Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Sigh for the Side Eye

So by now we have all seen the selfie taken at today's Memorial for Nelson Mandela. Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning Schmidt snapped a pic of herself with President Obama and UK Prime Minister David Cameron.
The Internet is abuzz about Michelle Obama's apparent displeasure about the selfie.  There are memes and caption this picture exercises, most of them portraying Michelle Obama once again as the angry black women getting ready to "read" someone, "snatch" someone or give someone her famous "side-eye".  It's interesting to me that most of the reactions that people have imagined the First Lady saying revolve less around being disturbed about taking a selfie during a memorial service but more around "I can't believe this chick (the Prime Minister of Denmark) stepped to my husband like that".  I mean I haven't checked what's up in the UK right now, but I wonder if folk have apportioned the same sort of reactions to Samantha Cameron.
If a Harvard educated, former CEO is quick to be summed up as a neck snapping, eye rolling, hands on hip angry black women there truly is no hope for the rest of us. 
Shortly after the January 2009 Inauguration I was volunteering at a Junior League event when a nice white couple sought me out.  You are so pretty the husband said.  Thank you, I said.  He nudged his wife,  Doesn't she remind you of Michelle?  His wife said, She sure does.  They went on to rave about what I thought was their friend Michelle.  In fact I said to them, Is Michelle a neighbor or friend from church?  They looked at each other like I had lost my mind and the husband said, Oh no honey we mean Michelle Obama.  Now I really felt like I had lost my mind.  Really?  I wear glasses, my hair was kinda like hers but only because it was straightened, I was about two inches shorter with a different shade of brown and a good 30 lbs on the First Lady.  But whatever, I mean I guess there were worse black women they could have compared me to.  I smiled and took my Junior League cardigan wearing self back to my station and ignored them for the rest of my shift.
I also got Michelle Obama love when I would visit my son's elementary school.  Kids, especially young white girls would come up and give me hugs and love on me.  I joked to my then fourth grader, your friends love me.  He (so damn wise beyond his years and blessed with too much cynicism and pop culture commentary for a child) looked at me and said, Mom you are black and you wear a suit.  They think you are Mrs. Obama.  There was always a deference especially from the staff, hello Mrs. Coffman how are you Mrs. Coffman.  I ran up to school one day to pick up my kid after working from home in a baseball cap and sweat pants and literally got ignored for a second by the staff.  When I signed my name by my kid's name, the woman looked up at me and said  I didn't recognize you.  You are always dressed so nice.
I was worried that my Michelle Obama cover got blown though that one time I chaperoned my kid's field trip.  There was a whole lot of drama over a swing set and folk pushing and not sharing and the other chaperones standing around watching this melee.  I walked over to the swing set shenanigans and yelled I need everyone OFF this swing set. I then explained that we were going to take turns on the swing or NOONE from this school would get a chance to swing as long as we were here.  It worked, the kids shared the swings, no more pushing and shoving and order was restored.  I'm sure the First Lady wouldn't have hollered at a bunch of children in New Harmony, Indiana but whatever I ain't her.
I did worry though especially since there were not a lot of black moms in suits or hell in sweats at this particular school and I did not want that vision to be the vision that kids and adults have.
But that cultural capacity to believe the angry black woman is real and easy, even when that woman doesn't exist.  Hell, there have been two times in my son's super diverse middle school where an interaction that I had with staff and other students have been relayed back to my son as his mom going off or his mom going in on someone.  In the first case, there wasn't a neck snapping or eyes rolling or even quite frankly a voice raised.  My own mother was with me, and if people know anything about black women of a certain age and certain breeding you are NOT going to get an angry black woman.  So, it was interesting and a bit sad to me that black, brown and white kids witnessed behavior where I was assertive (and right) but processed that as going off.  Second situation, I called out a group of my son's friends at a Career Fair.  They were more interested in goofing off as opposed to speaking with the professionals on-site.  One of the kids in the group lied to me about going to speak to a professional and I called him on it.  When my son came home he was like Yeah mom, my friends said you went off on them.  I was like what?  Really?  I mean I could have, but that was so not going off.
So while we're sharing FLOTUS reactions and imagining her "going off" on the President on Air Force One, it may be that the "side eye" captured by the pool photographer was really the face of someone reflecting on the moment, someone thinking about all the stuff they need to do back home or someone whose tongue is bleeding from biting it for fear of how her You all might want to save that for later comment will be twisted in going in or going off because that's how black women get down.



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