In her new book, “The Obamas,” Jodi Kantor extensively discusses Michelle Obama’s role as First Lady of the United States. Kantor profiles particular instances where the First Lady informed members of the President’s staff of her displeasure concerning particular policy decisions and issues, as well as being intensely critical of the President. In response, Michelle Obama, spoke out against the criticism, questioning why she is being portrayed as an angry black woman. The “angry black woman” stereotype has a long history, and Kantor’s portrayal, however accurate, certainly plays into prevailing stereotypes about black women. This discussion is not unexpected, because Michelle Obama’s character, body and background have been under scrutiny for the past 5 years. However, it continues a troubling pattern of negative stereotyping based on her race and gender.
As a black woman and an attorney, Michelle Obama is a role model to me. I have watched so many of the various assaults on her character and disposition and I have come to believe that these statements and issues are an example of the stereotypes and assaults that many women of color, particularly black women face in the modern-day workplace. Although most people are reluctant to state that they have any issues with black women, or to discuss those particular issues, many of the subtle stereotypes that have come out in the comments about the First Lady are the types of stereotypes that black women face in the legal workplace everyday. The comments may not be as pronounced as remarks about a large posterior, or a bad attitude, but instead these issues come out in decisions to give better assignments or more client contact to women who fit into the traditional standards of beauty or have a demeanor that is more palatable to the mainstream. Despite the fact that these types of ideas and comments are based on racial stereotypes, they are not the overt discrimination of the past and, as such, they are usually not recognized in the context of employment discrimination. However, this type of stereotyping is equally destructive, particularly in cities where there the legal profession is not very racially diverse. In the future, perhaps through the microcosm of the continuous conversation about Michelle Obama, there can be a greater dialogue about these stereotypes and their influence on the legal workplace.