Michael Jeffries ’02 Tackles Race in America in Lecture

Editor’s note: This article was initially published in The Daily Gazette, Swarthmore’s online, daily newspaper founded in Fall 1996. As of Fall 2018, the DG has merged with The Phoenix. See the about page to read more about the DG.

The myth of a “post-racial” America has been pervasive despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. A disheartening proportion of conversations about racism in America are centered on whether or not racial discrimination exists, rather than the best method of solving the problem.

In his speech on Wednesday, Michael Jeffries ‘02 tackled racism and other forms of oppression present in current political discourse, and the ways that conversations about race are often silenced. His talk took place as part of the Black Studies and the Black Cultural Center Fall 2013 Lecture Series.

Jeffries, who earned his doctorate at Harvard, is now a professor of American Studies at Wellesley College and has authored two books, “Thug Life: Race, Gender, and the Meaning of Hip-Hop” and “Paint the White House Black.” He is in the progress of writing a third about comedians.

A remarkable public speaker, he managed to bring humor to a very serious topic while also punctuating the more dramatic moments with engaging pathos. Every seat in the room was filled.

Throughout the speech, Jeffries made sure to emphasize the importance of considering intersecting forms of oppression. “The reason I wrote this book was to reteach crucial lessons of intersectionality,” Jeffries said early on in the lecture. In particular, he discussed how individuals could simultaneously hold great privilege and still suffer from discrimination. “The fact that you hold some privileges and leverage them to gain social power does not mean you lose your right to complain,” he said.

Jeffries’ lecture included extensive analysis of the shooting of Trayvon Martin and the trial of George Zimmerman. Opening with a brief clip of President Obama’s reaction to the trial, Jeffries went on to discuss how race was completely buried during the proceedings of the trial. During the deliberation of the jury, race was not discussed at all.

Addressing the popular argument that it was “difficult” to determine the extent to which race affected the trial, Jeffries remained adamant that the conversation was absolutely vital. “The choice not to talk about race is not a neutral act- it’s an act of aggression, enabled by white privilege,” he said. This was an idea he stressed multiple times throughout the speech.

Jeffries explained that since the case was predicated on whether Zimmerman had acted in self-defense, “The court would be ruling that Zimmerman would have had reason to fear Martin.” He continued, “[For] Zimmerman to be found innocent, Martin would have to be found guilty. […] A 16 year-old boy was put on trial and found guilty for his own murder.”

Jeffries’ experience with race has been a concrete one. As a person of color, he recounted experiences of being the only person on a bus with an empty seat near him. As he told this anecdote, many individuals in the audience nodded in solidarity.

A major portion of his lecture was devoted to the representation of Michelle Obama within the media. Drawing from the academic work of black feminists, he argued that there are four pervasive portrayals of black women within the media.

First, there is the “Mammy,” the generally elderly, asexual caretaker who deeply loves the white family she cares for. Second, there is the “emasculating harpy.” Third, there is the “welfare mother,” and fourth the hypersexualized “whore.” He argues that portrayals of Michelle Obama, especially during Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, drew from these dehumanizing caricatures, particularly the “emasculating harpy,” bringing in sources such as a specific cover of The New Yorker and Rush Limbaugh’s radio show.

As she spent more time in the public eye, Jeffries said, Michelle was increasingly portrayed as the icon for black womanhood. She developed an image as a “Superwoman,” a woman who “had it all,” although she often distanced herself from these representations. While there were positive aspects of this portrayal, given that it was less offensive than other images black women find thrust upon them, Jeffries made it a point to emphasize that there were inherently oppressive aspects about this.

To cast Michelle Obama as the only representation of black women, Jeffries argued, would lead to the erasure of the struggles of poor women of color, and the intersection of poverty, race, and gender. He stresses that the image of Michelle Obama as a “Superwoman” is not the result of her own efforts. Rather, it reflects the efforts of an oppressive society to mask the suffering of black women, he argued.

“Her career is going to be really interesting,” Jeffries said. Gesturing to a picture of President Barack Obama, he finished, “Unfortunately, it seems like it’s going to be tied to his.”

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