I am about six feet tall, and it frequently happens when I am in stores that shorter people will ask me to get something from the top shelf for them. In fact, I’ve taken to kidding them that short people always ask me to get things from the top shelf for them and never offer to get things off the bottom shelf for me. It is a long way down, after all, and I’m not so limber as I once was.
Michelle Obama–our First Lady–is about an inch shorter than that at five feet eleven inches. That is very tall for an American woman. She reports that on her recent covert shopping trip to Target someone approached her and asked her to get something off the top shelf. From the description, it sounds like it was a little old lady; but there’s more. Mrs. Obama notes that it was a white lady.
I have had at least scores of people, most of them female, probably the majority of them passed middle aged, request such assistance. I’m sure some have been white. Some have been black, some Oriental or Hispanic–I don’t usually pay attention to what race they are. Yet Mrs. Obama is quite persuaded that the fact that this little white lady asked her to reach the top shelf demonstrates that Americans are racist–as if the request from the short white woman was based entirely on the fact that she is black and not at all on the fact that she is tall.
I assure you that it has never once occurred to me that anyone asked me to get something off a high shelf for her because I was white, or because she was black. In that situation, it is obvious to a child that what matters is how tall you are, not your color nor your ethnic background. I do not generally think in terms of what color people are. That’s what it means to be “not racist”–to ignore what race people are in your dealings with them. Yet Michelle Obama is so overly sensitive about her own race that she perceives it as racist that someone would ask her, an unusually tall woman, to reach something that is out of reach of the petitioner. It never occurs to her that such a request might be based on her height, without any recognition of her race–and nothing in the telling of the story suggests that the woman even noticed that this was a tall black woman, or that it mattered to her.
Note, then, that it is actually Michelle Obama who is racist in this story. The First Lady apparently has such a negative attitude toward white people that she perceives their actions to be racially motivated even when there is an obvious alternative explanation that makes more sense. One is reminded of Samuel L. Jackson’s Zeus Carver character in Die Hard with a Vengeance: as Bruce Willis’ John McClane asks if Carver can start a car they’re commandeering to continue their chase, Carver gets offended (as only Jackson can), saying, “What, you think just because I’m black I know how to hotwire a car?” McClane answers, “You’re a locksmith, aren’t you?” It is in that case the black man who is racist, because he assumes that the white man is stereotyping him. It is the same with our First Lady: her story says that she so disrespects white people that she thinks we are all acting from racist motives in all our interactions with black people, even when the evidence is otherwise. What is even more embarrassing is that she apparently does not realize how foolish her claim sounds. On paper, she is smarter than that; she just has a blind spot, a racial prejudice, that causes her to see perfectly innocent actions of other people as discriminating against her.
There are many people in this country who have that mindset, the belief that other people are against them because of race, or color, or religion, or ethnicity, or some other identification. The bad news is, all those people are racist to the degree that they believe other races are against theirs. The good news is, they are mostly wrong–most of us do not care what color or race you are, and if we ask you to get something off the top shelf for us, it is because we think there is some reason why you are better able to do so–such as that you are taller.