Conspiracy theorists have been arguing for years that President Obama was not born in the United States, and is therefore not really president. While that's the most famous Obama right-wing fever dream, it's not the only one. Last summer, after Joan Rivers joked that Michelle Obama was a trans woman, right-wing blogs picked it up and promulgated it as a serious theory. "Who is Michelle Obama? Is she really a woman? Is she a man?" Alex Jones of Info Wars demanded. "Now, I’m not drawing any conclusions here. But I know this—it’s fair to question anything and everything this administration says."
"Who is Michelle Obama? Is she really a woman? Is she a man?"
As numerous commenters have pointed out, birtherism is rooted in, and sustained by, racism; the false accusation that Obama was not born in the U.S. is "a clever, coded, politically-correct way to remind people Obama’s black and untrustworthy and not one of us," according to Touré.
Similarly, linking Michelle Obama to trans women ties into longstanding prejudices against both black women and trans women. Shaadi Deveraux, a black trans woman, explains:
I once tweeted that black womanhood is inherently viewed as drag performance. A loaded statement to be sure, but also one I’m very confident in making. When the image of the perfect woman is coded from childhood as Snow White, the fairest and most sunburned in all the land, the idea becomes that all the rest of us are just donning costumes to imitate true beauty. The assumption is always that Black women are all imitating “true women” with long silky hair, light eyes and a list of features not associated with Blackness.... it’s always assumed that we are tougher, angrier, more hardy, and therefore can take whatever is dished out, while finer women require more gentle care.
Just as trans women are stereotypically caricatured as faking femininity, black women are caricatured as innately non-feminine—as pretending, and failing, to be women.
These stereotypes of trans women and black women are especially obvious, and especially vicious in the conspiracy theories about Michelle Obama. But they exist in more subtle forms as well. A team of researchers at Columbia Business School led by Adam Galinsky found that black people were considered more masculine in comparison with whites; the report suggests that this stereotyping helps to explain why "among black-white marriages, 73 percent had a black husband and a white wife." Christelyn Karazin, co-author of Swirling: How to Date, Mate and Relate Mixing Race, Culture & Creed,links this perception of black women as masculine to the stereotype of the "strong black women," and the idea that black women are innately tough or self-reliant.
Nobody ever told a black women during slavery, during Jim Crow, and even today, "don't worry your pretty little head," I will take care of everything, I am your knight in shining armor. And you can just sit there daintily and look pretty. Black women never had that opportunity. We've always had to be strong out of necessity.... Black women ... want to be strong in the sense that we want to determine our futures and be in control of our futures, but we don't want to be strong in the sense that we have to do everything. We want to be caught, we want to be held ... just like any other woman.
The stereotype that black women are somehow invulnerable or super-strong belies a cultural reality in which black women are often especially vulnerable or targeted for violence and discrimination. Black women are incarcerated at almost three times the rate of white women—a disparity which is actually down from six times the rate of white women in 2000. Black women are three times as likely to die in domestic violence incidents as other racial groups. In the current economic recovery, the one group that has seen no improvement in job prospects is black women, whose unemployment rates remain greater than 10 percent. A 2012 study found that 60 percent of black girls experienced sexual abuse before the age of 18.
Yet, despite such clear evidence of victimization, black women have typically been blamed as the cause of social problems. Patricia Hill Collins, in Black Feminist Thought, singles out the famous 1967 Moynihan report on race as a source of the matriarchal stereotype. Collins says the Moynihan report presented the black family as distorted by black women who "fail to fulfill their traditional womanly duties" of child-rearing. Black matriarchs, Collins says, also "allegedly emasculate their lovers and husbands," who leave their families, perpetuating generational pathologies holding black children back. Black women's masculine strength and independence, then, supposedly leads to a broken family, and to the perpetuation of the racist system in which black women are victimized. Seeing Michelle Obama as a trans woman leverages negative stereotypes against trans women in service of a long history of painting black woman as masculine and deformed.
This particular history of stigma helps explains why many black women, like many trans women, have sometimes felt alienated from, or unwelcome within, mainstream white feminism, as Janell Hobson, an associate professor of Women’s, Gender & Sexuality Studies at the University at Albany, State University of New York, told me. Second-wave feminism of the 1960s and '70s, Hobson says, often saw "femininity as a trap, as something that has kept women back." This could be liberating for many women like Betty Friedan, who felt forced into domesticity, or Gloria Steinem, who (in her famous article about Playboy bunnies) talked about sexualization and objectification. However, as Tina Vasquez writes in a recent piece for Bitch magazine, the distrust of femininity was often a disaster for trans women, who some feminists accused of adopting feminine roles, and of hurting and betraying the feminist movement.
Black women have a similarly painful history with feminism and femininity, Hobson explains:
While white women were feeling oppressed by femininity, our femininity wasn't even being recognized. So our relationship to femininity has been contentious ... when we critique motherhood, when we critique sexuality, it is in the context of our femininity always being denied to us.
"Our very womanhood was assaulted,” Hobson adds, “and it subjected us to the worst kinds of rape in slavery, sexual violence, sterilization ... the right to motherhood being taken away from us." Black women's perceived lack of femininity, or their supposed masculinity, then, became a pretext for violence; the perception that they are tough and do not feel pain becomes an excuse to ignore their suffering. It becomes somehow acceptable to attack them, just as Adam Jones has argued that perceptions of male strength are used to justify violence against men, or even boys, in wartime.
Gloria Hull, Patricia Bell Scott, and Barbara Smith famously titled their 1982 book on black women's liberation struggle All the Women Are White, All the Blacks Are Men But Some of Us Are Brave. The phrase most directly points to the way that feminism has tended to focus on white women, while the black civil rights movement has focused on black men. But it also suggests that black women simply cannot be seen as women—that they are locked out of a femininity that is always iconically white. Much like trans women, black women are caught in a double bind, where they are targeted because they are women, and at the same time, targeted because they are (according to stereotypical prejudice) not women. Sojourner Truth asked "Ain't I a woman?" more than 150 years ago, but American culture, whether right-wing or left, anti-feminist or feminist, still struggles to answer "yes.”