Last week, FLOTUS gave her most impassioned speech yet in response to Trump’s abuse of White women. After all the racism she's witnessed and endured, why was this her breaking point?
Donald Trump—the narcissistic draft- and bill-dodging, xenophobic, racist sexual predator—has been going as low as he can go since he first started his presidential campaign 18 months ago, stoking hatred and violence against people of color, Muslims, and immigrants, bragging about cheating the government of millions of dollars, daring his surrogates to use their Second Amendment rights against his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton—and promising to imprison her if he takes office come January. But it wasn’t until a video of his boasting about sexually assaulting White women that pushed most American voters to the breaking point, inspiring them to finally rise up against him and address rape culture.
First Lady Michelle Obama has made no secret of her distaste for the GOP candidate, but never before has she revealed herself so emotionally as she did last week with a speech that has been widely heralded in the mainstream news and on social media. “It has shaken me to my core,” she said, choking back tears, as she responded to Trump’s long history of misogyny.
“The First Lady didn’t just go high, she soared,” wrote award-winning journalist Lynn Sherr at BillMoyers.com. “Michelle Obama’s unusually personal and passionate condemnation of Trump’s politics and garbage behavior sent her to the top of the trending list on Twitter as grateful fans high-fived the most outspoken defense of moral authority by a First Lady since Hillary Rodham Clinton equated women’s rights with human rights in Beijing in 1995.”
New York magazine’s Rebecca Traister added to the praise, careful to note how the outrage points to the valuing of White women’s bodies—that Trump’s crude remarks became the fault line for so much of America. But she argued that FLOTUS’s speech moved the conversation in important ways because it spoke to how the misogyny has been directed at her—that women across the nation felt the catcalls.
But why was this video the fault line for FLOTUS?
Of all the horrible things that have happened in America and the world during her husband’s administration, from a whole city’s being poisoned to innocent civilians being bombed during drone attacks, why was it is Trump’s vulgarity, clearly aimed at the bodies of White females, that has moved her to speak up so passionately? Were the countless brutal attacks on Black bodies and the police murders of unarmed Black children, women, and men not worthy of her rhetorical invention?
When White civil-rights workers were attacked, America listened. When White kids are shot, America expresses outrage. When White sons and daughters become addicted to drugs, what has for decades been considered an inherent flaw and fault of Black people worthy of incarceration, instantly turns into a national medical emergency. Political 9-1-1 gets called ONLY when White folks are the ones being affected. We know that had a police officer been raping middle-class White women as former cop Daniel Holtzclaw did to 13 Black women while on the job in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the entire nation would have risen up to demand not only his arrest, but major systemic change.
And when Trump repeatedly came for the Central Park Five, insistently calling them rapists; when he retweeted racist vitriol and refused to disassociate from known white supremacist supporters; when he discriminated against African-American tenants; and, when he questioned President Obama’s U.S. citizenship, much of the nation was silent. When he announced his plan to ban Muslims from entering the United States, called Mexicans “rapists,” questioned whether Judge Curiel should preside over his trial because “he’s Mexican”; when he referred to Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas”; questioned whether members of Mashantucket Pequot Nation “look like Indians to me,” and countless more, his campaign grew with popularity.
Yet when long-ago remarks surface highlighting his misogyny and sexual brutishness toward White women, a fact well-documented just from his clips on Howard Stern, folks were suddenly stunned—flabbergasted.
And those White Republicans—particularly the males—who have remained silent while their right-wing constituents and supporters have boldly and publicly insulted and shamed Michelle Obama for years—shaming her body, her arms, and her clothing—are rushing to distance themselves from Trump’s comments, citing the fact that they could no longer look their young daughters in the face and explain their support for Trump. Yet those same Republicans were fine looking their daughters in the face as Trump made America explicitly hateful again with his deluge of comments about Mexicans, Muslims, Black people, and others. The White politicians who have come out against Trump have expressed their disapproval of the candidate to distance themselves and prove that they are purportedly good men, upholding a longstanding patriarchal tradition of protecting White women from the evils of the world. (Never mind that FLOTUS points out how all too many of these men are just like Trump.)
