Sometimes I Wish the Obamas Wouldn’t ‘Go High’

They were gracious to the Trumps. They had to be.

Donald and Melania Trump are seated next to Barack and Michelle Obama at George H. W. Bush's funeral.
Kevin Lamarque / Reuters

The movie Mudbound helped me train for a half marathon last year. I watched it on a treadmill and it made me so angry that I didn’t even think about the tightness in my shins and hamstrings; it distracted me from the grueling workout.

Mudbound is a tender and compelling story of black pain that’s set in the Mississippi Delta during World War II. The overarching theme—which is what enraged me—was sadly familiar: White people belittling, dehumanizing, and violently attacking black folks with impunity. Meanwhile, the black people have no choice but to act benevolently toward whites for fear of more punishment. It states in the white-supremacy handbook that those brutalized by racism must be virtuous in the face of indignity—because it would be inhumane to be impolite to racists.

I felt Mudbound-level anger—and for the same reason—when I watched the awkward exchange between the Trumps and the Obamas at the state funeral for former President George H. W. Bush. The couples were seated next to each other. Former President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle, both politely nodded at the first couple and graciously shook their hands. In that moment, I wished it wasn’t Michelle Obama who had coined the phrase When they go low, we go high.

I sometimes wonder if the people who often cite that quote have a full understanding of the emotional toll it takes on people of color to have to constantly absolve the racism directed at them.

The Obamas didn’t go low when they interacted with the Trumps, because that’s just not how they operate. And it’s not like I expected anything different at a state funeral. Former President Obama has always, always exhibited a maddening allegiance to institutional respect, even if it wasn’t returned. (All too often, it wasn’t.)

Still, it was infuriating to see the Obamas graciously engage with the man who spent years vociferously promoting the racist conspiracy theory that the former president is a Muslim who wasn’t born in the United States. Also recall that Donald Trump repeatedly challenged Obama to produce his college-admissions records—because it wasn’t enough for Trump to try to invalidate Obama’s presidency, he had to question Obama’s intellect.

Trump was rewarded with the presidency for his ugliness. And, as president, Trump is often given special credit for behaving like an adult, as he was at the state funeral. The Obamas were also praised for their magnanimity—but the difference is that the Obamas were the aggrieved party, not Trump.

In her recently released book, Becoming, Michelle Obama writes that she will “never forgive” Trump for spreading the “birther” conspiracy. But the Obamas didn’t have the luxury of treating Trump the way, for instance, Hillary Clinton did at the service. She looked like she would have rather sawed off her arm than acknowledge the Trumps. She gave the president and first lady a slight nod as they took their seats. Considering that Trump is still calling for Clinton to be investigated and jailed, the cold reception was predictable and warranted.

But had the Obamas behaved like Clinton, they would have been accused of grandstanding and dividing the country even more than it already is. Or pundits would have said they lacked the grace and decency befitting a couple who once occupied the White House. A video clip of two black people showcasing visible anger toward the president would have been played over and over again on cable news.

Most black people have been told practically since the womb that they must be twice as good to get half as much as anybody white. They have also been conditioned to believe that maintaining the moral high ground and being a bigger person is the only way to defeat racism. That often means suppressing natural human emotions that could communicate racism’s devastating impact.

In October, a video went viral of a white woman, Teresa Klein, falsely accusing the 9-year-old Jeremiah Harvey of groping her in a Brooklyn deli. Klein went so far as to call the police—but surveillance footage proved that Harvey had done nothing wrong; he’d just brushed his backpack against Klein as he passed her in the store. The video was just the latest example of how black folks are punished and traumatized for simply existing in the same space as a white person.

Klein apologized after watching the surveillance footage, but Harvey later told WABC in New York, “I don’t forgive this woman, and she needs help.” Predictably, some wondered if Harvey’s response was appropriate; but why was it incumbent on a young boy who’d been wronged to “go high”? It’s sickening to think what might have happened to Harvey if the entire incident wasn’t caught on camera.

That’s one of the many burdens of racism for people of color: It is ridiculously one-sided. Only one side is expected to show compassion. Only one side must practice restraint. Only one side is pressured into forgiveness. It’s bad enough having to stomach being wronged. It’s downright shameful being stuck with the responsibility of also making it right.