Five Years In, Should The First Lady Do More?

A piece in Politico recently called first lady Michelle Obama a "feminist nightmare." So should the first lady use her voice for more than eating right and exercise? Or are her critics missing the point? Host Michel Martin hears from the Beauty Shop ladies: pop culture critic Mikki Kendall, freelance writer Deonna Kelli Sayed, and columnist Keli Goff.

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MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Now it's time to visit the Beauty Shop. That's where our panel of women commentators and journalists take a fresh cut on the week's hot topics. Sitting in the chairs for a new 'do this week are Keli Goff. She's columnist for TheRoot.com and The Daily Beast. She's actually here in Washington, D.C. with us today. Also with us from Chicago is Mikki Kendall. She is a writer and a critic. And with us from North Carolina is Deonna Kelli Sayed. She is a freelance writer and editor of the website LoveInshAllah.com. Welcome back to you all. Thank you all so much for joining us once again.

KELI GOFF: Great to be here.

MIKKI KENDALL: Thank you for having me.

DEONNA KELLI SAYED: Thank you for having me.

MARTIN: So we wanted to talk about the first lady 'cause she's in the news again because a recent piece in Politico titled, quote, "Leaning In: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare" - or is it leaning out, which is it - "Leaning Out: How Michelle Obama Became a Feminist Nightmare" has been getting a big reaction. Writer Michelle Cottle spoke with a number of feminists and commentators who are disappointed that the first lady has not been willing or able to take stance on more controversial issues. A number of them pointed to her Ivy League education and executive experience as proof that she could be doing more than advocating for healthy eating and fitness and being, quote-unquote, mom-in-chief. Now, Keli, I'm going start with you. You were quoted in the political piece. Both you and the author, Michelle Cottle, say you don't love the title - the headline at all. You did not use the term feminist nightmare, but you have written that you think Michelle Obama should be doing more, like what and why?

GOFF: Well, there are a couple of things. I mean, number one, one of the examples that the not make it into the Politico piece, even though I said it in the interview and I've written it in my columns, is that when the Obamas took an AIDS test in Africa back in 2006, literally, clinics were flooded there with people coming to take AIDS tests because it had been so stigmatized there. And we have an AIDS crisis here in Washington, D.C. among the black population that actually rivals some African nations, and they've never done that here.

So I wasn't expecting her to, like, fly her feminist flag proudly, you know, thump her chest and say, here I am, I'm the co-president. But she's definitely, I felt, been a much more laid-back first lady than a lot of us had hoped and anticipated given some of her credentials. And my criticism really wasn't so much of her, but of the fact that in 2013, I think that as Americans we still largely expect our first ladies to be much more Laura Bush than Hillary Clinton. And I find that frustrating. I find that really frustrating.

MARTIN: So you're really not criticizing her. You're criticizing us, the public.

GOFF: Yes, because I do believe that if she did some of the things I laid out in my column, like I said, for instance, what if she actually said out loud in an interview, some of the criticism of my husband is actually is racist, not all of it, but some of it is race-based?

MARTIN: Why should she though?

GOFF: Well, here's my thinking is that if she is being a hundred percent who she is and she's happy with that, that's one thing. But the fact that the woman had to change her entire wardrobe on the campaign trail, Michel Martin, literally - remember her entire wardrobe shifted - she got a makeover - says to me that the Michelle Obama we're getting now may not be the Michelle Obama that she really is and wants to be. And that's what I find frustrating, if that in 2013, she feels that way and then it might actually be true. To me, that's more horrifying is that it actually probably is true.

MARTIN: But isn't that, like, a lot of people. I mean do you think all these network anchors who wear these, you know, sheath dresses...

GOFF: Oh, hello, me.

MARTIN: ...Which has become, like, such a cliche, I mean, is it that that's really what they want to wear or that's what the job requires? I mean, that is just part of the uniform of doing that job for that point in your life. I mean, is it any different from, you know, you know, maybe, you know, firefighters might want to wear, you know, different outfits, but that's part of their job, right?

GOFF: I love that you said that as someone who actually ran out and bought a dress 'cause I had to do TV this morning 'cause I literally did that. I came from Union Station and did that. But what's frustrating to me is that there's so much more at stake in her role than I feel like when I go on TV and run my mouth. There's so much more at stake when I think about AIDS in the black community and other things like that that she's talked - she's definitely has not talked about the way she did when she was the wife of a senator and we need her to. That's how I feel.

MARTIN: Deonna, what about you?

