Has Michelle Obama changed the image of black women in America?

Jan 24, 2012

In a new nationwide survey conducted by The Washington Post and the Kaiser Family Foundation, a complex portrait emerges of black women who feel confident but vulnerable, who have high self-esteem and see physical beauty as important, who find career success more vital to them than marriage. The survey, which includes interviews with more than 800 black women, represents the most extensive exploration of the lives and views of African American women in decades.

That brings us to today's chat topic: How does Michelle Obama influence the image of black women in our nation? How much of an influence does she have on other black women, and what what would that influence be?

Join Jon Cohen, the project's polling director, and Krissah Thompson, the Post reporter working on the series, as they discuss this and more.

Read: Survey paints portrait of black women in America
Live chat transcript: Surveying black women in America

Thanks for joining us; looking forward to the conversation.

Thanks for joining us! Today we will talk about the second installment of The Post's series "Black Women in America," which focused on first lady Michelle Obama. 

I certainly hope that ALL women will see Michelle Obama as a role model. We are bombarded with such negative images via the media. The likes of NeNe Leakes of The Real Housewives of Atlanta and other "reality" TV characters are what they see all too often. Michelle is such a class act. Thank goodness she is in a position to be seen regularly in the media. She is a force for good.

In our newly released data, almost all black women see the first lady as a good role model; 83 percent of white women do as well.

It would be very interesting to study the perception of young black girls before Mrs. Obama became FLOTUS and after. Specifically, how did young black girls view themselves, the possibilities (or limitations) of their futures and how they saw themselves reflected in the media. I also wonder if her influence differs along socio-economic lines (with the thought being middle class families are more likely to see an example of a professional woman; whereas lower income families most likely don't have that experience.). Was Michelle Obama the first time lower income little girls repeated saw a black woman in a position of power who is articulate, poised, intellectual and not in the entertainment industry? (Claire Huxtable doesn't count) Does something like this exist?

Thanks for your question. We did not poll girls in our survey, only women. But I would not be surprised if social scientists are looking into the question you raised. There has been much discussion in recent years (documentaries, books) looking into questions of self-image for African American women. More than four out of ten black women in our survey said Michelle Obama has changed their impressions of black women as a group.

I would like to know why any one would think this woman is a role model for anyone.  And why is she getting so much publicty now.  She was nobody before and nobody now.

In the survey, she is credited for several key things: being a good mom (84% of all Americans say so), being intelligent (91%) and sharing their values (60%). On values, Michelle Obama tops President Obama: in the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll, a slimmer 49% of Americans said the president shares their values. On basic favorability, the first lady also far surpasses the president, although his numbers are up in data we released just this morning.

I have heard that Michelle Obama is highly regarded on the India continent because of her modern image combined with her relatively dark skin and motherhood of daughters (as opposed to sons). Is there any data on her influence overseas (India, the Caribbean etc)?

This is not something that we asked in the poll, but I was one of the reporters who travelled to South Africa with the first lady last summer. She was well received there and her trip was covered closely by the local papers. Women in South Africa and Botwana who I spoke with said she did have a special meaning for them. However, the crowds as she travelled were not extremely large -- not the kind you would see at a campaign rally here. 

How has Michelle Obama affected the image that all Americans have of black women, that black women have of themselves, that black men have of black women, that non black women have of black women, that non black men have of black women? I think I have detected a change in how black women have of themselves, and in the long run, this might be the most important change.

In the survey, black women are the most apt to say their own views of African American women have changed as a result of Michelle Obama's being the first black first lady. Some 41 percent of black women say their views have shifted; it's 15 percent among white women. Overwhelmingly, those who said their views have evolved say their impressions have improved, not deteriorated.

Every time the news mentions that someone became the first black person to do something, I wonder if that recognition is doing more harm than good. Shouldn't we consider Michelle Obama a woman and not a black woman? I think the sooner we can get away from needing to mention a person's race the better off we will be. If anything the media seems to consider Americans as black or white and forgets about the Asian Americans, Hispanic Americans, Indian Americans, and any other race that doesn't fit into the black or white categories.

