Just another WordPress.com site

Archive for March, 2011

Michelle Obama: A New Kind of Female Leadership

Dressed in a floral suit, hair and make-up impeccable, she spoke with a strong yet friendly tone—her tongue, intelligent and wise from Princeton and Harvard Law, Michelle Obama spoke to the crowd and captivated their attention. Using words to describe herself and her family like “regular folk,” “working class,” and “from the other side of the track,” she is noted as one of the few  First Lady’s that acts as a neighbor down the street…  and not just any street. Michelle Obama speaks proudly about growing up as one of four children on a single city worker’s salary Chicago’s inner city; her mother stayed home to take care of the family, her father suffered gravely from multiple sclerosis.  She views her personal journey not as an example of hardship but as a source of strength.

From a lucrative career in corporate law and the public sector, and the presidential campaign trail to the White House, Obama has defined herself as one of the “regular folks,” and that designation carries even more meaning in her role as First Lady. As a strong, black, educated female leader, Michelle speaks about the many road blocks that she’s experienced from early childhood to her current role:

“We are confronted with the doubters. People who tells us what we can’t do. You know every time somebody told me, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ I pushed past their doubts and I took my seat at the table.”

“We are confronted with the doubters. People who tells us what we can’t do. You’re not ready. You’re not good enough. You’re not smart enough…. Each and every one of you here has heard and felt those ceilings, somebody pushing you down, defining your limitations, who are you? You know damn well what you are capable of doing…. You know every time somebody told me, ‘No, you can’t do that,’ I pushed past their doubts and I took my seat at the table.”  – Michelle Obama

A seat at the table that many say Obama gave up to support her husband as a presidential candidate, and now president. Obama’s story is a challenge to view from most female leadership theory. Obama is an example of leadership and exhibits the abilities to influence, motivate, and enable others to contribute to common goals. Her leadership is a blend of transformational and authentic leadership as most women: she resembles us rather than stand apart from us; she recognizes and empathizes with our struggles; she recognizes, shares in, and supports our goals; and she encourages relationships and interaction as tactics to meet the real needs of the people. 

Yet many suggest that her female leadership now is a blow to an ideology in which women’s empowerment is defined by financial independence, professional advancement, and a detatchment of emotions and the ‘mothering’ role. In essence, Obama is viewed by many as a sell out for giving up her high post in a land of male leadership and now serving as the US’ most famous mother and wife.

Obama suggests differently – she intersects the role of First Lady and female leadership. Although it’s not a paid position, her job requires her to inspire and connect with the American public just as deeply as her husband is doing. Look at her Lets Move campaign… her work in schools across the country… and yes, her symbolism as the epitome of style and grace.

Obama suggests that the new post doesn’t define her—“A career is one of the many things I do in my life. I am a mother and a wife first. Where do I get my joy and my energy first and foremost? From my kids.”

Mrs. Obama offers a possibility for change, a new kind of female leadership: The ability to lead and inspire others yet still serve as a symbol as mother and caretaker for her family. She is a devoted partner, full-time mother, and a credentialed black dynamo– a female leader– and yet doesn’t feel victimized by the job.


Cultural Incompetence: “Downright Niggardly”

 It was a simple joke with repercussions—the aftermath of the words   caused an absolute frenzy—“Downright. Niggardly.”  If you look up the word niggardly in the dictionary, there is assuredly a definition… Reluctant to give or spend;  stingy;  ungenerously scanty. Yet… its’ phonetic association with a racial slur aimed at African-Americans can augment the term beyond nine letters and into years of oppression, slavery, and marginalization based on race.  Of course, “niggardly” has no real connection to the racial slur— yet many call for it to be banished from the dictionary, not for its’ denotation but for its’ connotation.

It was at the bar that I first heard the word. A group of about 10 folks joined to celebrate the end of a hectic week—the group was diverse in race, gender, age, and discipline. After a few rounds of brews, John—the ultimate kidder— told a joke about a black boss who left small tips. I can’t remember the exact joke, but what I can remember was the punchline— “Downright. Niggardly.” It came to the group … just like a punch. No one laughed. Everyone looked around, took a sip, looked down, fidgeted with clothing. John laughed at the top of his lungs—Get it “Downright niggardly?” He looked puzzled that no one had joined him to laugh.  It wasn’t funny.

Cultural competence is described as possessing the awareness, attitudes, knowledge, and skills necessary to interact (lead, build relationships, communicate) with people across different cultures. In today’s ever-changing, global community, the need to posses cultural competence is more essential than ever. “Having insight into the cultural dynamics of a country, ethnic group, historical trends and influence, or geographical region is essential in understanding why people behave the way they do and think the way they think.” When you are culturally competent, you constantly engage in conversations with yourself about your assumptions, respect cultural diversity, and learn to effectively develop socially constructed meaning about things such as language, media, business, etc. You would be able to analyze your audience, like a group with four African-Americans, and know that the word “niggardly” could invoke triggers and faultlines that could affect your relationship with an African-American.

Washington DC had its’ run in with “Downright Niggardly,” when then-Mayor Anthony Williams accepted and then rescinded the resignation of David Howard, a white staff member, who used the term to describe the state of the economy and the distribution of sparse resources. The mayor explained that although Howard didn’t say  ‘anything that was in itself racist,’  however, using a word that could be misunderstood was like ‘getting caught smoking in a refinery with a resulting explosion.’ The resignation and then rehire of Howard was, of course, a shock and a tragedy but it had a good result too. It sensitized us all to the hidden and hurtful ethnic slurs that darken–oops, sorry–that afflict American life and highlighted the need for cultural competence training.

Fester like a sore…   referring to Langston Hughes’ poem A Dream Defered

 After some reflection on my own part, I am confident that John is not a racist—  he just had a moment where he was culturally incompetent. Yes, he is a white guy from Southwest Virginia, but he’s spent summers in Mongolia and is a kind hearted, open guy. He apologized and I know he was sincere. I kicked myself for not using the “ah-ha moment” as a learning piece; I was just as culturally incompetent as he was at that moment for not doing so. Folks were downright angry. Instead of letting people leave and letting the wound fester like a sore as Langston Hughes once said… What we needed to do was to use it as a learning moment centered in “cultural competence.”  Humor can invoke insensitivity, civil discourse, and in this case a frenzy; but we have to use humor and these type of moments to be able to discuss and then counteract real issues and real thinking. Some folks may snigger—oops— snicker at this notion.

As Mayor Williams said in response, “We must use this moment to understand that we still live and thrive in a racially-hurt society; what we, on both sides of the coin, must do is learn from our mistakes, however innocent they may be.” When we do not recognize moments where we are culturally incompetent and how that influences our interaction—now that?  That is when our thinking is “Downright Niggardly!”

Tag Cloud