There's danger in the singular Michelle Obama Black girl role-model narrative. There has been a
beautiful picture circulating of a young African-American girl looking up in awe at Michelle Obama’s portrait. In her official first lady portrait, Michelle is gorgeous, regal and no doubt inspiring. Michelle is amazing and she plays beautifully into the American myth of “meritocracy and opportunity for all.” However, the reality of most young Black girls’ experiences looks very different even from Michelle Obama’s upbringing. She grew up in a close-knit family with both parents present, took part in gifted classes as early as sixth grade and went on to an outstanding high school and college. The reality of the childhood experiences of and outcomes for today’s young Black girls are depressing and even worse than they were in the 1960s. Here is only a fraction of the grim realities facing young Black girls and Black women.
That’s why I think it’s important that we show young Black girls not only women like Michelle Obama in her all-American beauty and academic success, but also women who have beat even greater odds to find success, through non-traditional routes, like comedian Tiffany Haddish, rap star Cardi B and actress Laverne Cox. Like Michelle Obama,
Cardi B and
LaVerne Cox came up as Black girls from humble beginnings, but they aren’t highlighted as role models for young Black women. A large part of that has to do with “respectability politics,” a divisive tool that tells Black people there is only one way to be “respected” and it is the Michelle Obama way: two-parent household, good schools, hard work and the ability to be cross-cultural and non-threatening to White people. Neither Tiffany Haddish, Cardi B nor LaVerne Cox are considered part of the “
Black Respectable” class, because they lack the traditional, socially acceptable “American success story” model. Now let me clear, Michelle Obama is unbelievably amazing and it is so important that young Black girls see her and hear her story. But it is important to remember that, although Michelle Obama was financially poor, she was still resource-rich. She had a mentally stable two-parent household with parents who loved her and her brother in a healthy, supportive environment. Michelle had food to eat every day and didn't have to worry about where it would come from. Her and her brother had access to quality selective-enrollment schools that weren’t available to most children in her community.
The Road to Success
Success in America can take many different forms and different routes. We need to show our girls that there are multiple avenues of success that don’t always look like an Ivy League degree. Our young Black girls face incredible obstacles and odds. For many of them, success is just surviving and living another day. That is why I believe it is pertinent that we show examples of Black women who faced the same challenge and took less respectable roads to success. When our young Black girls are living in unstable housing, attending failing schools, living in non-traditional families or with parents who are struggling, living in foster care or fighting mental and chronic illnesses, they need role models who can relate to the struggles in their lives, too. We need to show our girls that in spite of all the obstacles, they too can be a success.
A picture of a little girl looking up to former stripper Cardi B doesn’t make as good of a picture as a little girl looking up to Michelle Obama, but it’s just as important. It is important to share the story of how Michelle Obama’s family ate dinner together every night, but it is equally important that we tell little Black and Brown girls the story of Tiffany Haddish, who spent time in foster care and lived with her grandmother. It’s important that Black girls know Michelle Obama went to Harvard Law School. But it’s also important that they know Laverne Cox studied creative writing and dance at the Alabama School of the Arts and transferred to Indiana University and finally, Marymount Manhattan College in New York, to earn her bachelor’s degree. Tiffany Haddish, Cardi B and Laverne Cox are just as important images for our young girls to see as Michelle Obama. Our girls need to see that there’s more than one way to be successful in America. Yes, you can go to Princeton and Harvard Law School and have ambitions like Michelle Obama. But you can also grow up in foster care, have a mother who is mentally ill, deal with chronic homelessness and depression, work hard on your dream to become a comedian and find success like Tiffany Haddish.
Or you can grow up in the poor Bronx community of New York with immigrant parents. And you can make really bad decisions in your youth, like moving in with a boyfriend who is abusive, working as a sex worker or getting injections of poison put into your body because you fell victim to unrealistic beauty standards. And, you can still find success, like Cardi B, the first Black woman rapper in 20 years to hold a No. 1 position on the Billboard charts.
Or, they can face daily physical, emotional and institutional trauma throughout their childhood about who they are, and they can even survive a suicide attempt, and become one of Hollywood’s leading actresses, the first transgender woman to have her picture on the cover of Vanity Fair, like Laverne Cox.
Our girls need to see Michelle Obama, but they also need to see Tiffany Haddish, Cardi B. and Laverne Cox, who are all equally representing #BlackGirlMagic!
ShaRhonda Knott-Dawson is the mother of two free-spirited, strong-willed girls and has a husband who should be appointed a saint for co-existing in the madness that is their life. She writes on politics, education, current events and social justice. She is also a taco enthusiast, a proud member of the Bey-hive, and truly believes that she will be receiving her letter from Hogwarts any day now.