Powerful images from the White House

February 19, 2009 | By | 3 Replies More

Sometimes, when I see videos of President Barack Obama, I think of how important it might be for Americans to see photos and videos of highly-accomplished African-American role models.    For decades, television has too often portrayed African-Americans as dysfunctional, lazy or violent criminals.   The onslaught of these abnormal images has been terrible and relentless.  I assume that these media caricatures have damaged and even destroyed some lives by encouraging young African-Americans to think that they are worth less because their physical appearance is different than those TV characters who are more often portrayed to be capable or admirable.

There was a time in my life when I didn’t believe that media images could be so powerful.   It’s not that my attitude completely changed on one particular day, but I do recall one especially memorable day.   In 2001, my wife (Anne) and I traveled to China to adopt our second daughter (our first daughter is also Chinese).  While we were staying in a hotel in Changsha, Hunan Province, I anglo-manniquinsdecided to carry my new 9-month old daughter to a nearby department store to get some baby supplies.   At that department store, I was surprised to see so many Caucasian mannequins. I took a photo of one of these displays.   Back at the hotel, I asked two English-speaking Chinese tour guides why there were so many Caucasian mannequins, rather than Chinese mannequins.   They both told me, without hesitation, that Chinese women think that Anglo women are more beautiful. I was incredulous when I heard this.   But after it sunk in, it became a sad idea, indeed.    I had just adopted my second daughter from China.  She was a startlingly beautiful little baby.  Back in Changsha, hoped that it would never occur to my daughter that she was not “pretty” because she was not Anglo.

I suspect that much of the idea of who is “beautiful” has to do with what country is, at that moment, enjoying material abundance.   It’s the women from those rich countries that tend to be thought of as  “beautiful,” I suspect.  Such an ugly idea.   As China has gained in wealth (and as America has sunk), it seems that Asian models and movie stars have becme more prestigious.  I realize that this is simply a personal impression.  I haven’t seen any actual statistics. michelle-obama

But this brings me back to the First Couple.   It think it goes without saying that Barack Obama has served as an inspiration to many African Americans.  We also have a smart and beautiful African-American woman occupying the White House.   I can only hope that there are little African-American girls who have recently realized, even if not consciously, that they can be proud of their looks, as well as optimistic about their futures, because a highly-accomplished woman who physically reminds them of themselves now occupies the White House.

[Credits: Chinese mannequins taken by Erich Vieth; Michelle Obama is an official White House Photo taken by Joyce N. Boghosian].

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Category: Art, Bigotry, Culture, Media, Politics, Psychology Cognition

About the Author ()

Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich lives in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where he lives half-time with his two extraordinary daughters.

Comments (3)

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  1. Erika Price says:

    I've even heard some tall women say that they feel empowered when they see that our new first lady is a person of height. But instead of feeling "good" that new groups of people sense empowerment by seeing powerful elites that look like themselves, I feel "bad" that people feel insecure about such silly things in the first place. The height thing to me just represents a slightly more absurd version of the "race" thing. It's too bad that we still need to see visions of ourselves in order to identify with someone or their position.

  2. Tim Hogan says:

    Erich, any kid can see the Obama children as an example.

    My son, Ben, realized the President's children are the same ages as he and his older sister. Then, he asked if I could be President, to which I answered that I hold all the constitutional requirements, so "yes."

    I then said the Onion had it right about Mr. Obama; "Black Man Gets Worst Job in America!" I told Ben I'd rather try to broker a Middle East peace deal, get a Cardinals fan to like the Mets, or a Yankees fan to like the Red Sox than be President right now. Ben then said he thought I should pray for Mr. Obama, and I do. Then, Ben wiped out my Lego guys with a laser blast, and declared victory (again,according to "little boy rules" daddy always loses!).

  3. Zoevinly says:

    Don't forget that before she became First Lady, Michelle Obama was educated at Princeton and Harvard, practiced at a prestigious firm and worked for Mayor Daley. This mannequin has brains. She's an animated, articulate (yes, that word), active and direct woman who also happens to be black.

    Now juxtapose that upper-echelon black female lawyer against the Jackie-Kennedy-Chanel-style-sweater-wearing Laura Bush. I know a few wicked-cool librarians. Laura Bush is not cool. Nor is she wicked. If you've read her interviews, you may even wonder if she lives in the 21st Century.

    This shift is major.

    To switch gears: What if the specter of gender and sexual inequality were to enter into the mix? Imagine that Michelle was born in Kenya, raised in Indonesia and Hawaii; and Barack himself was born in Illinois. Would the public have embraced Obama more or less?

    Switching again: Rumor has it that earning a graduate degree from a U.S. University has a profoundly negative effect on the dating prospects of a native-born Chinese woman. This makes sense if you consider the mobility of this woman compared to her partner. With a foreign degree, she has the liberty to leave her native country in pursuit of more lucrative work while her man stays at home in mainland China. That is unless she can find a native-born, foreign-educated (Chinese) man to meet her parents' expectations. This mannequin has yet to be plastered all over Chinese TV.

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