So I’ve been trying to figure out why I feel so furious and flummoxed when some bumblef@#k politician I’ve never heard of makes a childish, racist remark about Michelle Obama—and then apologizes for it.
For instance, when Mike O’Neal, speaker of the Kansas state house, Republican and white guy, forwarded that asinine cartoon likening the first black First Lady to the Grinch and calling her “Mrs. YoMama,” I sucked my teeth and kept it moving. Only when he issued his limp apology—“I forwarded it too quickly, missing the text included in the body of the mail. To those I have offended, I am sorry. That was not at all my intent.”—did I pause, feel pissed and rant to an unlucky friend.
The same thing happened when I heard that Jim Sensenbrenner, Wisconsin congressman, Republican and white guy, declared Mrs. O. a hypocrite for leading the Let’s Move campaign because she supposedly has a “large posterior.” I remember thinking, “Jim who? I can’t with this petty, racist bulls@#t.” But when his rep confirmed that he’d sent a personal apology to the White House, I suddenly got apoplectic.
As someone who is trained to talk and write about race, I pride myself on my ability to predict the exact moment in which a non-apology apology will enter our non-discourse discourse. So I’ve been confused and frustrated by my intense feelings about these sophomoric digs at Michelle Obama, a woman with more power and popularity than these fools will ever have.
Yesterday, while reading the news, sneezing and hacking up my right lung, I had a breakthrough! It happened while I was skimming what I thought would be a no-duh piece about why some people aren’t laughing at “Shit White Girls Say to Black Girls.” In this Clutchmag.com commentary, writer Tami Winfrey Harris, re-introduces the essential theory of racial microaggressions:
You think talking about “big” racial issues like loan discrimination and redlining and police brutality against black men is hard? It’s often a lot easier than discussing race-based “microaggressions.” Microaggressions is a word coined by psychiatrist Chester M. Pierce, meaning “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative racial slights and insults toward people of other races.”
Harris’s piece reminded me to look at the Michelle Obama insult Olympics through the lens of microaggressions. Within these incidents, I can see what Columbia University psychologist Derald Wing Sue has labelled “microinsults” (“Verbal and nonverbal communications that subtly convey rudeness and insensitivity and demean a person’s racial heritage or identity.”) and “microinvalidations” (“Communications that subtly exclude, negate or nullify the thoughts, feelings or experiential reality of a person of color.”)
So now I can clearly see why the non-apology apologies actually amplify the insults. Because, whether they acknowledge it or not, white guys like O’Neal and Sensenbrenner are using the First Lady as a release valve for their own racial anxiety and perceived victimhood. They’re not calling her a welfare queen, nappy headed ho or uppity black bitch. They’re saying “big butt” and “yo mama” then feigning civility by apologizing—a convenient means of both minimizing and ending the conversation.
Meanwhile, black women like me are left choking on the vapors of their hatred. I knew those vapors stunk, but because they weren’t toxic enough to knock me unconscious or kill me in my sleep I was beginning to minimize them. Thank God I now have the tools to diagnose the problem.