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The Absurd Caricature of Michelle Obama

By Ruben Navarrette

SAN DIEGO -- Introducing Michelle Obama, Angry Black Woman. What an absurd caricature this is turning out to be.

Not to mention a confusing one. Growing up on Chicago's South Side, Michelle was probably accused of "acting white" because she excelled academically and went off to the Ivy League. Now -- abracadabra -- she's a Black Panther.

There was even a malicious rumor that Michelle had given a speech in her church in which she had used the word "whitey." Never happened. Shame on those who spread the lie, and shame on those who rushed to swallow it.

Still, perceptions matter. And so Michelle is trying to soften her image with a makeover. She popped up last week on ABC's "The View," and soon she'll be on magazine covers talking about marriage, motherhood and apple pie. Make that shortbread with splashes of orange and lemon. That's the cookie recipe that Mrs. Obama dutifully submitted to Family Circle's Web site for its presidential bake-off.

But what if it turns out, after Michelle's makeover, that she wasn't the one with the problem? What if the folks who need the softening are the ones who are giving her such a hard time?

It looks as if the concerns that some people have about Mrs. Obama tell us less about her and more about them. Once again, we seem to have an abundance of paranoid white folks who see a black separatist lurking around every corner.

Even in elite corners. How did a corporate lawyer with degrees from Princeton and Harvard and a record of bringing together whites and blacks in her position as a hospital administrator get transformed, in the minds of some, into a black militant with a chip on her shoulder and a score to settle with white America?

It is the same criticism that people hung around the neck of the Rev. Jeremiah Wright, the former pastor at Barack Obama's former church. But at least with Wright, you could say that he asked for trouble by delivering a series of inflammatory, anti-American sermons that got splattered all over YouTube.

What did the 44-year-old mother of two girls do to deserve the accusation, or at least the insinuation, that she's anti-white? In the words of one of her friends and classmates at Harvard Law School, what she did was shatter the assumptions of many people about "what it means to be an African-American woman." Here you have an accomplished, intelligent and outspoken black woman, and many Americans are at a loss about how to handle that combination. They'd rather try to destroy her than have to deal with her.

It's not that I believe that would-be first ladies are off-limits. Both Michelle Obama and Cindy McCain are fair game. That said, any criticism should be fair. "Whiteygate" wasn't fair because it wasn't true.

Yet, it was ironic. The rumor came from a liberal blogger, and a supporter of Hillary Clinton at that, who was eager to make a stink. And yet the folks who were most eager to buy it were conservative columnists, bloggers and radio talk show hosts.

Obama critics will insist that Michelle brought on the "whitey" rumor with her February remarks in Milwaukee, Wis., where she told supporters: "For the first time in my adult life, I am really proud of my country -- not just because Barack has done well, but because I think people are hungry for change."

Those poorly worded comments might raise legitimate questions about Michelle's patriotism, even though First Lady Laura Bush doesn't think they should. She came to Michelle's defense and suggested the remarks were being misconstrued.

Including, it seems, by Mrs. McCain. In a recent interview with ABC's "Good Morning America," the wife of the presumptive Republican nominee responded to a question about Michelle Obama's remarks by insisting that -- as she has on previous occasions -- "I have always been proud of my country."

But whatever you think of Mrs. Obama's comments, they don't involve race. How do you get from remarks about finally being proud of one's country to the assumption that one has something against white people and uses a word like "whitey"?

You can't. Not unless you take a detour through prejudice and fear. Granted, that has become a familiar route in American politics. But it's also a dead end we'd be wise to avoid.

Copyright 2008, Washington Post Writers Group

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