Criticism of Sasha and Malia Obama Shows How America Views Black Youth

Screen shot 2014-12-02 at 10.54.39 AMYesterday, GOP staffer Elizabeth Lauten resigned amid a firestorm of criticism over her disparaging comments about Sasha and Malia Obama. Referring to the short skirts the First Daughters wore to the annual Thanksgiving turkey pardoning ceremony and their perhaps less-than-thrilled expressions on her Facebook page, Lauten asked the 13 and 16 year olds to “try showing a little class,” and “dress like you deserve respect, not a spot in a bar.” Lauten’s condemnation of Sasha and Malia’s comportment resulted in a litany of articles calling her remarks “classless,” “offensive,” and “partisan.” But reactions on Twitter bluntly deemed her post “racist and sexist,” countering that by virtually all standards of “proper” parenting, the Obama household epitomizes excellence.

The Twitter blowback gets to the heart of why we should care about what a low-level Republican communications director has to say about the First Daughters: If they can be denounced for being normal teenagers, what hope do regular Black youth have?

The public skewering of Lauten increased when reports surfaced that as a teenager she had been arrested for shoplifting, begging the question, how could she fail to see how her own teenage behavior, placed under unfairly harsh light, might also position her as “classless”?

Commentators have rightfully cited unwritten political rules that children of presidents should be spared from public criticism. Yet, this is not the first time that Sasha and Malia have been the subjects of conservative backlash framed around their behavior and personal styles—recall when, in 2009, the conservative blog Free Republic criticized then 11-year-old Malia’s hair twists as inappropriate for an official visit to Rome. Black Americans have been on pins and needles as we’ve watched the Obama girls become teenagers—especially when their mugging for the camera and goofy hand signals at the president’s second inauguration were mischaracterized as “gang signs.” We understand the biased scrutiny and policing that all Black youth face, and the particular ways in which Black girls’ burgeoning sexuality is routinely dissected in the name of respectability politics. Holding our collective breath, we’ve been thankful that Sasha and Malia have only rarely been visible in the national media, because we know that as Black First Daughters, the types of criticism aimed at them reside at the treacherous intersection of partisan vitriol of the sort Rush Limbaugh so brutally aimed at young Chelsea Clinton, and racist hatred of the kind Black women and girls have suffered throughout this country’s history.

That Lauten’s original post included a link to a conservative article that remarked, “I don’t think you would have ever seen the Bush daughters in dresses that short. Class is completely absent from this White House,” positions the Obamas as a particularly unsuitable First Family.  Lauten’s post used the word “respect” three times, including, “Then again, your mother and father don’t respect their positions very much, or the nation for that matter…So I’m guessing you’re coming up short in the ‘good role model’ department.” At the current historical moment, when Black parents across the country are still reeling in outrage at the failure to indict Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson for killing the unarmed Michael Brown, the surveillance and policing of Black teens is an especially raw wound.

Consider Officer Wilson’s characterization of Brown as a “demon”—likening him to “Hulk Hogan.” Wilson was able to convince the Grand Jury that Brown’s Black body justified criminalizing, demonizing, and fatally shooting him. While Wilson’s description of Brown falls squarely within how Black male youth been stereotyped as “aggressive” and “violent,” for Black girls this form of typecasting has painted their femininity as lacking in respectability.

Stacey Patton’s recent Washington Post article, “In America, Black Children don’t get to be Children,” points to the long national history of denying Black children’s innocence, a denial that often contrasted them with White respectability. In Lauten’s case we have a White woman zeroing in on Sasha and Malia’s dress as undeserving of respect, even though, as commentators have noted, their dress and conduct at the ceremony were right in line with that of “normal” teenage girls.  All too often, Black youth style is singled out as criminal (as was the case with Trayvon Martin’s hoodie) or as disrespectful (as is the case with the Obama girls)—yet short skirts and hoodies are practically teenage uniforms in contemporary America.

Lauten’s critique channels slavery-era class, race and gender politics in which White women’s gentility was positioned in stark contrast to the wanton sexuality and classlessness of the Black family. That she should aim this critique at the First Family is just one of many reminders of the ways in which Black children’s identities are marginalized, sexualized and deemed unworthy. If Sasha and Malia Obama, the daughters of two Ivy League-educated parents who happen to also be the president and First Lady of the United States, can be blasted for being normal teenagers, what hope do Black teens who engage in infractions such as shoplifting have?

Unfortunately, as Michael Brown and the numerous other Black boys and girls whose lives have been cut short by violent policing have shown, there is not much respect for young Black lives.

About

Oneka LaBennett is associate professor of Africana Studies at Cornell University. She’s the author of She’s Mad Real: Popular Culture and West Indian Girls in Brooklyn and editor of Racial Formation in the Twenty-First Century. Twitter: @OnekaLaBennett