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Carlos Watson

Carlos Watson

Posted March 16, 2009 | 08:21 PM (EST)

America's Skin-Deep Crush on Michelle Obama


America has fallen for Michelle Obama. Fashionistas love her style. Ivy Leaguers love her class. Moms love her priorities. Even white guys are crushing on her. The First Lady is everywhere: Vogue, O, this week's New York Magazine. Like her husband, Michelle is a canvas onto which people can paint whatever they like, a mirror in which we can all glimpse something of ourselves. What do I see? Not those famous arms.

I see dark skin.

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America may be falling for Michelle, but it wasn't love at first sight. When I heard her described as "intimidating" and "angry" or as Obama's "baby mama," I often looked at her rich, brown skin and saw the reason. In this country, you're less likely to get a job if your skin is dark. I can tell you from experience, you're less likely to get a cab. Think of the A-list African-American cover girls whose ranks Michelle has joined: Beyonce, Rihanna, Halle Berry -- none share her complexion. Academic studies show that Americans of all colors associate light skin with attraction and intelligence, and dark skin with poverty and fear.

Those "Americans of all colors" include African-American men, who are often criticized for preferring light-skinned or white partners. The literature on this is explosive and exhaustive, from Morrison to McMillan, Essence to Encarta. No doubt many black women, when they first heard of Barack Obama, assumed he followed the trend: prominent black man, light-skinned or non-black wife. Then they saw Michelle.

More than 1 in 5 of the votes that put Obama in office were cast by African-Americans, almost two-thirds of them women. African-Americans made the difference in critical states: Virginia, North Carolina, and Indiana, among others. Would the black community have supported Obama that enthusiastically if his wife had been lighter? I don't think so. And if she had been white? Forget it. Obama's ship would have sunk before it left the shores of Lake Michigan, his presidential run impossible without the early and deep backing of so many black women who believe that successful black Americans should work and love together in order to advance the community as a whole.

To be clear, I'm not saying that all black women feel this way, or that all white Americans initially hesitated to embrace Michelle because her skin is darker than Beyonce's. But Michelle's complexion has helped shape the way the world sees the Obamas, moving the national and international conversation on race forward in the process.

And I admire her for that.

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