Michelle Obama’s Dress & The Politics of Race

Apparently the Black Artist Association is upset that neither of Michelle Obama’s outfits were designed by African Americans. They feel that this was a missed opportunity for the Obamas to highlight African American designers and further situate themselves within a particularly black narrative of this nation.obamawu

Like Slant Eye for the Round Eye, who first alerted me to this issue, I have a much more positive take. To me, Michelle’s choice was in keeping with the larger multicultural message of the Obama campaign. It also managed to weave in non-black poc into the center of the inauguration discussion where they were otherwise missing. As I noted in my post about the inauguration, the fact that all of the speakers were either black or white during the inauguration was not lost on me even as the faces surrounding Obama and in the audience were far more diverse. By choosing designers of color who were not of African descent Michelle Obama shifted that binary falsehood and ultimately honored all of us.

I was also particularly happy to see Jason Wu among her choices for designers because he embodied all of the characteristics of the base I was worried Obama might leave behind. He was young, queer, and Asian American. And for those who do not know, that particular demographic, as well as the demographics it intersects, was essential to grassroots mobilization for Obama on the West Coast.

The choice of Isabel Toledo was equally important in that it highlighted a Latina immigrant designer who may have lost mobamadayoutfither job at Anne Klein for failing to meet the same aesthetic as white, N. American born, designers. This of course is the inverse of the typical racialized narrative of immigration in the U.S. Given how little the Obama campaign talked about immigration in public forums, the choice of a Latina immigrant also has particularly powerful implications by simultaneously standing in solidarity with the dominant image of the immigrant and highlighting an industry that continues to be the least vilified and yet among the most implicated in immigrant exploitation in the U.S. Finally, Latinos were another important voting bloc in the general election and if they had not swung left for Obama he would have had a much harder time taking home the win. (Toledo has designed for Michelle Obama before as well.)

While I think most African Americans yearned for a “black narrative” (whatever that really means) in this inauguration, I think Michelle Obama’s clothing choices represented a uniquely feminist of color aesthetic that embraced all people of color. In so doing, Michelle Obama once again reminds us how to navigate these troubled waters with astuteness and grace.

(All though there is still that perming of the kids hair right before the DNC issue . . .)


both images were unattributed but are likely cropped from AP Photos