But what does it say that we—including our FLOTUS—are able to speak up about attacks on the “mainstream” population, but can’t call out the toxic sewage of racist sexism that has always lurked at our front doors? If the Obamas, as the most powerful Black couple on Earth, aren’t able to talk explicitly about the racist and sexist demonization of Black girls and women, about Holtzclaw’s serial rapes of Black women in Tulsa, or the brutalization of a young Black girl at a Texas pool or in a South Carolina school, or Mo’ne Davis and Quvenzhané Wallis being called a “slut” and a “cunt”—if THEY can’t talk about a culture that allows the hyper-sexualization, de-sexualization, and dehumanization of Black women, who can? So I wanted to wholeheartedly like and be excited about her speech. But I couldn’t help but feel disappointed and frustrated because once again history reveals that America only pays attention when bad things happen to White people.
I’m not naïve—Michelle Obama has a role to play, and she plays it well. Some would argue that she isn’t being explicit in addressing Black issues because of the context of the election and the fact that, as outgoing FLOTUS, her job is to play a political game to get Hillary elected. And the fact is, White America has been mocking Black women’s bodies, speech, hairstyles, and mannerisms for centuries—which Michelle Obama is all too familiar with: Since her husband first ran for the White House, she’s been called a “monkey man,” “gorilla face,” and an “ugly Black bitch.” Rush Limbaugh has referred to her as “Michelle ‘my butts’ Obama”; Obama’s oldest daughter has been called an ape, monkey, nigger, and whorish for twerking at a party.
“The shameful comments about OUR bodies. The disrespect of our ambitions and intellect. The belief that you can do anything you want to a woman,” FLOTUS said. “It is cruel.” But this isn’t just about Donald Trump—this kind of intersectional hatred goes back centuries. Black women have endured the catcalls, the sexual assaults—verbal and physical—and the nonstop harassment, all of it couched in racism. And in that intersectionality, we—including Michelle Obama—know how deep the movement to dehumanize us will go.
Still, despite all the hatred directed at her for the past almost eight years that FLOTUS is able to speak on this current national platform but not elsewhere says a great deal about the minefields of societal racism and sexism.
Part of me wants Michelle Obama to call out all men—Black, Latino, Asian American, and White—when she talks about the catcalling, the sexualizing and reducing women to the sum of their body parts, but I appreciate the challenge that presents because then she’d be accused of reinforcing stereotypes about Black men and pushing Black respectability in response to high-profile White male sleaze.
Look no further than the response to Michelle Obama’s speech as part of their defense of their indefensible “candidate.” Since the release of the Billy Bush video, Trump’s campaign reached into America’s longstanding playbook of blaming hip-hop, the Black community, and specifically Black women for social ills. Telling FLOTUS to shut up because she likes and listens to Beyoncé and Nicki Minaj, who sing and rap about pussies and sex, they have sought to both deny FLOTUS a moral standing while blaming the intrusion of Black culture into public life for Trump’s “locker room talk.”
David Schilling writes in The Guardian that, “The moral majority is struggling to find comfort with the most immoral candidate they could find. Now, seeing that their position is uniquely untenable, they are gamely attempting to claim that it is the Democrats who are the true hypocrites. After all, Obama listens to hip-hop and has invited rappers to the White House. Ann Coulter tweeted that Michelle Obama should be ashamed of herself for chastising Trump while giving credence to the notion that Beyoncé is a role model for young girls. Beyoncé is not running for president, but Donald Trump is, which is why his words are the ones that matter here.
And conservative columnist Laura Ingraham tried to show equivalency when she wrote, “How Dare the Obamas Attack Trump When They Are Fans of Beyoncé and Common?” Returning to a longstanding talking point, calling Common “the rapper who glorifies violence against police,” Ingraham denies that FLOTUS has a moral compass.
“But don’t pretend, don’t go up here yesterday to New Hampshire and pretend, ‘I haven’t heard any … I haven’t heard things said like this.’ You’ve not only heard things said like this, you’ve invited people to the White House who’ve made an enormous amount of money using the N-word, the most filthy words about women and taking advantage of women,” added.
Not knowing the difference between the music of Nicki Minaj and Beyoncé (maybe she thinks all Blacks sound alike), she denounced Beyoncé for sexualizing herself, “to bump and grind against every dancer on stage with the S&M outfits during the Super Bowl and touching themselves in their private parts as they dance. But we’ve never heard any of this language that Donald Trump is using. What have you all said? About what you’ve invited into the White House?”
