Michelle Obama, right, is greeted by Oprah Winfrey to discusses her new book during an intimate conversation to promote "Becoming" at the United Center on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chicago. 
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Michelle Obama, right, is greeted by Oprah Winfrey to discusses her new book during an intimate conversation to promote "Becoming" at the United Center on Tuesday, Nov. 13, 2018, in Chicago.
Credit: Photo by Rob Grabowski/Invision/AP

Black women, anger management and the rebranding of Michelle Obama

When Michelle Obama was on the campaign trail in 2008, she wore muted colors and little makeup.

She spoke her mind, too, like when she said that hope was making a comeback and she was proud of her country for the first time in her adult life.

It didn't go over well. She was called "angry," "unpatriotic" and "unfeminine." So Michelle Obama rebranded herself. She showed up on The View four months later, smiling more and wearing floral prints.

Ralina Joseph, a professor at the University of Washington, uses Michelle Obama as an example of how we have not achieved a postracial society.

"The Michelle Obama era," Joseph calls it.

"This is a time when black women have enjoyed some of the most prestigious and visible positions in U.S. pop culture, and yet still could not speak in this forthright manner about racialized and gender discrimination," Joseph said.

For Joseph, the stereotype of the angry black woman, as Michelle Obama was portrayed in 2008, is especially problematic.

Joseph's research shows that media outlets continue to propagate these stereotypes. Joseph’s latest book is "Postracial Resistance: Black Women, Media Culture, and the Uses of Strategic Ambiguity."

The work examines how African American women negotiate and navigate the minefield of “postracial racism” in the media and in everyday life.

Joseph said she is not critiquing Michelle Obama, or Oprah, or Shonda Rhimes, the prolific TV writer, for what she calls "strategic ambiguity" — which, while not being coy, is also not being direct about racism or sexism — but using them as examples to understand the positives and negative of it.

"We do not do ourselves or anyone a type of service to pretend we are these iron-clad beings who are just expected to be super women all of the time," Joseph said.

"What is the impact on our souls when we are always having to lean in and having to take the brunt of everything and not show where it hurts?"

Listen to the full event below:


Ralina L. Joseph is an associate professor at the University of Washington’s Department of Communication and an adjunct associate professor in the Departments of American Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women, and Sexuality Studies. She is also the founding and acting director of the University of Washington’s Center for Communication, Difference, and Equity.

This talk was held at the Seattle Public Library’s Central Branch on March 26.