Michelle Obama Shares Her Powerful Stories About Racism

May 11th 2015

Laura Donovan

First Lady Michelle Obama shared some powerful anecdotes this weekend about her experiences with racism and public criticism.

The first lady was speaking at Tuskegee University's graduation ceremony, and after sharing a little about the Alabama institution's history, she talked about her evolution from 2008 to today to show the class of 2015 that she knows a lot about trying to meet the expectations of others.

"I didn’t start out as the fully-formed first lady who stands before you today," Michelle Obama said. "No, no, I had my share of bumps along the way ... [A]s 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 misperceptions 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?"

Obama went on to reference a 2008 New Yorker drawing in which she and then-presidential candidate Barack Obama were depicted as terrorists. Though it was supposed to be a joke, Michelle Obama said that it set her back a bit.

"[I]t was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun," Michelle Obama said. "Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I’m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me ... [O]ver the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited 'a little bit of uppity-ism.' Another noted that I was one of my husband’s 'cronies of color.'"

Adding that her husband is continuously subjected to vitriol, racism, and doubts about his citizenship, Michelle Obama explained that she and her husband have experienced subtle, damaging racism since childhood.

"We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives," she continued. "And I know that ... little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day -- those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen -- for some folks, it will never be enough."

Michelle Obama said that these fears are evident in recent demonstrations in Baltimore and Ferguson following the deaths of Freddie Gray and Michael Brown.

"[These feelings are] rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible," she continued. "And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country."

Read the entire transcript of the speech here.