Thanks for your question. There has been much debate -- especially since the election of President Obama -- about whether America has become post-racial. (There are books on the subject and smart people disagree.) I do think that there remain significant cultural connections within ethnic and racial groups. This doesn't mean that the first lady does not have meaning for all women. Maya Angelou made this point when I spoke to her yesterday. But as our poll showed, higher percentages of black women say they identify with Obama than white women.

Not to discount the President's experience of race, but I am even more impressed by how Michelle Obama has dealt with being the Jackie Robinson of First Ladies. It's not an easy role for any spouse, never mind the first African-American woman to hold the role. She has done it with grace, class and dignity. My hat's off to her.

Here's a comment

When America has a negative image of African American women and men and their children all the positive images won't change the minds because then the mind has to think and question stereotypes and belief systems. The question will then become "What else do I need to examine?" America's belief system is that black women are "welfare queens" and white women are Mary the Mother of God, the Madonna.

Well, that's certainly not what people told us comes to mind (in anonymous interviews) about Michelle Obama. We asked people to describe -- in one word -- their impressions of the first lady. Here's a graphic of what they told us.


Fully 70 percent used a positive word, with intelligent being the most commonly mentioned.

Does Michelle Obama have any white friends?

She certainly seems to, but I don't claim any direct insight. I can say from the poll that about a quarter of black women and white women alike say "hardly any" or "none" of their friends are of a different race.

What was up with the semi-sexy family photos of the African-American women for this story? Was that their own choice, their own family photos that they leant to the Washington Post? I find it odd that any family would wear such clothing that seems revealing and then cuddle together for a public photo. It definitely made them seem strong and defiant, but it also made them seem - I'm going to say it again here - sexy together, as a family, which is not a family value where I come from! (I am not Black.)

There is always much debate in the newsroom about choice of words, images, etc. There were some who thought the photo signaled glamour and that the women were wearing the kinds of dresses that one would to ball. Others agreed with you. There is a mix of photos in the online gallery -- of the women in the family studying, exercising, and portraits. The front page photo we chose was a portrait of three generations of black women in one family dressed in black. I don't think it would be construed as sexy.

She seems cold and unapproachable - certainly doesn't have the personality of Laura Bush. Michelle Obama spends a lot on herself - clothes, jewelry, traveling, etc. when the economy is at its worse. Can she really empathize with anyone? I don't sense any spirituality from her. She simply reinforces everything that can weaken black women such as materialism.

Here's another comment.

I hope she has not changed the image of black women in America (that is, among Americans who are not black women). I hope that she is (that is, fits) the image that people had of Black Women in America.

And another comment here.

I think it diminishes the discussion to include rude comments. The "question" referring to Michelle Obama as a nobody was not a question at all. I don't think it should have been dignified by being posted, let alone being responded to.

I was using the first part of that question to answer "why" she scores so highly on being a role model. Apologies that the rest was offensive.

There are certainly strong opinions on both sides when it comes to the first lady and the president; more of which will be on display in reactions to tonight's State of the Union address.

I respectfully disagree. The "first" anyone in any groups are always referred to as such by the media. If Michelle Obama were Asian, she's be known as the first Asian American First Lady.

Some disagreement among chatters here.

I saw statistics that black women composed of 80% of the black student populations on most college campuses except for Morehouse. Is that a dangerous trends? With black males in jails, parole, no job, etc, will black women married outside of their race?

Black women do out number black men on college campuses. This series doesn't focus on black men so I don't have stats on their well-being at the ready. However, most black women do marry black men. And our poll showed that about three-fourths of unmarried black women are open to interracial dating.

here's what we asked in the poll, what's your one word?

Q: Please tell me what one word best describes your impression of first lady Michelle Obama. Tell me just the one best word that describes her.

So when will these features stop? I'm a black woman, my family has been a part of this country for centuries, and these types of examinations of my personhood are intrusive and unwelcome.

We get a mix of responses from series such as "Black Women in America." Overwhelmingly, they are welcome. Particularly in the Washington, DC region which has a large black population. But there are critiques -- did we get the story right? And there are black women who are wary of any coverage by the general-market media.