SAYED: Well, I really appreciate the points that people are making, but I wonder if we are ready - what I'm afraid would have happened, and this was mentioned in the article, is that she would quickly be pegged as an angry black woman. And there's absolutely nothing wrong with being an angry black woman in public space. We need more of those. But there's a lot of people in American society that would freak them out because the Obamas are already suspect already to so many Americans. And I think that there are more people who would be uncomfortable with what they perceived as an angry black woman than they are with her husband.

MARTIN: Mikki, what about you? You know, we've spoken with you before about the divide between white feminists and feminists of color - although, I do have to say Keli is a feminist, you know, of color and she kind of shares some of this criticism, so I do think it's important to emphasize that - but part of the reaction online to the piece has been from black feminists saying, you know, white feminists, step off. You don't share her historic burden. You don't, you know, have in your own life or in the public life even of white feminist public figures don't have the historical burden that she has to carry. So they're saying step off. What's your take on this?

KENDALL: So I wrote about this because I'm a mom and I a have a teenager and a 7-year-old. And my perspective was very much that without knowing what she has going on at home, the internal life of these girls who are in the middle of an experience none of us know anything about, none of us can share. They literally have no one to talk to about being the first black children in the White House with their father, the recipient of the most death threats, with their mother the recipient of so much hatred, that at this point we have to trust Michelle Obama to know that she is doing what is best for her family and for herself. No, this is probably not who she really wants to be in public.

Of course, who she really wants to be in public was never political in the first place. She's been very up front about the fact that this is his dream, not her dream. And so for people to project onto her, their hopes, their aspirations because she's in this position, we are sort of mammyfying her. And I've said this elsewhere, and it's been controversial. But the reality is that she's serving the interest of her family and not the interest of anyone else. And we can definitely argue that it would be more comforting or more comfortable to see her step out on these other issues. But we're not the ones who might catch the bullet for speaking. We can say these things...

MARTIN: Do you mean that metaphorically, or do you mean that literally?

KENDALL: I mean that both ways. I mean, we've already seen her catch flak for saying people should eat vegetables. Can you imagine the uptick - remember when she said, this is the first time I'm proud of my country?

SAYED: Right.

MARTIN: Can you imagine the uptick in violent threats? They've received more threats than any other presidential candidates in history. That family has had the roughest trip. And it's, you know - knock on wood - good fortune that nothing bad has happened that we know about. But the reality is that she's got two babies to raise in this fishbowl where her girls can be called nappy-headed, you know - insert pejorative of choice here - because they wore braids in public because, you know, Malia wore a T-shirt...

MARTIN: That is true. And in fact, this was - this is in fact true. I mean, there's a respected conservative website that has actually received some criticism early on because they published some vicious, you know, criticism of the girls and initially took it down, but then put it back up saying sort of free speech. And it's interesting because, you know, the children of people in the White House - there's always been this pushback on, you know, people talking about them, particularly sort of children who are - Keli, you want to tie a bow on this before we move on to another topic?

GOFF: Yeah, I actually - my last column a couple of weeks ago was about how much more - how we do have to worry about the Obamas because they get so many more threats. But that actually ties perfectly to my main concern here. If you remember the "60 Minutes" interview right after he got elected, she said - they asked her, are you worried about your president - your husband possibly being assassinated? And she said, Barack can get killed as a black man walking to a store. We would not hear that from the Michelle Obama today, that I feel like has been muzzled, and that bothers me. That's what bothers me.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, we are having a visit to the Beauty Shop. We're catching up on this week's hot topics with columnist Keli Goff, freelance writer Mikki Kendall and blogger Deonna Kelli Sayed. So let's move on to one of our favorite topics on this program - hair. This is the Beauty Shop after all. And you can cue the eye roll. You can cue the eye roll if you want, if you're sort of over it. But a 12-year-old African-American girl in Florida named Vanessa VanDyke made headlines when she was told by her school, which is a private Christian academy, that she - which she attends - that she had to either cut or straighten her big natural hair, which if you - it's kind of got an Esperanza Spalding thing going on, if you understand what I'm talking about here, kind of a big puffy 'fro - or be expelled. And this is a clip of Vanessa and her mother talking to a local news station in Florida about this.

(SOUNDBITE OF INTERVIEW)

VANESSA VANDYKE: They just say, you should change your hair, you should make it straight 'cause it's too puffy.

SABRINA KENT: A distraction to one person is not a distraction to another.

MARTIN: Now the school has now said that Vanessa can stay and doesn't have to cut or use chemicals on her hair, but they say she has to style it within school regulations. And they say, again, that this is - it can't be a, quote-unquote, distraction, that's why her mom used that term. And interestingly enough, this only came to the - this became an issue when Vanessa's mother complained to school authorities that her daughter was being bullied about her hair, and she asked them to intervene. So, Deonna, you - this really grabbed your attention. Tell us about it.

