Former First Lady Michelle LaVaughn Obama was thrust into the public spotlight during her husband Former President Barack Obama’s presidential campaign in 2007. Immediately I recognised in her the standard bearer of all my aspirations and physical, quantifiable proof I could achieve all I set my sights on. The most highly educated First Lady in American History, she is so well loved Marmalade Mussolini was warned against attacking her on the campaign trail. My first cultural studies essay in University discussed the politicisation of Michelle Obama’s hair and to my great pride I scored 92% for my efforts. Do you get it? I love the woman and to love her is to be abreast of stories circulating about her; the good, the sexist, the racist and the violent. Mikki Kendall compiled a list of “22 times Michelle Obama endured rude, racist, sexist or just plain ridiculous attacks” for The Washington Post. The listicle is a reminder that Michelle Obama has had to be more composed than any First Lady before her for no other reason than the colour of skin. Before you get your knickers in a twist, while all First Ladies have been criticised for one reason or another none as vitriolically as Obama. The hatred was intrinsically tied to her race, not to some cause she spearheaded or a gaffe she made but the falsehoods that she wasn't "classy enough" or didn't "look" like a First Lady are because she's black. Don't forget it.
So when over the last week since the inauguration, #FREEMELANIA started trending on Twitter and articles appeared on my timeline imploring us to “be kind” to Melania Trump because she was a “victim” I dug down into the pit of my stomach and mustered the heartiest laugh. Black women across the Twittersphere came forth to debunk the tiresome myth that Melania Trump needs “freeing” or our kindness. The calls for leniency are especially troubling considering this same thoughtfulness and readiness to act wasn’t extended to Michelle Obama, by nonblack women or publications, and she actually needed support. Frustrated by Laurie Penny’s New Statesman piece shared on Twitter with the suggestion “Here’s why you might want to think twice before attacking Melania Trump…” I started a thread about why premise of her defence of Melania was problematic and not intersectional. While Laurie and I, with the help of the ever-awe inspiring June Eric-Udorie, came to an understanding by the end of the discussion, I was left frustrated that people who responded to the thread felt Michelle Obama was strong enough to withstand the attacks she endured and therefore didn’t warrant the same time and effort to cape for. Twitter’s 140 character limit didn't give me the room to go off the way this topic deserves- give me room, I’m going in.
Michelle Obama is a beacon of resilience clearly evidenced by her ability to remain poised in the face of an unrelenting torrent of racist shit but the trope of the “strong black woman” works to both negatively stereotype and dehumanise her. The assumption of strength was immediately applied to Obama because of her race and created an inability in those who do not share in the black woman experience to imagine Michelle Obama’s vulnerability, that she possibly experiences the full gamut of human emotions because she is a “badass.” The dehumanisation of the stereotype worked in its ability for people to be shocked it might hurt her. The idea that black women are ceaselessly durable, able to withstand endless violations is a form of misogynoir (anti-black woman misogyny) that allows racists to project their hate onto her and white people, but in this case specifically, white women to ignore her need for protection. For the eight years of Barack Obama’s presidency you’d be hard pressed to find think pieces from white feminists and in mainstream media demanding Michelle Obama be left alone and respected the way Lauren A Wright, Alice Spencer, Violet Hudson and countless other are now appealing we respect Mrs Trumplethinskin. And this is where the constant need to baby Melania is irksome- her whiteness prevents them, and those who their ideas resonate with, from applying the same stereotype of perpetual strength to her as has been to Michelle Obama- especially when the evidence points to clues this woman is not helpless.
It is possible Melania has been/is being manipulated by Pumpkin Spice Satan and as a survivor of domestic violence I can tell you there are a whole host of reasons why women do not leave their abusers but the issue here is the insistence we see her as “poor” and “sad” when she’s a wealthy, fierce and protective mother ready, willing and able to take down anyone who comes after her or her family. Melania is “an active participant working to construct Donald Trump’s narrative, readily available to put a gauzy domestic veil on his racism and misogyny” writes Gabrielle Bluestone and her continued infantilisation relieves her of accountability. The social construct of white womanhood is based on “purity, chastity and virtue” under the guise of “powerlessness” Mamta Accapadi explains in her essay When White Women Cry: How White Women's Tears Oppress Women of Colour. These stereotypes, while not explicitly negative in the same way the tropes of black women as “angry”, “strong” or “sassy” are, they similarly dehumanise white women; denying them agency and responsibility for decisions they make freely. It is imperative we avail Mrs Cheeto-In-Chief of these labels in order to thoroughly scrutinise her actions instead of haphazardly applying antiquated myths of white women’s powerlessness that work to absolve this strong, cunning woman. It is not a stretch to look to the pervasiveness of white supremacy and how it operates to understand how this image so effortlessly became part of the dialogue surrounding Melania. The reluctance to describe her as strong and capable speaks to the understanding that “strong” isn’t inherently a positive description for a woman. The word is seen a masculine adjective therefore easily applied to black women because of our consistent dehumanisation but an unfathomable option for Melania. This is how white supremacy works; shielding white women from realities black women cannot escape. The wife of Toupee Fiasco is no shrinking violet and doesn’t need your assistance.
In order for there to be true unity among black and white feminists acknowledgment must be made that there are times the issues of nonwhite women are ignored because white feminists fail to see the value in them as they are not affected by the same issues. When you write your heartfelt think pieces and well intentioned articles calling for all of us women to support Melania don’t forget to mention none of you were doing the same for Michelle Obama and your reasons for not doing so, whether you accept it or not, are rooted in misogynoir. When The Washington Post posted an article entitled “The very angry first lady Michelle Obama”, when Fox News called Michelle Barack’s “baby mama”, when Mayor Patrick Rushing wrote a Facebook post describing Michelle Obama as “monkey face”, when Lisa Greenwald called Michelle Obama an “ugly black bitch” you were silent either because you didn’t take the time to know or thought Michelle Obama was strong enough to handle it but know both are problematic af. The wilful choice to be unaware of the attacks against Michelle Obama highlights the lack of intersectionality in white feminism and is made manifest in the dismissal of the emotions of a black woman who could have used more support and simultaneous caping for a white woman who’s made it clear she’s comfortable with her husband’s misogyny, racism, Islamophobia and xenophobia. Demanding we all #FREEMELANIA reminds black women there were no such hashtags for Michelle and compounds the centring of imaginary, conjured white fragility over palpable, genuine black vulnerability. Melania is not a child, stop creating a martyr of this grown-ass woman who fails to see the irony that if not for her whiteness and marriage to Sunburned Stalin, she would be the victim of and/or target for his anti-immigrant, anti-woman hatred.
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