Has Michelle Obama changed the image of black women in America? No. There are folks in this country and in some segments of the media who will always portray/believe/imply/ only see black women as the "angry black woman" or the welfare queen.

Another comment.

A link to the story/pictures within this chat would be appreciated. Thanks

Were the differences in responses from black women shedding light on integenerational perceptions?

There were some genertional gaps when it comes to impressions of Michelle Obama. Younger black women were somewhat less apt to identify with her or have "strongly favorable" overall views of her. But largely there are more similarities than differences when it comes to the first lady.

Will she ever (which I doubt) be able to do anything so that American can see 360 degrees of her - FLOTUS, mom, wife, lawyer, etc - like most women who wear several hats? She has had an impact on the image of black women, but not as much as you would expect mainly because of her stereotypical role as the first lady. We don't see her in a professional/managerial setting. What we do see is how she looks and presents herself - not what she thinks except in controlled semi-controlled settings. The concentration on the visual instead of the intellectual is a problem that all women face, which is why her impact isn't as strong as it could be. She provides a nice/major contrast to assumptions about black women, but the impact part is still under development.

This is a point that some of the women I interviewed made. I did not do a good job of teasing it out in the story. Melissa Harris-Perry, the political scientist I interviewed, has a take on this in "Sister Citizen," a book she wrote last year on black women and politics.

In yesterday's article about black women, many said they don't want get married. I wondered if the other black women on President Obama's staff, Jarrett, Barnes, etc, are making decisions that affected millions of children and marriages and families. Does Michelle have friends who are single or married?

This isn't quite right. Black women did not say they do not want to get married. They did say they prioritize career over marriage. From what I know of Michelle Obama's circle of friends, she has friends who are married and single.

Michelle Obama sends a clear message that women can and must lead to shape their lives and communities.. She demonstrates the practical need for partners and support to do things well. In valuing the supportive role of her mother in raising her daughters she sends a message about intergenerational living and interdependence. She's shown adaptability, resilience and taken on the challenges with dignity and commitment showing us the power of discipline. I think she opens the door for a glimpse of power dynamics found in successful women. Where do most black women feel the most empowered? Where do they find the ground to become leaders? Where do black women find mentors?

I'm going to publish a couple of dueling comments here. Here is the first one.

Maybe I'm just missing the bigger picture here, but I don't see how Michelle Obama has done anything for the image of black women in America. I don't look at any of my friends differently, I don't look at a "random black woman" and say "she could be anyone" more now than 4 years ago. I don't see black women as so weak or needy that they need a mascot. Honestly, I'm sure she's a lovely person, but Ms Rice had a job that she didn't get because of her husband!

And here is the contrasting comment.

What about Condoleeza Rice?

Condoleeza Rice is another popular figure. At last asking in a Pew Research Center poll, some 56 percent had favorable views of the former secretary of state, about double the number expressing unfavorable views. A 2007 Pew poll found 50 percent saying she'd had a "good influence" on the African American community; 10 percent said "bad."

As a Black women (not of American descent) I will say I am surprised at how protected Michelle Obama is by African American women. Even the mildest of observations can be met with harsh reproach. I love Michelle too, but she has had an off fashion day. She wears outfits I don't always care for.

Our poll did show that black women identify closely with Michelle Obama. And in interviews several described her as familiar to them, as a big sister or daughter. I think this may be where the protectiveness you sense is coming from.

"She seems cold and unapproachable - certainly doesn't have the personality of Laura Bush." I would asked the poster to explain that. What personality does Laura Bust have exactly? They are both mothers and wives with loving families. Please define.

A question for a previous poster. If we get a response, I'll post it.

People have been mixing more and more with each successive generation. The census keeps separating people and declaring oneself black, white is more and more awkward and problematic. Having meetings of "Black Leaders" or "changing the image of black women" perpetuates racial divisiveness. How about, "Has MO changed the image of women?" We certainly would not discuss Hillary changing white women, would we? Yes, there have been inequalities and yes, she has been a role model but can we, or is it possible, to no longer have "Black this" or "black that" and have stories about black boys that have become pilots like it is something that is unusual? I think this hurts things rather than helping.

