By perceiving victimhood, Michelle just encourages it
Obamas' speeches are in danger of feeding into racial paranoia
Published 17/05/2015 | 02:30
The first time Michelle Obama was on the cover of a magazine, it was a New Yorker cartoon, which depicted her with a huge Afro and a machine gun. According to Mrs Obama, it "knocked [her] back a bit." It's understandable. It's always a shock to be faced with a public perception that may have damn all to do with reality. And there's the fact that it may not exactly coincide with your own perception of yourself.
Michelle Obama is very tall and has a magnificent figure. She's a known fitness fanatic, and has never been mealy-mouthed: she says what she thinks. All of those qualities can easily combine to create an impression of an Amazon: but a beautiful, BLACK Amazon?
Michelle Obama appears to think they were making a point of her skin colour. At Tuskegee University, Alabama, an institution where the student body, historically, has been black, she told a commencement ceremony how "perceptions of her racial identity" had played a part in the 2008 presidential campaign. She cited the New Yorker cover as part of that. So who was suggesting that a cartoon of Mrs Obama as a beautiful warrior who happened to have a black skin, implied that she was a terrorist?
In 2008, I would probably have laughed at the cartoon. I'd have thought: One tough woman, that Michelle; nobody's going to put her down without a fight. Admirable in a First Lady, I'd have thought, given that she fights for liberal causes. Other people (mainly Republican supporters) would have thought: got it in one, she's a dangerous toughie, and here comes Trouble.
And some people would have thought, or been encouraged to think, "There's a black bitch who's got above herself and belongs as a housemaid in my kitchen, despite the fact that I'm never going to employ a housemaid; and because she's black, she's sub-human, and what's more, not really American."
But from the way Michelle Obama spoke last week to the graduating students of Tuskegee University, one would imagine that the kind of bigotry expressed in the third category is the norm in American society.
It may seem impertinent for a white European liberal to criticise the reaction of a black American person to American racism and its perceptions; but I don't think Michelle Obama is doing the cause of racial equality any favours by telling black university graduates that "The road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me." And she spoke of "the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives. The folks who crossed the streets in fear of their safety…the people at formal events who assumed we were the help."
Most of us have said "Can you help me?" in shops and hotels to people standing around who are dressed in anonymous black clothes. Sometimes they're not "the help"; and sometimes, even in America, they're not black. We've just made a mistake.
Mrs Obama's husband made the same point as his wife a couple of years ago, when he told an audience that, as a black man, he had been at the receiving end of racist attitudes throughout his life, such as people hitting the lock button on their car doors if they saw him approaching. How often has the man looked in the mirror? He's enormous, lithe, fit, and obviously capable of any physical feat, including overpowering someone seated in a car. It obviously never occurred to him that you'd be an idiot not to lock your car door if you saw him approaching in a lonely car park. It would have nothing to do with his colour. It would have to do with common sense and taking the kind of precautions that would make the police force in any country imply you were a blithering fool for failing to take if you were attacked.
Not every insult to a black person is racially motivated. And, unpopular though it may be to say it, not every piece of police brutality towards a suspect or a detainee is racially motivated, either. Sometimes the wrong kind of people are attracted to the power of a police uniform: they may be motivated by an inherent desire for physical power over others…all others. Or, of course, they may also be motivated by a contempt for black people as a 'lower species'. But the latter isn't necessarily the case, and nobody is doing racial progress and equality any favours by encouraging a mindset of racial paranoia in any society.
Michelle Obama told her Alabama audience during the week that she understood that black people having their "intelligence, honesty, even love of country" questioned were indignities that are nothing compared with "what folks across the country are dealing with every day." Whether she wrote that speech herself, or whether it was deemed by her staff to be politically appealing to her audience of black young men and women, it strikes me as insulting rather than sympathetic. Nobody, whatever their racial origins, should regard having their honesty and intelligence questioned as small indignities. They should worry about that far more than the irritation of "nagging worries about whether you're going to get stopped or pulled over."
The Obamas, through their pride, determination to succeed, their passion and intelligence, are superb role models. It is probably too much to hope that their colour should be co-incidental, to them or to other people. But it isn't a betrayal of their fellow African-Americans not to buy into a sense of victimhood. Above all, they should not encourage it. They should be telling their fellow citizens on all possible occasions that they must hold their heads up at all times rather than hunching their shoulders in expectation of the crack of a whip. Those days are gone, they should be saying.
Black people have proved their equality; but until they expect to be treated equally rather than living in expectation of prejudice, there are plenty of people who will oblige them by providing it.