Michelle Deserves Pity, but the Rest of Us Deserve More
The equation "racial disparities = systemic racism" has achieved axiom status in the science of social justice. Recently, Michelle Obama upped the ante of racism's reach by lowering the bar for its detection even farther. Her recent podcast interview detailing the many racist blows and jabs she's absorbed and the pain inflicted thereby should evoke pity for her — and also for all who must contend with the societal fallout Michelle's particular brand of "suffering" portends.
Consider the white racist attacks Michelle recounts. "Daily slights. People talk over you." Buckle up. There's more. "People will come up and pet my dogs but will not look me in the eye." Then this: While waiting in line for ice cream with her daughters, Michelle O. tells us, "a white woman cut right in front of us." She reports that white students assigned to room with her in college changed their dorm assignments because they did not want to room with a black person.
With eloquence and feeling, Michelle describes the devastating impact of the "daily slights" received from white people — they "change the shape of your soul." In the parlance of social justice ideology and Critical Race Theory, the "soul change" Michelle undergoes is called "inheriting the wound" of America's systemic racism. Its effects are real in the sense that they may be sincerely felt.
Michelle's recounting of her experience of being a black woman in America is disturbing and even moving. "When I'm just a black woman, white people don't even see us. That is so telling of how white America views people who are not like them. We don't exist. And when we do exist, we exist as a threat. And that's exhausting." Departing the White House for the last time, she admits to Oprah, "when I got on the plane, I think I sobbed for like thirty minutes."
Both as FLOTUS and after settling into an 11-plus-million-dollar Martha's Vineyard mansion, Michelle found neither final escape nor permanent relief from racism and the pain it inflicts. How could she? She still resides in permanently and systemically racist America. But she did find strategies to help her cope. "It has been so important for me to have black women in my crew, throughout my life, because there is such a relief when you don't have to walk into your group and explain yourself."
Infantilization of a First Lady
Michelle is a product of the "infantilization" of black Americans John McWhorter so incisively warns of. The upshot of McWhorter's contention is that a victimhood culture flourishes among blacks that inhibits the maturity of blacks or people of any color who internalize a debilitating "blame others" and "depend upon others" ethos. "White people don't even see us!" What power over herself Michelle cedes to whites. And what bitterness and blame she harbors and feeds within her soul.
According to McWhorter and other un-woke blacks, this infantilization was nurtured by the post-MLK civil rights leadership in cahoots with a Democrat Party anxious to win black votes by posing as their protectors and providers and by a nation of whites desperate to dissociate from racism. Infantilization inhibits the cultivation of that one adult psychic instinct Shelby Steele insists is uniquely necessary to human flourishing in America — taking responsibility for oneself.
Fueled by Marxist Critical Race Theory, the rapid development of modern social justice ideology since 2012 has expanded the scope and deepened the debilitating consequences of post-MLK infantilization, giving rise to the concept of micro-aggressions and the need for white-free safe spaces.
Experience + Sincerity =/= Truth
The sincerity of Michelle's confessions of hurt over many years bears witness to the tragic, soul-shaping power of the infantilization lamented by McWhorter and Steele. Her pain also demonstrates that the reach of social justice infantilization respects no socio-economic boundaries, penetrating and punishing the heart and mind of one of the most beloved, wealthy, and powerful women on the planet.
The pity-evoking power of the former first lady's plight emerges not because the slights and discourtesies identified warrant the level of suffering and exhaustion experienced, but precisely because they do not. Michelle is a victim indeed — but not so much of the racism, real or imagined, she experiences. She suffers, rather, from the catastrophizing effect of the heightened race-consciousness produced by infantilization. The changed shape of Michelle's soul includes thin and ever thinning outrage-triggering tripwires.
Much of her suffering is unnecessary because its source resides far less in her experiences than in the meanings the social justice movement has trained her reflexively to draw from those experiences. The terror of the child fresh from taking in a horror movie who truly believes that a monster lurks under his bed is real even though the monster is not. Love pities and comforts the child. But it does not validate child's unwarranted fear; it debunks it.
Numerous alternative, non-race-related interpretations of Michelle's reported averted white eyes, the white queue-cutters, and even the white dorm room–changers are readily available, but not to the infantilized Michelle. For her non-racist readings are ruled out by social justice insistence that race poisons every interracial encounter in America. For adults, even where race plays a role in such encounters, the experience of micro-aggressions does not trigger outrage or much of anything, because they are adults, not children.
A National Pity Party
Pity for Michelle? Absolutely. But pity a-plenty also for any family, community, or nation increasingly populated by Michelle-like, race-obsessed, infantilized sufferers.
Widespread societal infantilization produces more like Michelle who seek shelter from the racist storm and succor for their racist-inflicted wounds in little enclaves inhabited by those similarly wounded who look and think like them.
Others, however, seek release in collective tantrums bent on rock-throwing and building-burning. They spit into the black and brown faces of police, screaming, "You're a racist"; kick in the skull of a white man attempting to rescue a man from the mob; and assassinate a black American life-long Democrat who decided he would vote Trump come November. Michelle has no corner on pity these days. Where infantilization takes hold, occasions for pity abound indeed. But unlike Michelle and her husband, no island mansion hideaway beckons to which the rest of us might repair.
Mark DeVine teaches at the Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, Alabama and is the author of Bonhoeffer Speaks Today and Shalom Yesterday, Today, and Forever.
Image: Gage Skidmore via Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0.