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Black women, on the up and up?

I follow US politics half-heartedly but since the first Obama presidency, US political life has become central in many ways even for people who are not interested in politics. Michelle Obama, together with her husband, became the face of a changing American society — at least that was the promise of the “rise and rise” of the Obamas. The attention on Michelle led me to think about other black women who married men who happened to be powerful. In South Africa we have Winnie Madikizela-Mandela, Graca Machel, Zanele Mbeki, Phumzile Mlambo-Ngcuka and many others whose lives may not be in the spotlight. In the US, Michelle has now been joined by another woman, Chirlane McCray, the African-American wife of recently elected New York mayor Bill de Blasio.

These women have been placed on a pedestal as examples of successful black women who make society question the negative stereotype of what it means to be a black woman (poor, uneducated, lazy, surviving on social grant, highly sexualised, the list is endless). And for many black women they are firm role models that give them permission to aspire. These powerful, political figures are of the same ilk of women who became “the firsts”: the first black woman to be an astronaut, the first black woman to be the vice-chancellor of a university etc. These women become exceptional and an example in society that the world is changing and history was wrong about black women.

The sinister side of these exceptional women is that we think their lives can be replicated and now, every black woman can pull herself up from the miry clay of poverty and a life of obscurity and become who they’ve always wanted to be. What we don’t realise about exceptional, privileged black women is that they provide the illusion that reality has changed for black women (or any marginalised group of people). Their lives are unattainable because their lives are also examples of women who have succeeded thanks to liberal feminism that says once a woman is educated, middle class and maybe even married she has reached the pinnacle of success. Black women who become exceptional have finally climbed up the white slopes of success because they have created a space for themselves in a society where the master narrative is still dictated by white supremacy.

When women have entered the hallowed halls of power their privilege often means that their politics will be safe. Once Michelle became first lady she became silent. She did not disrupt the narrative of the political wife as she had done during the campaign. Her focus as first lady has been children’s health. As a mother, she is well within her rights to make this a national campaign. She is also a fashion icon just like Jackie Kennedy was. Will she ever voice her opinions on the “real politics” in America such as the vicious drone attacks that are killing thousands of innocent civilians in countries like Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen?

What does her existence mean for women who are not neatly tucked away in the White House but rather whose lives and families are being destroyed by US policy?

A perfect example of the sinister side of this personal-political project of these exceptional women is McCray who is said to be following in Michelle’s footsteps. She came out as a lesbian in 1979 while she was an activist writer and in 1991 met and later married Bill de Blasio who is a Democrat and the mayor of New York City. She married a white man and stepped into the master narrative of heteronormativity within a liberal politics. She flags her lesbian past and this is seen as a ticket for her to reach out to the LGBTI and black community as first lady. She has complicated the ideal picture so much more. Had she not been married to a white democrat and remained as an out lesbian activist, would New Yorkers have voted for her to be the mayor for instance? Her narrative will not end homophobia because the narrative of a single individual cannot end discrimination based on deep-seated ideas about what is the norm.

By focusing on a few black women whose lives are part of public discourse we must recognise that their stories can be found across the globe where people who are the “previously disadvantaged group” are rising up in the ranks of powerful institutions. Their personal lives have become political projects used as examples of what we should think of as a changed society. It’s too easy to say that just because the White House has a black first lady the world is a better place. The world is a complicated place.

We should see Michelle and McCray as examples of the work that still needs to be done to change the reality of people whose lives are still disposable, people who may never get their hands on power as these women have done.