Another post on questions of race and post-race. As a journalist, watching this conversation play out has been a fascinating part of the last several years.

It seems obvious to me that the First Lady is always viewed through the distorted lens of our own prejudices, opinions, self-images, etc. Any articles examining any FLOTUS need to present this skewing. If you liked Laura Bush or Hillary Rodham Clinton better, you usually give quite subjective and unreliable reasons for that (e.g. "she seems cold and unapproachable" -- compared to whom?!?).

Fair point; people have particular perspectives, and it's always important to keep that in mind when looking at the numbers. For instance, we've spend the first part of this series talking about race, but political views are also at play. White women who identify as Democrats are far more likley to have favorable views anything Obama (including Michelle Obama) than are those who side with the GOP.

My positive word about the First Lady would be strength and grace under pressure. No one that I can remember has been reviled and attacked like the Obama's and I'm 65. Her strength under these assaults is what impresses me most.

Among the top three words given in our poll: Intelligent, Strong and good/awesome.

Michelle Obama is not a mascot. It is dismissive of her and the Black women who experiences are different from yours to say that. Everyone does not have access to someone who looks like "them" being successful. How is it harmful that that the women and girls who need that have Michelle Obama?

Posting another comment.

I saw a place that mentioned that 800 black women were interviewed and the results compare percents with white women. Were the white women given the same survey or are their results from another source?

Same survey. Total sample included interviews with 808 African American women and 400 non-Hispanic white women. We chose to inteview extra black women for this particular project, because we wanted to explore their views in additional detail. For the overall results, we adjusted these figures to the actual population proportions.

Perhaps it's the romantic in me, but I was surprised by yesterday's article that so many African American women that were surveyed do not believe in a fairytale romance and put their career before love (or at least marriage). However, as seen in today's article, a number of African American women believe Michelle Obama is a good role model. And so I wonder, do these women aspire to fall in love and do they believe you can have a successful career and marriage? Or is this a generation that is very much career focused and marriage+success will be left to future generations?

Since we're rapidly nearing the end of the hour, posting this as a comment. Thanks for posting.

Appreciate the "chat," please look for more from this survey, conducted in partnership with the Kaiser Family Foundation.

For the women championing this kind of coverage, how old are they? How much money do they make? I'm being completely serious. I don't know any younger black women (under 30) in the dating pool who are finding these articles flattering at all. You're married. So you're not out there contending with this constant stream of articles that are fixated on making black women look undatable, only focused on careers, not desiring of a nuclear family WITH a husband. All I'm hearing is a TON of resentment for this kind of focus. The older generation or poorer black women may be grateful for some demographic coverage, but you guys ARE aware that the overall image that you're amplifying is NOT what i want to be discussed on a national level right? These articles are frankly awful propaganda for anyone who is looking for a job, a date, a promotion, etc... .

I don't have the ages or incomes of the women I've heard from. I would only say that studies of media have shown that there is not much in-depth coverage of minorities. Some want to see themselves reflected. 

I am constantly inspired and encouraged by the images of a functional African-American family in the public eye presented by the Obamas. One that places value on remaining grounded, spending time together as a couple, and ensuring as best they can that their children do not grow up with a sense of entitlement (the girls have chores in the White House.) However, I wonder how much of an impact Michelle Obama has with people who previously held slightly negative to negative opinions of Black women? I think the tendency in this case is to write her off as an anomaly- one of the few exceptions to the rule.


Actually, we did. As a serious, valid candidate for President in 2008, Hillary was scrutinized from every perspective. She was also scrutinized for her behavior while Bill was in office. Seriously, where were you? Also, when's one race is not identified the assumption is said person if White. Fair? No? Will it change? No time to soon.


Thanks for joining us! Stay tuned for other stories in the series. It will continue publishing over the next month. 

In This Chat
Krissah Thompson
Washington Post reporter covering race, politics and FLOTUS
Jon Cohen
Jon Cohen is The Washington Post's director of polling.

PostPolitics Polling
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