Authority on Her Own Life

[Content Note: Misogynoir.]

Yesterday I mentioned that President and First Lady Obama had sat down with People magazine to talk about some of their experiences with racism. The one example I quoted was Michelle Obama's experience at Target:
"I tell this story—I mean, even as the first lady—during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn't see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn't anything new."
Now, this didn't happen here, but in a bunch of other spaces, I saw non-black people protesting that the woman in Target probably just asked for the First Lady's help because she's tall. "It wasn't necessarily racism," was a phrase I saw a lot.

These are not mutually exclusive possibilities, of course: It is possible that the woman who asked for the First Lady's help was asking her both because she is tall and because of racism, either because she assumed a black woman at Target was an employee or because she felt entitled to a black woman's assistance.

But that's really neither here nor there, because, for one thing, Michelle Obama's point is not just that this lady asked her for help; it was that no one else spoke to her except a woman asking for help. That context is not irrelevant.

Secondly, Michelle Obama was sharing her perception of the incident. Her perception of her lived experience seen through the prism of a lifetime of being a black woman moving through a racist and misogynist world. I trust her perception of that incident, because I believe her to be an authority on her own life.

I fully trust that Michelle Obama knows the difference between someone asking her to reach something because she is tall, and someone who is the only person who notices her at all asking her to reach something because she's a (tall) black woman in a store where employees are routinely expected to assist customers.

A lifetime of experiences teaches all of us in marginalized populations to discern between innocuous motivations and microaggressions.

And here's the thing: If someone with privilege behaves in a clueless way toward someone who does not share their privilege, in a way that is virtually indistinguishable from an expression of that privilege, that's on them. What's the meaningful difference to a person who perceives that they are being slighted—because that behavior looks exactly like a thousand other deliberate slights they've experienced—that someone is merely unaware of marginalizing behavior instead of actively practicing it? The result is the same either way.

Marginalized people aren't mind-readers who can magically discern someone's intent.

I'm a short white woman who often has to ask for help reaching things. It's my responsibility to understand that people of color are often mistaken as employees by white people, and to be aware of how my behavior might play into that existing dynamic. It's not incumbent on people of color to afford me the benefit of good intentions if I just randomly ask for them to help me reach shit, even if it is just because they're tall. (Tall people don't owe me their free labor, anyway.)

But, back to the main point: All of these apologetics, all the auditing of Michelle Obama's perception of her own lived experience, really distracts from the primary issue. She is telling a story about being the First Lady of the United States of America visiting a Target, and the only person who approached her was someone asking for help.

You really think that's about her being tall? It isn't.

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