Is it really that hard to believe that a black woman can be smart, sophisticated and attractive?
If you listen to some conservatives talk about Michelle Obama, it seems to be that way.
Ever since the Obama family launched into the national spotlight in 2008, the first lady has been the subject of sexist and racialized attacks from those who’d rather not see her as the woman of the White House.
In the latest incident, conservative Colorado radio host Jimmy Lakey said that when he said the name “Chewbacca” at his cigar club, the people around him automatically assumed he was speaking of Michelle Obama.
Chewbacca? Really? At this point, Michelle Obama’s detractors are sounding less like informed critics and more like fourth-grade bullies.
What is the deal? In many circles, Michelle Obama is lauded for her smarts, her beauty, those arms, of course, and her sharp wardrobe. But then again, those are the circles that aren’t blinded by the fact that she’s also African-American.
My theory: For some of these conservatives, Michelle Obama is the first time they’ve been confronted with a black woman that doesn’t fit nicely inside their “welfare queen” ideal.
Yes, it’s almost been three years and they’re still adjusting. Some refuse to adjust. But even then, can they say about her?
They can’t critique her on policy, since that’s not her job. And it’s hard to come up with a salient argument against wanting kids to eat better and play more. So they resort to the golden rule used by schoolyard bullies everywhere:
When in doubt, make fun of her looks.
But they’re even doing that wrong too.
If you review the words and imagery used to mock Michelle Obama in the past few years, you’ll notice that none of it is based in any actual truth. Rather, they’re lame attempts to squeeze her into stereotypes that have been leveled against black women for centuries: the “overweight, overbearing Sapphire”:http://www.thegrio.com/entertainment/critics-throw-weight-behind-cheap-shots-on-first-lady.php; the oversexed Jezebel; “the hairy descendant of a primate”:http://www.thegrio.com/specials/web-rundown/ceo-compares-michelle-obama-to-chimpanzee.php; and now, most recently, a Wookie from Star Wars. Rush Limbaugh routinely called her “Michelle, My Butt,” on his talk show, but even that is easily labeled as crass and tasteless.
Some don’t stoop so low in their insults, but still show their bigotry in suggesting that Michelle Obama isn’t a “traditional” first lady — that is, she doesn’t meet the petite, demure and deferring archetype embodied by Jacqueline Kennedy. Jimmy Lackey said that his own wife has complained about the Michelle Obama’s wardrobe choices, saying, “If she’s going to be first lady, she shouldn’t wear things that make her look like a halfback.” But the comment seems less a critique of Michelle Obama’s clothing, and more a thinly-veiled attempt to paint the her as manly and unfeminine.
As Earl Ofari Hutchison wrote last year, the attacks on the first lady are just the latest incidents in the centuries-long practice of using propaganda to paint blacks as inferior, unattractive and subhuman. That kind of propaganda was effective for so long because blacks could do little to debunk the man-made myths about them.
But it’s different now. In the information age, Michelle Obama (along with a number of other high profile black women) is everywhere. She’s on the television, speaking in communities, and living in the White House. Her only offense is not fitting into the quiet Jackie Kennedy prototype long upheld as the feminine ideal among the blueblood elite. Rather, she’s introduced the world the womanly traits praised in black America — strength, leadership and a beauty not usually lauded in magazines. And so with a simple jump of a rope recorded on network TV, she easily demonstrates that she’s not at all what “they” say she is.
Still, it seems to be too much for the Jimmy Lackeys, Rush Limbaughs and Andrew Breitbarts of conservative America to stomach. And as their desperation to discredit (and disrespect) her grows, their punchlines become less inventive and more juvenile. These days, it almost feels like the one-liners and grotesque cartoons are dreamt up not to anger others, but to allow them to reassure themselves about their long-held (if baseless) beliefs about black women. It’s as if they’re constantly sketching fat, hairy Michelle Obamas while chanting, “If we say it, it must be true. If we draw it, it must be true.”
Only it’s not. And at some point, Michelle Obama’s “critics” have to face that cold, hard fact.