Last Friday, the first lady was photographed donning a white pith helmet during her visit to the Nairobi National Park. As per usual, a slew of restless anti-Trump critics were quick to jump out of the woodwork and condemn this otherwise insignificant choice of headgear.
The Washington Post stated that Melania was “widely criticized” for her hat choice, apparently invoking “Victorian-era racism and oppression.” The NPR reported that critics claimed her apparel conjured “harmful colonialist attitudes about the continent.”
CNN detailed that FLOTUS’ outfit “might have tipped the scales, moving from a practical accessory dangerously close to costume territory evocative of colonialists.” The New York Times noted that many labeled Melania’s wardrobe choice as a “big error on the global stage” by having worn something “so closely associated with the exploitation of Africans.”
Rhonda Garelick from The Cut lended a somewhat abstract analysis, suggesting that for her safari drive through Nairobi National Park, Melania went “full-out Heart of Darkness” with a pith helmet of “blinding white — the single most stereotypical symbol of white imperialism, an obsolete icon of nostalgia for Empire.”
Typically, one must remain very skeptical when confronted with this type of dramatic hyperbole, stemming from supposed “critics,” and being regurgitated throughout most major news outlets. Since the 2016 election, our media has been working overtime to cast every possible mishap by White House occupants as proof of white supremacist advocacy or some decadent agenda. Unlike the former first lady, Melania Trump maintains a rather unobtrusive and poised public presence, thus leaving scandal-hungry journalists desperate to dig up some hidden message or undertone that can be scrutinized.
In this particular case, journalists, many of whom are self-proclaimed feminists, effectively reduced the first lady’s philanthropic efforts and instead directed their attention onto her physical appearance. I was curious to find out who these concerned fashion faux pas “critics” were and whether the whole fiasco was possibly, if not certainly, overblown.
Not to my surprise, NPR noted that one of the loudest critics was CNN White House reporter Kate Bennett. Apparently Bennett was “puzzled” by the first lady’s attire, saying that Melania is usually “very careful about what she wears and what messages she does send, from her clothes to her facial expressions.”
Another “critic” was Jason Burke writing for The Guardian, noting that pith helmets, similar to the one Melania wore, were common to imperial administrators across Africa, Asia, and the Middle East.
Lastly, NPR identified Laura Seay, an assistant professor at a private liberal-arts college who studies African politics, conflict, and development. Seay created the #FLOTUSInAfricaBingo hashtag on Twitter to document and trace ways she thought the first lady was “fulfilling stereotypes” during her trip.
Some of the alleged stereotypes included wearing safari-inspired colors, such as beige and brown. I’m sure Seay would have been relieved if Melania stuck to her more conventional dress code, including designer frocks and steep footwear.
Never mind that this was Melania’s inaugural solo trip outside the United States since becoming first lady. Never mind that the purpose of this tour was to visit and promote well-known establishments and organizations dedicated to supporting children and mothers, two of the poorest and most oppressed demographic groups in Africa.
Never mind that the first lady seemed to have a joyous time meeting hundreds of cheerful children, none of whom were given the light of day by our bitter media. To partisan journalists and college professors, these details don’t matter.
Interestingly enough, the appropriateness of Mrs. Trump’s ensemble did not catch the attention nor did it matter to the very people she ostensibly offended. As the New York Times itself noted, several large Kenyan news sites focused “not on the safari fashion but on Mrs. Trump’s other attention-grabbing activity of the day: feeding baby elephants, and a fall broken by a Secret Service agent.”
Overall, it’s truly a troublesome period for women’s empowerment the U.S. when all journalists and a handful of college professors can do is fixate on the first lady’s outfit. Perhaps even more problematic is the media’s fascination and desperate desire to re-victimize African people by hammering the idea that a mere accessory is offensive and deserving of such spotlight.