I was ‘knocked back’ by people’s perceptions of me: When Michelle Obama came to grips with racism
The racism First Lady Michelle Obama has experienced over the years in the White House weighed on her at times, she told Tuskegee University’s graduating class in 2015.
“I didn’t start out as the fully formed First Lady who stands before you today,” she told the audience. “No, I’ve had my share of bumps along the way. “As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and mis-perceptions of others. Was I too loud or too angry or too emasculating? Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?”
Among the racially insensitive media moments the First Lady dealt with was that tasteless 2008 New Yorker cover depicting her as an Afro-wearing terrorist during then-Senator Barack Obama’s presidential run.
“Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit,” The First Lady said. “It made me wonder just how are people seeing me.”
The racism she and President Barack Obama have endured over the years kept her up many nights, she admitted, as did the worry about how it was affecting their daughters.
But, at some point, she understood that the worry wasn’t worth it.
“Eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me,” she said “I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself — and the rest would work itself out.”
She added: “Throughout this journey, I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about? And the answers to those questions have resulted in the woman who stands before you today.”
She told the graduates of the historically black school, in Tuskegee, Ala., that they will have to brush off the daily microaggressions that come with being black in America, just as she and President Barack Obama have.
“[M]y husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be,” she said. “We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives – the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the ‘help’ – and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.”
The First Lady ended her speech by encouraging the students to stay the course, despite the rocky roads they will have to travel as they live in their truths.
“And if you rise above the noise and the pressures that surround you, if you stay true to who you are and where you come from, if you have faith in God’s plan for you, then you will keep fulfilling your duty to people all across this country,” she said. “And as the years pass, you’ll feel the same freedom that Charles DeBow did when he was taking off in that airplane. You will feel the bumps smooth off. You’ll take part in that “never-failing miracle” of progress. And you’ll be flying through the air, out of this world — free.”
Here is the full transcript of her speech.