by Yvette Carnell
When Obama was first elected, I remember a woman on Facebook telling me that she didn’t care what legislation Obama supported as long as his fine azz continued to love his black wife. Long before that, I attended a reception in Chicago where then Senator Obama was the speaker of honor. At my table were mostly black women, and throughout the speech the women made small talk about how fine the junior senator from Illinois was.
The woman who I had the brief interaction with on Facebook wasn’t focused on President Obama’s policies and neither were the women seated seated at my table during Obama’s speech.
Fast forward to President Obama’s “shout out” to California Attorney General Kamala Harris: “She’s brilliant and she’s dedicated, she’s tough,” Obama said of the California attorney general. “She also happens to be, by far, the best-looking attorney general … It’s true! C’mon.”
Obama later called Harris to apologize for those comments. He had no choice. Comments that assess a person’s level of attractiveness have no place in the public sphere if we’re serious about structuring a meritocracy that judges people on their level of ability rather than the random genetic tics that define whether a person wins the beauty lotto.
Let’s think about what it means to be professional for a moment. It means you’re at a job to either maximize profit (private) or to provide a service (public). None of that has anything to do with levels of attractiveness. And once Obama injected Harris’ perceived beauty into the conversation, he made her looks part of her value proposition, as men in powerful positions often do.
At that moment, Obama defined Harris through a framework of s*xual attraction when in fact, Harris should be self-defined in the context of what she has achieved while serving as California’s distinguished attorney general. What we got instead was Obama defining the various attributes that establish Harris’ success: “…brilliant…dedicated…tough…. most attractive….”
We should also stipulate that this misapproriation of beauty as currency is not just a male thing, since Michelle Obama, and many other bobbleheads in the mainstream media, have spent far too much white space fetishizing over President Obama’s perceived swag, as if that matters more than Obama’s real budget, or his recent proposal to cut Social Security and Medicare.
These are the very same type of assessments made of vapid reality TV celebrities like Kim Kardasian: “She’s got a nice azz, and she has a business too, so she must be smart right?” In such conversations, beauty is paramount and ability is merely incidental, if it exists at all.
I can’t understand how women who have daughters, nieces, or granddaughters can support a regressive framework where the value of women in professional life is defined by their male counterparts. I also can’t believe that black women are supporting whatever is done just because of who is doing it. If George W. Bush had made this remark about Harris, I suspect there would’ve been a much different reaction among African-American women.
When Barack Obama was elected, many folks thought he would upend the status quo, but as it turns out, Barack Obama is the status quo. He may’ve promised ‘Change We Can Believe In’, but really, this is just business as usual.