Dear Michelle Obama:
This is just a note to say that I think you’re gorgeous. I’ll thank you not to share that with your husband, given that I have no desire to open my door and find a predator drone waiting for me. Or, worse, an IRS auditor.
And yes, as a 21st-century U.S. male, I am well aware of the minefield a guy enters when he assays public discussion of a woman’s looks. But I take the risk in order to express the head-snapping disconnect I feel whenever some white person attacks you on the basis of being insufficiently pretty for their tastes.
Obviously, it’s sexist, this implicit notion that you exist for their approval. But for me, it also calls their eyesight into question. I find myself wondering: Are they seeing the same woman I am? Are they seeing this statuesque lady with lively eyes and a smile full of fun?
They aren’t, of course. That’s the entire point. I see an attractive wife and mother, a lawyer, author, activist, educator and fashion trendsetter. But they see you —more accurately, fail to see you — while looking through a prism of their own fears and stereotypes, a broken-glass refraction of hateful images whose repulsiveness ultimately says more about them than it ever could about you.
This has happened repeatedly. In November, some bureaucrat in West Virginia called you “an ape in heels.” Last month, a GOP official in New York said you should “return to being a male” and live with an ape in a cave in Africa. The bureaucrat swore she was “not of any way” racist. The official, naturally, swore that race had nothing to do with his words. They did this with straight faces. One would guess they sleep the untroubled sleep of the righteous — and utterly clueless.
We’ve had over eight years of this. Now the Obama era is measured in days. And I, like many people, find myself reflecting on what your husband and you have meant to the nation you served. I’ll address myself to him in a few days. For now, for today, I just want to express how awed I am by the grace with which you have carried yourself through nearly a decade of racial denigration from ugly, stupid people.
They have denied your patriotism, your femininity and your humanity. They watch even now in acquiescent silence as the incoming president plays tonsil hockey with Vladimir Putin, but they acted like you were the reincarnation of Josef Stalin when you planted a garden and encouraged kids to exercise. It would be enough to make anyone bitter. But you never gave them the satisfaction of your attention, much less bitterness. Instead, you just did you. And “you” was enough. By the time your husband had been in office six months, many could no longer remember what the fuss was about.
But too many others still offer stark reminders that where race is concerned, America remains an unwell nation. And that it will probably get worse before it gets better.
Yes, I know what you’d say: “When they go low, we go high.” I don’t mind telling you that I am finding that easier said than done. But your example challenges me, and that’s not nothing.
So, farewell, Mrs. Obama. Please know that, as an American — and particularly as an African American — I am proud of how you’ve conducted yourself as first lady. At risk of political incorrectness and IRS audit, I reiterate what I said coming in.
You, madam, are gorgeous — in many more ways than one.
Reach Leonard Pitts Jr. at firstname.lastname@example.org.