SAYED: It did. Well, as someone who used to cover my hair in a big turban, I don't understand how it can be a distraction. What? Can people not see around it? I mean, I don't understand that at all. But as a mother of a son around that age who is mixed race and who identifies as brown, I love this little girl. She is so beautiful. She has wonderful hair, and I am so proud that she and her family have stuck to their guns. And I believe now she is going to be allowed back, as you said. And, you know, I don't - it really infuriated me because it's almost as if you cannot fully embrace your identity in public space anymore because everything is politicized. When I look at my son, I don't want him to get that message. I want him to be fully proud of the complex person that he is. So this really did grab me, and it made me very angry to - how it was - this story was initially unfolding.

MARTIN: Well, OK, but - OK. Let's - different approach here, Keli? I mean, well, let me just put a different approach here. What if his identity was to wear his hair really short? I mean this - and, like - and some people say, you know what, you look like a skinhead, you shouldn't be wearing that. What if the attitude was that, well, you know what, we have a dress code here that you can't wear your hair below your collar if you are a boy? OK, that is natural. It's a natural hairstyle. What about that, Deonna?

SAYED: Well, you know, his hair doesn't - that's a good question. I don't know. You've put me on the spot now. I'm going to have to think about that. But...

MARTIN: OK. Well, we like that. OK, Keli wants to jump in here.

GOFF: Well, I was going to say - I - first of all, I echo that she's gorgeous, and I would actually kill for hair that healthy and fabulous. But I have to say, I actually don't have a problem with a private school setting regulations about things like appearance and dress code. What I do have a problem with is when there's not consistency. So, for instance, if this private school said all girls have to wear their hair in ponytails and have to wear it pulled back, that's one thing.

But if you said to me that a little white girl can wear her hair curly and frizzy and that's not considered a distraction - a black girl does it - that to me is the larger issue here. The other thing I was going to say is in terms of distraction thing, look, I'm someone who goes to the theater all the time. I've spent $200 on tickets. And I've sat behind someone with fabulous, natural hair I would've admire on the street - didn't so much admire when I was trying to see behind it, you know, behind it. And I know people who have natural hair who pull their hair back when they go to the theater for that very reason. So it's not a crazy...

MARTIN: OK, but if she was tall? What if like - don't you sometimes sit behind - you're actually quite tall...

GOFF: You're talking to a 6-foot...

MARTIN: I know. So, I mean, what would - would I say to you, Keli, if I sat behind you? You're, like - you're 6 feet tall.

GOFF: Michel, I have no control over that. If I could control that, believe me there are plenty of times, particularly when I'm on an airplane, where I would. My father used to call it put them in your pocket, girl. That's what he'd say when we were in the car, put them in your pocket, little lady. But no, so I don't think this is all completely crazy.

I'm sure I'll get lots of hate and all for this, but like I said, for me, the issue is consistency. If someone says we're not discriminating against her based on her hair, prove it and say that you're saying the same thing to the other little white girls who have, you know, some - not every white girl has straight, short hair, you know.

MARTIN: You know, speaking of consistency, Mikki, this is not the first story of its kind. A few months ago, there was a little girl in Oklahoma who was told to cut her dreadlocks or face expulsion from school. You know what? This is another predominantly African-American school. And a number of historically black colleges still discourage their students, in their business schools, for example, from wearing afros or dreads because they think that those hairstyles are not well received by corporate America. And they tell them, look, we're just preparing you for the way it really is. So, Mikki, what do you think about that?

KENDALL: OK, so I'm going to go way to the side here for a second because I used to work for the federal government, and I am someone who's gone from having an afro, to locks, to twists, to - when I was young and about 12 years old - a very unfortunate set of gigantic Farrah Fawcett bangs.

(LAUGHTER)

KENDALL: And look, look, if you could see the pictures, there's a teacher of mine who was on Facebook who put up all our old pictures, and those bangs are bigger than anything on that child in Florida's head, trust me. And my hair was straight. And the reality is that we do not get into these disputes until a child is of color because when we say, oh, well, wear a ponytail - well, the reality is that for a lot of girls - and I'm one of them - I can't wear ponytails. I can't wear headbands.

They give me raging headaches, and this has been true for years regardless of the texture of my hair. When we say, well, locks aren't professional, this isn't professional, well, funnily enough, if you work for the federal government, your boss can't say that to you. Your boss can't hold you back based on hair. It's a protected situation.

MARTIN: But, again this is a private situation. And there...

KENDALL: And this is a private situation that...

