Michelle Obama has been plagued by racist depictions since before her husband won the White House and throughout his presidency. There was the infamous cover of the New Yorker picturing the first lady as an Afro-haired, machine gun-toting militant in combat boots giving her husband a fist bump, also known as a “terrorist fist jab.” Fuera de Serie, a Spanish magazine, superimposed an image of Michelle Obama onto a popular 1800 French painting of an enslaved woman with her right breast exposed. In 2009 there was a mild uproar when it was discovered that a Google search for “Michelle Obama” resulted in the top image showing the first lady altered to look like an ape.
Despite Michelle Obama’s consistently high approval ratings over the last four years, and with the first family on their way out of the White House, conservatives still can’t resist taking jabs at the first lady. Over the weekend, cartoonist Ben Garrison published an image that plays into long-held stereotypes about black women as angry, emasculating and ugly. In Garrison’s cartoon, Michelle Obama is depicted as scowling, masculine and dowdy.
She is contrasted with an image of Melania Trump, wife of presumptive GOP nominee Donald Trump. Melania Trump is shown as smiling and feminine and sexy (her dress has a thigh-high split). She holds a pro-Trump sign, and the caption next to her reads, “Make the first lady great again!”—the implication being that the current double-Ivy League-degree first lady, who spends her free time championing healthy kids and military families, is some sort of a letdown.
For what should be obvious reasons, Garrison’s cartoon caused a crap storm and a wave of complaints.
As a defense, Garrison shared a link to popular black conservative Allen West’s blog, which featured a reprint of a story from the Analytical Economist that dismissed the furor over Garrison’s cartoon as “liberal insanity” and asked if liberals “react the same way when black conservatives … and many others have been attacked?”
Actually, I’m on record for defending Ben Carson and his wife from petty attacks. And I defended Stacey Dash when her ex publicly accused her of having an abortion. Wrong is wrong. And while Garrison may have the freedom of speech to create this vile image of the first lady, that doesn’t stop it from being dehumanizing and disgusting. And wrong.
Garrison is not alone in his thoughts on Michelle Obama and Melania Trump. Contrasting the two women as if they are in competition is a popular conservative pastime, despite the fact that President Barack Obama is not running for office. Usually, conservatives try harder to conceal the underlying issue here: race. Their buzzword of choice is Melania Trump’s “class.”
On Political Insider, there are multiple articles referencing how Melania Trump “outclasses” Michelle Obama, describing the third Mrs. Trump as, “Unlike Michelle Obama, she is 100 percent classy! [Mrs. Trump] is a first lady we would all be proud of.” On Fox, Media Buzz host Howard Kurtz describes Melania Trump as “a savvy, classy lady with no desire to bask in the spotlight.” Mediaite highlights an offhand remark by a Trump-rally attendee who says, “We can’t wait until Melania puts class back into the first lady.” She adds, “She’s beautiful, and we can’t wait to see class.” She didn’t elaborate on her definition of “class.”
To be fair, what is considered “classy” is subjective. What I take issue with is the blatant hypocrisy of how conservatives apply the term. Michelle Obama has been skewered by conservatives for many things, including wearing sleeveless dresses, wearing shorts on vacation, wearing strapless dresses and wearing clothes that are “too tight.”
And yet this same group uplifts Melania Trump as somehow better. Melania Trump, who, in a popular (and easily Googleable) photo shoot for GQ, is wearing diamonds and nothing more. On the magazine cover, you can see her bare bottom. In other photos, Melania Trump wears a bathing suit cut open to her navel. And in yet another image, she wears a red thong while aiming a gun at an unseen assailant.
I don’t play into respectability politics. I take no issue with a then-29-year-old Melania Knauss, then-girlfriend of Donald Trump, literally showing her ass for GQ. The more-than-a-decade-old images of her are no reflection of her character, then or now. But I do take issue with the enormous double standards—and racism—on display by a group that champions family values and morality and yet disparages the fully clothed first and only wife of Barack Obama while championing the butt-naked third wife of a GOP candidate as a restoration of greatness.
So why the sudden blind eye and the wave of support? “Great again!” and “classy” are just a dog-whistle way of saying “white.” Based on conservatives’ own long-standing definitions of “class,” Melania Trump doesn’t fit the bill. Not even close. But she is white. And from a conservative and/or racist perspective, white—even an immigrant, whom conservatives are notoriously against—is somehow better than having a black woman as the better half of the nation’s leader. This is what Garrison’s cartoon boils down to.
Garrison will get his thinly veiled wish for a white woman in or near the Oval Office. Maybe it will be Melania Trump as first lady, or possibly the wife of Bernie Sanders. Maybe it will be Hillary Clinton as Madam President. Unfortunately, the White House will never have another Michelle Obama, who has displayed grace, class and elegance throughout her husband’s presidency, even when her attackers deserved her wrath. That she is leaving might be great for Garrison and his ilk, but it sucks for everyone else.
Demetria Lucas D’Oyley is a contributing editor at The Root, a life coach and the author of Don’t Waste Your Pretty: The Go-to Guide for Making Smarter Decisions in Life & Love as well as A Belle in Brooklyn: The Go-to Girl for Advice on Living Your Best Single Life. She is also a blogger at SeeSomeWorld.com, where she covers pop culture and travel. Follow her on Twitter and Instagram.