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Although Donald Trump became president only a month ago, his policy changes and comments have caused several national debacles. Trump has already suspended the United States refugee admissions program, blocked immigrants and visa holders, authorized the Department of Homeland Security to begin constructing a wall across the U.S.-Mexico border and reinstated and expanded the global gag rule for abortion services. All of these issues affect a massive number of individuals — if they don’t affect you, they affect your family or your friends, your classmates or your neighbors.
I could talk about any of these issues at length because they’re all significant, so it may seem like an odd choice that I’d like to talk about Melania Trump. More specifically, I’d like to talk about the public’s support of Melania.
When Trump was elected, after I went through the seven stages of grief (really six — I’m not sure I’ve reached acceptance or hope), among my thoughts was, “I feel so bad for his wife.” I shared the sentiment that many other voters across the aisle share: she didn’t sign up for this — none of us, including her, thought Trump would become President of the United States of America when she married him in 2005.
This week, however, I stumbled upon another opinion on the matter while scrolling through Tumblr. The poster’s general sentiment was that Melania Trump has received support (from the feminist community especially) that Michelle Obama has not: when Melania is caught with a demeanor below the usual standard for the First Lady (specifically in the trending video of her fake smile), she is defended; when Michelle was caught with a less-than-thrilled demeanor, she was demonized for it.
On the surface, this may not seem like a divisive or particularly significant issue, but for women of color — especially black women — this is huge. For years, black women have been held to a high standard of how they must present themselves in public. If a black woman is caught with a frown, or even a resting face, expresses unhappiness or challenges an opinion, she is immediately labeled as the “angry black woman.” That’s exactly what happened to Michelle over the past eight years of her husband’s presidency, and most likely years far before that.
Fox News has referred to her as “The Very Angry First Lady,” the New York Post called her “Mad as Hell Michelle” in a an article that has since been deleted, and the New York Times style section wrote the phrase “angry black woman” in a deleted tweet to describe the former first lady. These comments have been so frequent that Michelle had to address the issue on multiple occasions, including her last interview at the White House.
During that interview, Michelle told Oprah Winfrey, “You think, ‘That is so not me.’ But then you sort of think, ‘Well, this isn’t about me. This is about the person or the people who write it.’ That’s just the truth.”
And that’s the problem: that is how the media and the general public view black women. I do not believe that Melania should be chastised in the way that Michelle has or that a fake smile even warrants chastisement, but I think its peculiar that we have afforded her a sympathy that many have not afforded Michelle and that we have done it so immediately.
I recognize that the Tumblr comments take on a hatefulness towards Melania — a hatefulness I do not agree with — but they make a good point. This society is so ready to place white women in the position of the victim; feminism is willing to stand behind a white woman who is perceived to be oppressed, but is less united in rushing to the aid of a woman of color.
That has been a critique of the recent Women’s Marches and is the primary reason behind the historically complicated relationship between the black community and feminism. As a black woman, I consider myself to be a feminist, but I see the reason many women of color choose to don different titles (including Alice Walker, who referred to herself as a Womanist, in an effort to separate herself from the feminist movement that focused primarily on the rights of white women). And even as a black woman, I still did not question the support of Melania because I have been conditioned by mainstream feminism not to.
The fact of the matter is that Melania is a grown woman who is willingly supporting a racist, a sexist, a homophobe, a sexual abuser, a bully and a bigot, but she is still supported by a large swath of women, when Michelle was abandoned. Feminism is ready to take organized, massive action when white women’s rights are challenged but less inclined to do so when women of color have been (and continue to be) threatened or even killed.
This is a pattern that has been continuing since the dawn of feminism. Feminism has always been considered a movement for white women, starting with the woman’s suffrage movement. The suffragettes quickly distanced themselves from black women, and when they won the vote, measures were taken to prevent black women from exercising their right to vote. Rebecca Ann Latimer Felton, a famous suffragette and the first woman to serve in the senate said, “I do not want to see a Negro man walk to the polls and vote on who should handle my tax money, while I myself cannot vote at all.”
Even today, white women fight for their rights on the backs of black struggles, often unaware of or disregarding issues of race in feminism. The suffragettes were celebrated in the 2015 movie Suffragette, but even in present day America, where arguments for intersectionality are more readily accepted, advertisement for the movie was racially problematic. The actresses wore shirts with “I’d rather be a rebel than a slave” written in bold font.
Reminiscent of Yoko Ono and her famous quote “Woman is the nigger of the world,” the all-white cast failed to consider the implications of this slogan. The line can be seen as implying that black people had a choice in being slaves or didn’t do enough to change their social position.
These racial injustices within feminism may not be as overt as fighting only for the votes of white women or as insidious as a double standard for behavior, but they are all significant and must all be recognized.
This isn’t to say that Melania shouldn’t be supported because she’s white; this situation should, instead, force us to question our views of race and always check the implications of our opinions and actions. We, as feminists and human beings, must make sure that we aren’t applying double standards or exceptions to our activism. I invite you to ask yourselves, “Am I only an activist when I, or those like me, are challenged?”
Contact CU Independent Opinion Columnist Lauren Arnold at firstname.lastname@example.org.