When I first heard about First Lady Obama’s Let’s Move campaign and subsequent efforts to push for healthier school lunches, I was certain that these were bipartisan concerns. Encouraging children to be more active and providing them balanced nutrition couldn’t possibly be a source of controversy. Well, my grandmother always said, “People will make a liar out of you.” Sure enough, Republicans found a way to demonize even this seemingly most agreeable of efforts.
Outspoken New Jersey Governor Chris Christie was notably vocal about the First Lady daring to overstep her boundaries by campaigning for more nutritious standards in the school lunches many children are forced to eat. Of Obama’s endeavors into fitness, the governor said, “The first lady has no business being involved in this. She wants to give her opinions? That’s fine. She can give her opinions about what people should have for breakfast, lunch, or dinner. She’s like any other American. She can give her opinions. But using the government to mandate her point of view on what people should be eating everyday is none of her business.”
What I had forgotten in my haste to praise Michelle Obama for undertaking such a noble cause is that there is no such thing as incontrovertible benevolence in Black people in this country, particularly when it comes to Black women in positions of power and high visibility. Michelle Obama’s womanhood, motherhood and humanity are always open for ruthless critique. The reverence granted to former (read: white) First Ladies does not extend to her. Any misstep, perceived or actual, she makes will be amplified. Any success she has is scrutinized. Every word she says is scrutinized.
EVERY.WORD.SHE.SAYS.IS.SCRUTINIZED. Or at least I believed so until last night when Republican nominee Donald Trump’s wife gave a speech at the Republican National Convention. Standing before thousands whose party peddles the rhetoric that Black people — lazy, entitled and uneducated — are ruining this country, Melania Trump recited a speech she first claimed to write almost entirely by herself which contained nearly an entire paragraph plagiarized from the first Black First Lady, Michelle Obama’s 2008 speech at the Democratic National Convention.
When acute Twitter user Jarret Hill noticed the obvious copying and pulled the transcripts, Trump’s camp predictably denied the allegations, issuing the following statement which read, “In writing her beautiful speech, Melania’s team of writers took notes on her life’s inspirations, and in some instances included fragments that reflected her own thinking. Melania’s immigrant experience and love for America shone through in her speech, which made it such a success.”
Many Republicans followed suit. Trump’s campaign chairman called the allegations “absurd.” While Chris Christie, who a few years before was offended by the audacity of of Mrs. Obama wanting to replace french fries with apples, was swift to vouch for Mrs. Trump’s integrity, stating, “I know Melania. I think she worked very hard on that speech. A lot of what I heard last night sitting on the floor sounded very much like her and the way she speaks about Donald all the time.” He went on to firmly declare, “If we’re talking about 7% of a speech, that was really, universally considered to be a good performance by Melania. I know her. There’s no way that Melania Trump was plagiarizing Michelle Obama’s speech.”
Despite being caught with the smoking gun, any indictment of the character of this woman is preposterous. Despite Melania Trump initially taking credit for composing the speech with “as little help as possible,”somehow calling her a plagiarist is offensive. Despite Trump supporters touting this woman as the classy, wholesome First Lady this country needs, her blatant theft of Michelle Obama’s intellectual property should not be used against her. Her reputation must not be challenged even with irrefutable evidence that she is not above lying and stealing.
And there we have the number #1 entry in the White Women’s Rulebook: Any mistake made or offense committed by a white woman can and should be easily excused, blamed on the head not the heart. And the #2 entry: Black women exist solely for our labor, style and intellectual creations to be adopted, copied and appropriated by white women with no homage paid, credit given or compensation offered. And the 3rd entry: Turnbout is not fair play.
For centuries, white women’s words were evidence enough to hang Black people. For centuries, white women have studied Black women, mocking our bodies, speech, hairstyles and mannerisms, only to imitate them for the world, capitalize and monetize off them, and feign offense when confronted with their cultural leeching. For centuries white women have harassed and antagonized Black women only to turn around and paint themselves the victim of our retaliation.
Melania Trump is Taylor Swift, blatantly lying and then arrogantly playing verbal gymnastics when receipts surface. Melania Trump is Iggy Azalea miserably mimicking Black women’s swagger while denying our universal influence. Melanie Trump is the white woman in the office who has been combative, disrespectful and petty to her Black coworker who burst into tears and marches to HR when that Black coworker returns her shade gloriously. This is the quintessential performance of white womanhood, comprising every element that has preserved and protected white women from accountability and punishment for their actions, malicious or not.
The same people who saw no problem with the racist caricaturing of the First Lady as hyper masculine juxtaposed with a depiction of Melania Trump as the personification of feminine beauty are now shielding Trump from due criticism. After years of claiming that Mrs. Obama’s success as an attorney and Ivy League degrees are solely attributable to Affirmative Action, Republicans are now faced with a white woman (ironically from the group which benefits most from Affirmative Action) lifting an entire section of that woman’s speech.
But per usual, Melania is the victim in this. After all, the collective purity of white womanhood is what’s really at stake. The collective dehumanization and devaluing of Black women is always in play. Class politics are always at play. To simply concede that Mrs. Trump’s speech plagiarizes Mrs. Obama’s, would mean to contend with the fact that all they believe about Black deviance and white superiority is a lie. Republicans and their racist supporters would need to accept that Michelle Obama has been targeted and attacked not because she fits their racist stereotypes but because she’s Black. It would mean eating shit. And we all know shit in the mouths of racists only travels one way.