that the North demanded “equality between the white and negro races, under our Constitution; equality in representation, equality in the right of suffrage…equality in the social order.” Harris warned that Mississippi would rather “see the last of her [white] race, men, women and children, immolated in one common funeral pile,” rather than be “subjected to…social equality with the negro race.”* Indeed, the Confederate South fought America’s greatest and bloodiest revolution, the Civil War, in order to preserve American Apartheid, and they didn’t stop defending racial segregation after the Confederacy’s demise.

During the Jim Crow era, as lynching and black disenfranchisement swept across the South and other parts of the country, defenders of American Apartheid continued to echo the sentiments of their Confederate forebears. In March of 1900, for example, the mind-blowingly racist South Carolina Senator Ben “Pitchfork” Tillman claimed on the Senate floor that the lynching of blacks was necessary to uphold racial segregation. “We of the South have never recognized the right of the negro to govern white men, and we never will,” Tillman stated. “We have never believed him to be equal to the white man,” he continued, “and we will not submit to his gratifying his lust on our wives and daughters without lynching him.” Rarely had Apartheid produced so blunt a spokesman. For Tillman and his ilk, racial equality meant social equality, which they believed would upend the entire American white supremacist socio-economic order.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America's most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms was among America’s most noted pro-Apartheid jerks.

Even after the success of the Civil Rights movement, certain segments of American society nonetheless held on to their defence of American Apartheid, particularly in the 1980s when violence erupted in South Africa. Jesse Helms, for example, the Republican senator and general scumbag from North Carolina, defended South African Apartheid in large part because it reminded him of the American Apartheid system in which he had been born and raised.

As Eric Bates of Mother Jones reported in June 1995, Helms “grew up in a segregated world not unlike the one of apartheid,” and this upbringing gave him “a view of a fundamentalist Christian society in which everyone is not welcome” and which resembled “South Africa of 20 years ago.” With a lifetime of pro-segregationist ideology informing his thought, Helms filibustered U.S. sanctions against South Africa in 1986, claiming that “the Soviet Union is orchestrating upheaval in all of Africa.” By supporting South African Apartheid on grounds that it would supposedly bring about communist revolution, Helms followed a long tradition in which American segregationists, from Confederate ideologues to lynching proponents, linked racial equality with social revolution. American conservatives’ mixed ideas about Nelson Mandela’s legacy reflect a reluctance to reckon with America’s own historical Apartheid past.

With Mandela’s passing, here’s hoping that Apartheid in any part of the world will continue to be a shameful part of the human past. But as U.S. history shows, despite Americans’ long-held claims of American Exceptionalism,” Apartheid has never been limited to South Africa. In fact, its has been a reality of the modern world and has manifested in nearly every continent over the last few centuries. This is not the kind of legacy that goes away quickly, and this fact makes Mandela’s legacy all the more remarkable and worth continuing.

* See Charles B. Dew, Apostles of Disunion: Southern Secession Commissioners and the Causes of the Civil War (Charlottesville: University of Virginia Press, 2001), 85, 89.