Princeton professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell talks Michelle Obama

Netta-Lee Lax and Netta-Lee Lax

Much like the glass ceiling, the “crooked room” inhibits women from prospering to the utmost degree, Princeton University professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell said in a lecture Monday night.

During her lecture titled, “Reading Michelle: The Gender Politics of Race in the Age of Obama,”Harris-Lacewell told a packed auditorium in the McCormick Tribune Center the crooked room is a challenge that applies specifically to African-American women.

It all stems from a collective shame that African-American women exhibit, she said. When Harris-Lacewell asked the black females in the audience how they felt when they found out that the D.C. sniper was black, a loud communal sigh was heard. However, when she asked white women in the audience how they felt when Lindsay Lohan went to jail, there was a subtle chuckle. Shame is “global,” Harris-Lacewell said.

“It is the sense that not only have you done something bad, but you are something bad,” she said.

This collective shame is not something that is exclusively felt by African-American women, but it is this feeling that puts them in the crooked room, she said.

Michelle Obama has the traditional black background and thus falls into the crooked room. The speaker discussed the first lady’s public persona, which she said “shows [Obama] in the crooked room trying to stand up.”

Harris-Lacewell chronicled the different aspects of Obama’s public life that defy and perhaps further certain stereotypes that make up the crooked room, noting the differences between strong black women and real women. “If you want to give a white woman a compliment, what do you call her?” Harris-Lacewell asked the audience. “Thin,” she said. “If you want to give a black woman a compliment what do you call her? Strong.”

Black women, she said, don’t want to be “the magical mammy,” they want to be real women.

Throughout her speech, Harris-Lacewell cracked jokes and had the crowd roaring with laughter. She concluded the event with the most jeering idea of the whole night.

“Barack was way whiter than John McCain,” she said, arguing that Obama had the traditional marriage and the Ivy League law school education, while McCain rose to power through the military and had a very public divorce. Sarah Palin, she explained, tried to change what it meant to be white. All of the sudden, being white meant shooting deer and having a pregnant teenage daughter, Harris-Lacewell said.

“So many white people were like, no, I’m gonna be white like Barack Obama,” she said.

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