The Cost of Silence

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Tonight is Michelle Obama's night at the Democratic Convention. She will reintroduce herself to America, try to convince us that she and her family, especially her husband, are just like us and worthy of our support.

Expect her to be phenomenal. Expect her to be attacked, as well.

Republicans and their surrogates have already tried to diminish the achievements of the Obamas and to mute their widespread appeal by portraying Michelle Obama as an angry black woman. She has been caricatured, and she has been mocked. But the angry, fearful reactions that Ms. Obama's depiction has stirred up in men were not that different from those generated by Hillary Clinton during the 1992 and 2008 primary election seasons. And the recent failure among so many African-American women to stand up for Clinton—regardless of how they intended to vote in the primaries—gave many male political commentators tacit permission to do the same thing to Ms. Obama.


The misogynistic savaging of Hillary Clinton was one of the most inexcusable elements of the primary campaign, and the silence from black women in the face of those attacks, because they supported Obama, was, at least, a tactical mistake. It is entirely unacceptable to go along with unfair attacks against women simply because you disagree with the particular woman under attack.

It is a very short distance from "Hillary Nutcracker" and "Bros before Hos" to "Barack’s Baby Mama," as we plainly saw in The New Yorker's recent satirical cover featuring the Obamas.

Black women's failure in defending Hillary Clinton gave white feminists an excuse not to defend Ms. Obama—although some of us certainly called them on it in no uncertain terms. Marjorie Valbrun, in a March 17 column on The Root, declared that well-educated, well-connected and influential white women such as Hillary Clinton, Geraldine Ferraro and Gloria Steinem had no right to complain about "overt sexism in the campaign." And Mary C. Curtis recently inquired about the whereabouts of white feminists in mounting a defense of Michelle Obama, an accomplished attorney, devoted mother and spouse of the presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

You did not have to vote for Hillary or want to vote for Hillary to know that the treatment of the former first lady, an incumbent senator from the state of New York, and for a while the leading candidate for the Democratic nomination, was over-the-top abusive and sexist. You did not have to agree with everything that Geraldine Ferraro wrote or said to acknowledge that somewhere amid her mean-spirited rant, she had hit on some important truths. We cannot mistakenly assume that the complaints of sexism originating with women blessed by some degree of privilege must be false or imagined.


Make no mistake, we should not excuse the behavior of Ferraro and those who cry "reverse racism." African-American women are justifiably frustrated by white feminists' failure to fully regard their experiences. But we cannot expect white feminists to come to the defense of Michelle Obama if we deny them the ability to, at a minimum, identify their own mistreatment at the hands of the same oppressors that are victimizing Michelle.

The injection of class warfare into the feminist struggle does not help us in seeking redress against these wrongs. So-called women of privilege can be, and frequently are, subjected to woman-hating oppression. If "privileged" white feminists cannot complain about abuse and injustice to less affluent women, then what rights do middle class, Ivy-League-educated sisters, like Michelle Obama, have to speak on issues affecting black women who aren't as fortunate. Are we reduced to believing that the only legitimate complaints about the hardships of poor, working class and under-educated minority women, must come from poor, working class and under-educated minority women—the ones with the least access to the media and with no influence with the power elite?


Women of privilege should argue against injustice in the same fashion that Che Guevara—the privileged son of a doctor and a physician himself—was able to argue for the rights of Latin America's working and lower classes in the mid-20th century.

A broader acknowledgement of the misogyny Clinton had to endure would still not have saved her flawed campaign. But it might have helped black women forge a stronger voice, a stronger coalition, in defense of Michelle. Alienating aggrieved white feminists, may well hurt Barack Obama's chances and with it, a chance to improve the lives of all women.


There is little doubt that Michelle's speech at the opening of the convention will incite sexist jabs, just as Hillary's speech will the following night. Perhaps the joint attacks will provide an opportunity for black and white feminists to heal wounds, mend fences and start a more constructive dialogue that will benefit both groups.

Corinne Douglas and Jacquelyn Gray live in Washington, D.C.

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