White Feminists and Michelle Obama

by Special Correspondent Nadra Kareem

Should white feminists be taken to task if they don’t defend Michelle Obama from the misogynistic attacks sure to continue coming her way as the presidential campaign unfolds? Not necessarily, say Corinne Douglas and Jacquelyn Gray, who wrote an editorial called the “Cost of Silence” at the Root.com.

In the article, Douglas and Gray argue that black women remained silent when Hillary Clinton suffered a litany of misogynistic attacks. Therefore, white women can’t be held accountable if they refuse to defend Michelle Obama from the evils of sexism. Douglas and Gray write:

“The misogynistic savaging of Hillary Clinton was one of the most inexcusable elements of the primary campaign, and the silence from black women in the face of those attacks, because they supported Obama, was, at least, a tactical mistake. It is entirely unacceptable to go along with unfair attacks against women simply because you disagree with the particular woman under attack.”

But here the authors make a number of assumptions. For one, not all black women supported Sen. Obama. High profile black women such as California Congresswoman Maxine Waters and author Maya Angelou supported Hillary Clinton. There were also black women, such as writer Rebecca Walker, who backed Sen. Obama while exposing the sexism targeted at Hillary Clinton. Walker, the goddaughter of feminist icon Gloria Steinem, even pointed out the ways in which Obama himself exhibited sexist behavior. Political commentator Donna Brazile is another example, as she was adamant about being a representative for both women and blacks during the primaries and did not publicly back either Clinton or Obama during that time. As for those black women who were not vocal about the sexism Sen. Clinton experienced, the assumption can’t be made that they did not speak out simply because she was Obama’s opponent.

If anything, black women did not come to Sen. Clinton’s aid because they were largely in defense mode during the primaries. Comments by Sen. Clinton, in which she seemingly downplayed Martin Luther King’s accomplishments by suggesting that his triumphs were dependent upon President Lyndon Johnson’s actions, put black women on the defensive. Her remarks that Barack Obama won primaries and caucuses in states that didn’t really matter put black women on the defensive because many of the states in question have high concentrations of African Americans. Then, there are the comments her husband made, comparing Obama to Rev. Jesse Jackson for seemingly no other reason than that they are both black, not to mention calling Obama’s success in the primaries the biggest “fairy tale” he’d ever seen. Adding to the tension was Clinton supporter Geraldine Ferraro’s suggestion that black men are somehow privileged in this country. On Ferraro, Douglas and Gray write, “African-American women are justifiably frustrated by white feminists’ failure to fully regard their experiences.”

This is an understatement. White feminists such as Ferraro, Gloria Steinem and Erica Jong not only failed to fully regard the black experience, they dismissed it. Suggesting that black males are privileged in a society in which they are likely to be imprisoned, hyper sexualized, die young and generally viewed as a threat is a dismissal. And black women, who are intimately acquainted with the challenges their sons, brothers and husbands face, considered such a dismissal to be another act of oppression. It wasn’t that black women felt that privileged white women couldn’t speak out against sexism. It was that, during the primaries, such white women seemed to be doing so at the expense of blacks.

Douglas and Gray feel, however, that if more black women had spoken up for Hillary Clinton, they might have forged “a stronger voice, a stronger coalition, in defense of Michelle.” This statement is also troublesome. Why in an article focused on feminism are there so many references to Michelle Obama needing someone to defend her, as if she is a helpless little girl rather than a grown ass woman? Michelle Obama doesn’t need a white patriarch, or, in this case, matriarch, to rescue her.

Equally troubling is when Douglas and Gray state, “Alienating aggrieved white feminists, may well hurt Barack Obama’s chances and, with it, a chance to improve the lives of all women.” If white female supporters of Clinton decide to vote for McCain, or not at all, instead of for Obama, I question if feminist is the right word to describe them. If such women can vote for a man who espouses policies completely contrary to feminism or risk allowing such a man to win the presidency, how can they truly be? Someone who is truly anti-sexist, or truly anti-racist, for that matter, would act out against sexism and racism whenever confronted by them, for Martin Luther King’s words still apply: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”

To her credit, Michelle Obama seemed to be reaching out to feminists during her keynote address at the Democratic National Convention. She spoke of the cracks Hillary Clinton put in the glass ceiling with her historic run for the White House as well as about women receiving the right to vote. Speaking of both civil rights and gender rights, Michelle Obama said, “I stand here at the cross-currence of that dream.”

And that’s no easy place to be.