michelle-obama-speechAh, here’s a subject that people, especially white people, just love to get all pissy about (disclaimer: I am white, and I am not exempt from this). Michelle Obama recently gave a commencement speech at Bowie State University in which she laments the fact that so many young black people aspire to be sports stars and rappers instead of pursuing mentally challenging careers. She blames it primarily on a lack of personal motivation. Given the setting, I think her speech, though maybe a little cliched, was appropriate. This wasn’t an inauguration speech, guys, it was a commencement speech. And what’s a commencement speech without a little cheese?

But then Alyssa Rosenberg of Think Progress criticizes Mrs. Obama for failing to see the real problems behind African Americans having skewed career ambitions — namely, the cultural problem of how we overvalue sports stars and coaches. Then, Rosenberg presents this gem:

And if we’re going to talk personal motivations, wanting to be “a baller or a rapper” is not a dream that’s solely the property of African-Americans. America has three major televised singing competitions right now, American Idol, The Voice, and X-Factor, all of which promise that it’s possible to rise from anonymity to remarkable fame and a career in music…Participation is hardly limited to African-American singers by design or choice. There are plenty of white folks who hope to make it big in the manner of Taylor Swift in the same way African-American boys might be dreaming of growing up to become Jay-Z.

At first, my instinct was to agree wholeheartedly. Everybody, regardless of color, seems to want fortune and fame. Growing up, I did, and I sincerely believed I wouldn’t be happy unless I was famous. And now I’m worried about my daughter watching all of these unrealistic shows on Disney and thinking that the only career worth a damn is singer or dancer or actress.

But at the same time, I’m not oblivious to the fact that my daughter has significant advantages over black children living in poverty. Because it’s “normal” for white people to aspire to all sorts of careers (not just balling and rapping), she won’t have to worry about getting bullied by her peers for having educational ambitions. Where a young black girl in Chicago might get ostracized for dreaming of being an engineer, my daughter would probably get a pat on the back for having the same aspiration.

That’s kind of why I have a problem with this aspect of the Think Progress article. It’s easy for the author, as a white woman who isn’t living in poverty, to sit pretty and diagnose all of these poor black people, and to one-up Mrs. Obama by saying she’s not really addressing the cultural problems here. It’s easy for me, as well, to think I’m making some kind of difference by writing about it here. But this isn’t something that well-off white people can fix by discussing with well-off white people.

I just think we need more success stories, but no more of the sappy, American Idol-style ones about rising from poverty into entertainment stardom. We need TV shows and movies about minorities overcoming poverty and becoming politicians, teachers, writers and inventors. This wouldn’t just help minority children, it would help the other half of the problem: the fact that a good chunk of (white) society still has a hard time imagining dark-skinned people doing anything successfully but balling and rapping.

American Idol: Teacher Edition, anyone? I can’t even fathom what that would look like, but I would watch the shit out of it.

(photo: meltechfoto / Shutterstock)