For my 18th birthday, one of my best friends bought tickets for us to see Jay-Z. I was so excited to be going to my first concert as an adult. I wore a halter top and jeans so tight you could read the date on a quarter in my pocket through the denim. We showed out. We rapped every lyric. We screamed. We danced. We did exactly what 18-year-olds do at concerts.
After the show ended, we were walking out and one of my mother’s good friends who’d brought her two sons to the concert tapped me. “Hey, Ms. Nita,” I said giving her a hug and a little surprised to see her. “I’m gonna tell your mother how you were cutting up,” she said smirking. “It’s a concert. It’s my birthday. She didn’t pay for the ticket. And I’m 18,” I replied. She looked shocked, then high-fived me saying, “I know that’s right.”
A couple of days ago when stories popped up online about Malia Obama “twerking” (To be clear, she was NOT twerking.) at the Lollapalooza music festival, I thought back to my mother’s friend policing my behavior. I was annoyed that she felt she had the right to report back to my mother about me. I can’t imagine how Malia Obama, already under unimaginable scrutiny, feels having the entire world tweeting pictures and video of her having fun with friends.
Certainly, being the child of the President of the United States comes with that kind of surveillance, but Malia didn’t make the choice to run for office. Her father did. Malia has sacrificed a normal childhood so that her father could serve the country. Whatever semblance of normalcy her parents have succeeded in maintaining in her life for the past decade, her childhood was played out before the world. And while the Obama daughters are not the first minors to live in the White House and consequently have their every move critiqued by the public, the vitriol and unmitigated venom hurled at these children for being children is no doubt fueled by racist contempt.
The usual “off limits” policy reserved for the minor children of celebrities and politicians doesn’t seem to apply with Sasha and Malia. Time and again media and conservative figures have taken low blows at the girls. Despite President Obama showing the class and humanity to declare that, “People’s families are off-limits,” in response to the news 2008 Vice-Presidential candidate Sarah Palin’s 17-year-old daughter was pregnant, many conservatives haven’t afforded his children the same courtesy.
In 2014, Elizabeth Lauten, the communications director for a Republican Congressman, recklessly posted to Facebook that Malia and Sasha should “rise to the occasion,” continuing to criticize the girls’ outfits at the annual turkey pardoning event saying, “Dress like you deserve respect, not a spot at the bar.” Even after her mother characterized the media’s constant invasion into daughter’s private life as “unprecedented” declaring “any mother would want to protect their children,“ Bristol Palin, having passing knowledge of what it’s like to be thrust into the spotlight due to your parent running for office), used Sasha and Malia to take a shot at the President over his stance on gay marriage. Still, perhaps the most vicious attacks came when Fox News had to shut down the comments section under an article about Malia Obama choosing to go to Harvard, as racists flocked to the post hurling vile racist slurs at the then 17-year-old.
In truth, there’s nothing Malia Obama could or couldn’t do that would win universal approval. Her achievements are written off as completely attributable to her father’s influence. Her normal teenage acts (i.e. taking selfies, attending a party during a college tour, etc) become political statements or indisputable proof of her moral corruption. The stigma of being a Black child, a girl at that, charged from birth with disproving all the stereotypes against her, has been amplified for billions of eyes. Without her consent, she has been placed under a microscope, her life turned into a reality show.
In a time where Black girls are raked over the coals for simply existing, I will applaud Malia Obama. I won’t applaud her for graduating with honors. I won’t laud her for being accepted into Harvard. My “pedastaling” of her isn’t because she’s the President’s daughter. I am cheering Malia Obama for daring to be the free Black girl she’s entitled to be. I praise her for ignoring the eyeballs fixated on her and enjoying her life. I smile to watch her shed the inhibitions America’s demands she wears like a cloak.
And I scoff at the notion that an 18-year-old who has spent more than half her life forced to attend political events, dinners and every other ceremonial occasion should attend another convention, one where father is not nominated, to appease America. No, the Democratic National Convention was not more interesting than attending a music festival with friends in her hometown for an 18-year-old taking a break from all the responsibilities heaped on her. Yes, a teen who’s done everything asked, expected and demanded of her, who’s gotten the perfect grades, who’s minded her manners, who’s stood graciously listening to speeches no matter how boring, who’s endured years of abuse because her father dared believe he could lead this country, deserves joy. She deserves freedom. She deserves to body roll. She deserves to be herself.
Malia Obama owes not a soul her continued adherence to the impossible standards set for her. Nor she should chase the moving target of her ideal performance of as the first Black daughter. Malia is being Malia just perfectly.