Barack Obama’s presidency was supposed to represent a post-racial America. Words like “hope” and “change” were bandied about frequently—not just referring to a departure from the Bush administration and the Republican politics of the years prior to his candidacy, but also signifying a path toward a more racially just country. Sadly, many of us were unprepared for the hideous whitelash that would come after electing the first black president.
And in our collective euphoria about the so-called racial and social progress we were making, we ignored the fact that Michelle Obama was also making history as the first black first lady —bringing black womanhood in full display in front of the whole world. While it might have been apparent that she would be the subject of racism like her husband, her experiences were also a painful reminder of exactly how misogynoir (misogyny which is particularly aimed at black women) shows up in the lives of black women.
This week in Denver at the Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s 30th anniversary event, the former first lady gave insight into what it was like to endure the racist and sexist critiques that were all too common while her husband was president.
“The shards that cut me the deepest were the ones that intended to cut,” she told a crowd. “Knowing that after eight years of working really hard for this country, there are still people who won’t see me for what I am because of my skin color.”
Obama specifically referenced how racially charged attacks — like ones that called her an ape and focused on her body — personally hurt her.
Women, of all colors, are generally used to critiques about their bodies. In this way, patriarchy does an excellent job of shaming us for who we are. This is an experience we have in common. However, black women endure a particular type of body shaming steeped in the most negative of racist stereotypes—designed to portray us as mannish, unattractive, emasculating.