If Ms. Ingraham is so concerned about morality and sexualization, where’s her outrage toward Howard Stern, who trades on lewd. Or more important, on Trump supporters Roger Ailes and Mike Tyson.
Not to be outdone in their race to the bottom, Trump advisor Betsy McCaughey, the Republican former lieutenant governor of New York also blamed Trump’s remarks on Beyoncé. “I abhor lewd and bawdy language,” she told CNN’s Don Lemon. “I don’t listen to rap music. I don’t like that kind of thing. It’s full of the f-word, the p-word, the b-word, the a-word.”
Conservative right-wingers aren’t alone. There have been plenty of Black men on social media creating memes and spouting the same nonsense. While all about deflecting from their candidate’s many issues and his platform consisting of “Making America Great Again” and no more homework, their scapegoating reflects the ease in blaming Black women for everything, from the fact that they’re continually subjected to and policed for hyper-sexualization, to the notion that their words are on par with a man striving to rule the world.
Given the right wing’s continued attack on FLOTUS, and Indiana Governor and Trump’s vice-presidential running mate Mike Pence declaring, “I don’t know what she is talking about,” it is no wonder there is no space to specifically talk about Black girls and women. To #SayHerName. When speaking to a Columbus, Ohio, television station, Pence was asked how he would respond to a girl who told the station’s staff that Donald Trump’s words make her “feel bad about herself.” According to the station, WBNS-10TV, the girl’s comments were “completely unsolicited.”
Pence responded, “I would say to any one of my kids and any children in this country that Donald Trump and I are committed to a safer and more prosperous future for their family … The rise of terrorist threats that have inspired violence here at home, and we’ve seen an erosion of law and order in our streets. And we’ve seen opportunities and jobs evaporate and even leave Ohio and leave this country. I would say to any of our kids that if Donald Trump and I have the chance to serve in the White House that we’re going to work every day for a stronger, safer and more prosperous America.”
This isn’t simply evidence of Pence’s pathetic pivot attempt but part and parcel with their message. The issue of White men’s sexualizing, groping, raping, assaulting, and demeaning White females is a distraction, because the REAL threats to White women and girls are terrorists, immigrants, and hip hop artists.
Trump’s campaign claims it wants to “talk about issues”: scapegoating people of color, anti-Semitic conspiracy theories, more police and more prisons, and anti-immigrant ideologies sandwiched between flimsy platitudes and tweets. Or do they? In many ways, the focus on his misogyny and history of sexual assault is good for his campaigns—allowing him to be presented as a victim while giving them permission to talk about the things they really want to say: protecting White Americans from evils—people of color; the media and elite (his code word for “Jews”); political correctness; LGBTQ communities; immigrants—near and far.
This election is a daily reminder of the awfulness of so much of the country and it has confirmed that much of the electorate is indeed deplorable. But Donald Trump is only part of the problem. It’s the rest of the nation that we should truly fear, for Trump gave these racist sexist people permission to show themselves, to flaunt their ugly truths without fear of condemnation or reprisal, to be proud and strong in their beliefs. His candidacy provides a platform for them to feel relevant, possible, visible and important. And THAT is the scary part. Even when he loses (please Black Jesus with the dreadlocks, fix it), their feelings aren’t going to change. They aren’t going to disappear. In fact, they’ll intensify.
As President Obama said last week, the GOP and right wing need to own Donald Trump. He is America’s creation. And not even an impassioned speech by the brilliant First Lady of the United States can ultimately change that.
There’s never been a more important time for quality journalism. You can help by supporting DAME’s reporting, commentary, and cultural criticism. Because it matters who covers the news. And it matters who covers women’s issues in the news. As a member, you’ll receive Parlour, our members-only newsletter, plus DAME swag, and you’ll be automatically entered for a chance to win Soraya Chemaly’s Rage Becomes Her and Brittney Cooper’s Eloquent Rage. Become a supporter today.
AN INDEPENDENT FREE PRESS HAS
NEVER BEEN MORE IMPORTANT.
Your financial support helps DAME continue to cover the critical policies, politics and social changes impacting woman and their allies.