I think everyone who cares about what women think and feel breathed a sigh of relief when Michelle Obama, self-described Mom-in-Chief, stepped up to the mike to excoriate a certain coarse, bullying, misogynist just the other day.
Michelle, who ordinarily takes a back seat to all things political, felt so personally wounded by Trump’s recently revealed attacks on women that she felt the need to protect all women and their daughters from the salacious remarks made the Republican candidate for President. Michelle Obama’s reaction reminded me of two familiar sayings: “Don’t ever get between a mother bear and her cubs,” and “Don’t rouse a sleeping giant.” I guess Trump never learned the wisdom of these adages because now he has done both.
Frank Bruni, an openly gay op-ed columnist for the NY Times, was so moved by her message he entitled his Sunday column, “The Authentic Power of Michelle Obama.” Unlike Trump, Michelle has no need to explain or defend her authenticity. She has been an amazing role model for young women throughout the nation for the past eight years and an amazing Mom who has raised two lovely daughters in the glare of the White House media.
In addition, Michelle chose not to just protect black women in her latest speech; instead, she speaks for the dignity of all women. She has chosen to “go high” once again (as she put it in her convention speech), high enough to transcend the ongoing mess that has become our politics. Bruni further states she “has staked her claim as the most earnest guardian of our most important values.”
Sadly, however, there is much more work to be done. In the same Sunday Review section, I read another article that immediately made me feel worse. The article, ” ‘Only White People,’ Said the Little Girl,” written by Topher Sanders (a reporter on racial inequality for ProPublica), was about an incident he witnessed on the playground while his five-year-old son played with some former friends from day care. When his son attempted to join a group of kids spinning on one of those wheels that kids love to jump onto, one of the little girls said to him: “Only white people.” Sanders overheard the remark, but noticed that his son was not daunted by it. “When the little racist girl reached out to touch him, he moved out of the way and laughed. He kept right on playing.”
Like Michelle Obama when she heard the recording of Trump’s remarks, I felt sick to my stomach about this incident. I am very aware that racism is alive and well in America, but to read about it being directed at an innocent five-year old by another five-year-old is disheartening. Sanders devoted the rest of his column to talking about how paralyzed he felt to take any action lest his intentions as a black man be misconstrued. In effect, because he is a black man he felt helpless to defend his own son by showing either the parents or the children any displeasure. That made me feel very sad for him and for us all.
Michelle Obama can’t fight both racism and sexism alone, effective as she may be when she does speak her mind. A former teacher, I thought about how most teachers try to fight racism and bullying in our schools every day. Their efforts are admirable yet often ineffective because children return to their homes where they learn to be racist. But teachers can be racist, too. I remembered an incident I experienced as a teacher that almost made me feel hopeless. The day Obama was elected President, most of the 70 or so teachers in my elementary school hid in their classrooms and acted like it wasn’t so. There was no mention of the new President that day or any day by the teachers or the principal because he was black and they didn’t approve of him. That day, it was the teachers and administrators who failed their students because they failed to “go high.”
Like Sanders who wrote about how helpless and paralyzed he felt when he heard that racist remark directed at his son, I, too, felt helpless and paralyzed in my own school building. I said nothing that day, like that black father who was fighting his instinct “to make the white folks feel comfortable enough to keep us around.” I am white, but I knew I had to work in that school for another eight years and understood the repercussions (shunning) I would experience if I dared speak up about the refusal to recognize our new President. Although I celebrated Obama’s election with my students in my classroom, I did not “go high.” Instead, I played it safe.
I am not proud of my lack of response that day, and I have thought about it many times since. My decision to not take a stand and remain silent is not unlike those who now still refuse to stand up against Trump. They are playing it safe. If we grownups don’t stand up to racism and sexism, how we will protect children from another generation of bullying and assault?