MARTIN: One of the arguments is, like, for example, in the military. The military enforces a dress code. And people say the, yeah, the military discriminates all day long because they can because they consider it part of the job and part of the training. You cannot wear certain hairstyles if you were a, say, a wildlife firefighter. You'd have to be able to get a mask on. You'd have to be able to, you know, cover your hair completely, so that - it's a safety hazard. So they're saying, look, this is a private school, and they can enforce whatever rules they want.

KENDALL: But there's a big gap between - and I was in the military, I was in the Army - there's a big gap between having to fit a Kevlar on so you don't get your brains blown out and what your school thinks is appropriate hair because let's be clear, they didn't say to her, oh, well, we need you to pull it back into a braid. They said cut it or straighten it.

SAYED: Right.

(CROSSTALK)

MARTIN: Mikki, you have done, like, everything. Excuse me, what else have you done that we don't know about? Have you been an astronaut? Have you secretly flown to the moon and we don't...

KENDALL: No, I...

MARTIN: You are like a woman for all seasons.

KENDALL: No, I am just someone who's always taken the road less traveled. We talk about this a little on HoodFeminism.com, my new project, that for those of us who take risk, sometimes the conversation becomes, well, why aren't you taking the safe choice? Well, the safe choice would have been for her to straighten her hair or whatever. The reality is that even with straightened hair - I had big hair with a perm. I had big - I had huge - I just have a big head and a lot of hair. I'm that person at the theater that you sit behind, and even if I've put my hair up, you're like, Jesus Christ, this woman's head is the size of the moon.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: So you say keep the hair. Keep the hair.

KENDALL: I'm saying keep the hair. And also, you know, let's be clear when we talk about what the corporate America expects. Corporate America reflects who's in the corporation. At some point, we have to talk about the fact that America is no longer going to be majority white, majority straight hair, majority hair above the collar. Even now in the military, as we watch the military change its tactics, change its uniform, we're definitely seeing some creeping in terms of uniform and in terms of what hairstyles you can wear because above your collar works - it's specifically because there is a danger attached to it being below your collar. If there's no danger attached to her hair trailing down her back, are we telling girls with hair to their waist that they can't wear their hair down past their shoulders? No. That's not...

MARTIN: All right. All right.

SAYED: Can I just add one more thing?

MARTIN: OK, we have - you can have that one more thing, and then we have to go.

SAYED: Thank you.

MARTIN: Go ahead.

SAYED: This is a little girl who is so confident and it's - you know, we - I don't want it in any way to tell, particularly young women of color, that they should not be confident in their appearance. And this is one thing that really bothers me about this story.

MARTIN: Well, that's all the time we have - 'cause I - there was one more thing I wanted to ask you about, but I don't know that we have time to hear from everybody on this. We've got great news from the Republican National Committee that racism has ended.

GOFF: Yay.

MARTIN: Over the weekend, they marked the anniversary of Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat on the bus with this tweet - today, we remember Rosa Parks' bold stand and her role in ending racism, unquote. They got a lot of interesting reaction to that. So, Keli, but I don't know - are you celebrating? You said yay. Is it celebrating? You think they're right?

GOFF: Sarcastically 'cause we all know - I mean, I actually was more surprised. It could've been worse, they could have said racism never existed in the first place. I mean, you know, that was actually not as bad as it could have been for them.

MARTIN: Mikki, did you get in on this one?

KENDALL: Yeah.

MARTIN: You're very active on Twitter. What was your response to this tweet?

KENDALL: So when Feminista Jones started that hashtag #RacismEndedWhen, one of the great things about that hashtag was that it gave us all a chance to kind of laugh at the sheer ridiculousness without actually having to feel the anger of the Republican Party deciding racism has ended five minutes after, you know, whatever tragic comment has come from one of the Republican Party members because, you know, any given day you can find someone that has said something racist, sent forward a racist e-mail. And you turn around and it's like, well, if you think racism has ended, but your party is still saying - magic. Let's talk about that.

MARTIN: OK. All right. That was Mikki Kendall. She's a writer and pop culture critic, with us from member station WBEZ in Chicago. Deonna Kelli Sayed is a freelance writer. She's editor of the website LoveInshAllah.com. And she joined us from member station WUNC in Durham, North Carolina. Keli Goff is a columnist for TheRoot.com and The Daily Beast. And she happened to be in Washington, D.C. today and stopped by. So thank you all so much.

SAYED: Thanks for having us.

GOFF: Thank you.

KENDALL: Thank you.

MARTIN: And that's our program for today. I'm Michel Martin and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Let's talk more tomorrow.

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