First Lady Hair and Fashion -What’s Black? What’s White?

I forgot who on MSNBC said this, but Maddow was talking to a black woman about Michelle Obama’s fashion. She said “I hope it doesn’t rain soon. I’m not ready for all the questions about Michelle’s hair.” And, as a woman of color, with Asian curls (not like any other ethnicity’s curls, rare, and unruly), I can relate. I get a lot of advice, questions, comments, unwanted empathy about my hair. And I started imagining what may become white America’s fascination with Michelle Obama’s hair. And her fashion as well (cuz let’s face it, Michelle has turned First Lady fashion on its ear…in the way only an Obama can). Will they think First Lady Obama’s off-the-rack fashion a “black thing”? Will they confront her on how she “whitens her hair” by straightening it? Will the colors she wears become a statement on her heritage? And the obvious…what WILL she do when it rains?

I ask not because I’m interested in answers to the questions. I ask because I’m fascinated by the fascination. A fascination I have witnessed happen with most women of color. It’s awkward. It really is. I’ve been on both ends. I’ve asked the awkward questions with naivety more than racism, awkwardness. And I’ve been asked. “You perm, right? I’ve never seen an Asian with naturally curly hair.” “Why don’t you wear more of those Chinese blouses?” “Do all Asians sparkle when they touch?” (just kidding on the last one, but I am afraid anime will make this one an accepted myth).

Michelle Obama is going to open the floodgates. Everything she does will make us non-African-American women ask the awkward questions. And it will be lengthy and weird. Maybe at times, creepy. Because now people who are not black (including myself) will want to ask questions, fear it’s racist or will be construed as racist, not ask, find a PC way to word it and then ask in that awkward, bumbling way we ask questions when we’re afraid of pissing someone off. “Hey, um, black person, I was wondering, do most, I mean not all, that’d be a stereotype, but most…or well, a few of you…I mean a few African-Americans…do you like wearing mustard? Michelle Obama did during the inauguration. I was just wondering if you all…I mean…is it a good color on you?”

A few times this fear of looking dumb as we non-blacks ponder the black experience was acknowledged honestly as the inauguration happened. I think Chris Matthews even brought up the idea that we all will start asking stupid questions to African-Americans. And one African-American pundit put it well. “We already are quite patient with the questions.”


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