WASHINGTON — I can’t speak for Michelle Obama, but call me an angry white woman. If the first lady isn’t angry, she certainly has every right to be.
Like every woman I know, black or white, I’ve watched Mrs. Obama with respect, admiration and arm-envy. Every woman. We talk about her unique role in American history, and we are proud and impressed. I’ve interviewed a former first lady’s chief of staff, various Republican operatives, former staffers for previous presidents, and without exception, they all say the same thing: “I admire her so much.”
Thus, the recent discussion about Mrs. Obama’s manner and temperament, thanks to Jodi Kantor’s new book, “The Obamas,” is maddening. Yet again, the first lady is being characterized as the thing women can never be — angry. Heaven forbid she should butt heads with that pussycat Rahm Emanuel, as Kantor reports. Who doesn’t butt heads with Emanuel? Head-butting is his default mode.
Whether or not factually true, this and other minor third-party anecdotes were enough to resurrect the angry-woman mantra that began when Barack Obama started his run for president. Responding to the controversy, Mrs. Obama, who usually keeps to herself and her family, came out to publicly defend herself against the angry-black-woman stereotype.
Speaking to CBS’ Gayle King, she said, “I guess it’s more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman — you know? But that’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since, you know, the day Barack announced, that I’m some angry black woman.”
I guess it is more interesting, but no less infuriating. The difficulty, of course, is finding people who have used those precise words — “angry black woman.” By midday Friday, if you Googled “angry black woman,” 65 million links popped up, many including the name Michelle Obama. Yet most direct quotes related to the first lady referred to an “angry woman,” rather than an “angry black woman.” Is the racial aspect of the criticism an extrapolation of Mrs. Obama and her defenders? It might be but for the fact that those calling her angry happen to be white.
On Thursday, Fox News’ Sean Hannity asked his show’s panel if they knew any “prominent” person who used those words. The panelists, who clearly didn’t want to say anything critical of the first lady, couldn’t produce a name. Indeed, it may be that this trope has evolved from the swamp of the blogosphere, where anonymous trolls say despicable things from the cowardly comfort of their subterranean wormholes.
It isn’t hard to find evidence of racial undertones in these anonymous missives, one of which materialized in my inbox recently. Comment threads on right-wing blogs frequently feature hateful, racist remarks about the first lady. They don’t deserve a pica of my column space, but suffice to say, they need no translation.
Meanwhile, what isn’t said explicitly by “prominent” people is often implied. Attempting to prod his guests into saying something negative about Mrs. Obama, Hannity pulled out the old clip of Michelle saying that she was proud of her country for the first time when her husband was running for the Democratic Party’s nomination. This has been played and replayed thousands of times and presented as evidence that Mrs. Obama doesn’t really love her country, that she wasn’t proud of it until her husband was running for president. So what?
These perhaps were not the best words for a future first lady, but I have no trouble understanding how she felt in that moment. It may be easy for fortunate whites to say they’ve always been proud of America, though they’re probably lying. It is less easy for someone whose ancestors were slaves, and whose own parents remember when blacks couldn’t vote and were lynched for trying in some parts of the country. Given that history, one can forgive a few ill-chosen words uttered in an emotional moment.
But no. Mrs. Obama has been paying for her remarks ever since. If she isn’t smiling at the camera or looking riveted by every instant of her public life, she’s an angry woman.
Despite the pain these critiques cause Mrs. Obama and other African-American women who identify with her, I do believe that these feelings are not particularly widespread. Most see the first lady as she is: a beautiful, gracious, intelligent, elegant, devoted wife and mother of whom we can be proud.
Those who insult her insult us all and, yes, we should be angry.