Michelle Obama Should Be Brave: Black Women and Reproductive Health Disparities in the 2012 Presidential Election

Tuesday, December 18, 2012

by Jazmine Walker 

Cross-posted with permission from Furious and Brave.

During the Democratic National Convention, just after Nancy Keenan, President of NARAL Pro-Choice America, announced that the Democratic Party was pro-choice, Michelle Obama proudly boasted that her husband, Barack Obama, “believes that women are more than capable of making our own choices about our bodies and healthcare… that’s what my husband stands for.” Though choice is a significant part of gaining gender equality, I remain struck by how our First Lady, a black woman with black daughters, has yet to talk about reproductive health as broader than ”choice.”

I recognize that black women’s issues are marginalized, and even black women themselves were invisible throughout this election. But when a black woman as influential and powerful as Michelle Obama talks about reproductive health, I expect her to talk about it from her own standpoint. Universalizing women’s issues and minimizing her black identity does not protect her, her daughters, or the countless other women of color whose reproductive health issues are far larger than choice.

Although black women are less likely to develop breast cancer than white women, black women are 40 percent more likely to die from the disease. Black women are three times more likely to develop fibroid tumors. Black women have an infant mortality rate double that of their white counterparts. They are also twice as likely to die from cervical cancer in relation to white women. These health disparities are the result of more than simply a lack of about access to proper health care. Black women across class lines deal with these reproductive health disparities, borne of systemic gendered racism embedded in health care delivery, where health care providers rely upon racist and sexist stereotypes when providing care for these women. White feminists have the privilege of ignoring Michelle Obama’s race around women’s issues in a way that Michelle Obama does not, especially given how her race is hyper-visible in many aspects.

Competing controlling images are prevalent. Because she is the First [Black] Lady, Michelle Obama has to navigate the politics of respectability, while her black body prevents her from realizing full lady-hood. Despite challenging stereotypes of both the overbearing black matriarch and deviant black motherhood in discussions of her roles of wife and mother, she is still is hypersexualized and often criticized for supposedly dressing more provocatively than a First Lady should. But the criticisms don’t stop there. She has been depicted as a nude slave in Spanish magazines and has been decried by conservative whites openly lamenting the absence of a First Lady that “looks and acts like a First Lady."

Yet, in resisting her own negative racialization, Michelle Obama has had to walk the same post-racial political line as her husband. President Obama is compelled to remind whites, and others, that he is “not the President of Black America. [He is] the President of the United States of America.” In a post-racial society these assertions are not only expected but necessary in order avoid being categorized as separatist or anti-democratic. Similarly, Michelle Obama’s universalization of women’s health issues seems like a necessary maneuver, but at what expense? Sasha’s, Malia’s, or even her own reproductive health? Certainly, this universalizing and de-racialization of women’s reproductive health issues by the First Black First Lady, is a paradoxically powerful obfuscation of the particular reproductive health issues that disproportionately affect black women and families.

As activists and scholars we have an obligation to not only demystify this notion of a post-racial society that obscures racism and racist practices in this country but also show how “post-racism” has dire consequences along gender lines. Though I am advocating for Michelle Obama to be more vocal about black women’s issues, I recognize that her silence is a consequence of two narratives that have historically overshadowed our victimhood and our resistance. Discourse around black women’s reproductive health remains on the margins, caught between a white reproductive narrative that still ignores the multifaceted needs of women of color and discourse around systemic racism that centers the tribulations of black men.

Jazmine is a big, fine woman and a fellow at RuralSupport Partners in Asheville, North Carolina. Follow her on Twitter, @JAZonyaMINE