First Lady Michelle Obama addressed graduates of Tuskegee University in Alabama on Saturday, and while her message was positive, it carried the weight of many negative personal experiences.
Obama talked about her experience as the then-potential first lady and how so many of her actions were closely scrutinized due to what she said were the “fears and misperceptions” about her race.
“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 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?”
She continued with memories of how everyone from store employees to strangers on the street reacted to her mere presence, and how difficult and frustrating it was to endure.
“My husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. 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.”
But the purpose of Michelle’s speech was to explain that all of these experiences didn’t get her down, dissuade her, or change who she was. The inspirational part of her speech hit as she asked the graduates to follow their hearts and make sure that they were making their choices in life for them, not anyone else.
As the first black first lady, Michelle Obama has been influential regarding race issues in America, often whether she has wanted to or not. Though she explained that the racial comments about her and her family were almost overwhelming — especially after her husband was elected president — she has taken it in stride. Many of her discussions on race come in the form of highlights of her own experiences but are combined with positive messages and hope rather than negativity.
This in itself is challenging enough; it’s hard for Michelle to say anything about race without critics asking if she is saying racist things herself or suggesting that she might be fanning the flames of inequality she claims to want to extinguish.
When delivering an inspirational speech at the 2015 Black Girls Rock, she exclaimed, “To all the young women here tonight, and all across the country, let me say those words again: Black girls rock!”
Stories about the event were immediately inundated with posts saying that similar comments about white people would never be accepted and that the only reason people still see race is because people like Michelle keep pointing it out.
But Michelle Obama has kept herself above the often uncivil debates, which fits the message of her speech.
“I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name-calling, the doubting — all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back,” she said.
[Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Images]