From the moment she entered the spotlight during her husband’s presidential campaign, former first lady Michelle Obama said, she knew she would not be given the benefit of the doubt like other first ladies were.
“For a minute there, I was an angry Black woman who was emasculating her husband,” she said on Saturday during an interview with CBS anchor Gayle King at Essence Fest. “As I got more popular, that’s when people of all sides — Democrats and Republicans — tried to take me out by the knees and the best way to do it was to focus on the one thing people were afraid of — the strength of a Black woman.”
In the hourlong interview at the Essence Communications-hosted event, Obama opened up about marriage, family, wellness, and emotions surrounding the Trump presidency. Through her personal anecdotes, she revealed the challenges she faced as the first Black first lady.
“I would have to earn my grace and I knew I would have to quickly define myself and I want all young girls out there to know, we all struggle with that — people of color, working-class folks, women of color — people try to define us in a negative way before we get a chance to get out there and tell our own stories,” Obama said.
During her time as first lady, Obama endured sexist and racist public remarks. In 2016, Pamela Ramsay Taylor, the director of a Charleston nonprofit Clay County Development Corporation, called her an “ape in heels” in a Facebook post that was later removed.
In 2008 she was accused of being unpatriotic after saying she had struggled to be a proud American as a black woman aware of the country’s racism. In 2014, Fox News’ “Medical A-Team” member Keith Ablow accused Obama’s healthy eating platform of being hypocritical because the first lady needed to “drop a few.” An article from The Washington Post outlines 22 instances in which Obama faced sexist, racist and simply absurd criticism while in the White House.
Despite the racial prejudice and continued criticism she and her husband face, Obama said she still stands by her famous, “When they go low, we go high” tenet, though she honors the importance of acknowledging the pain.
“If we’re thinking about what the agenda is, which is getting to a place where we all live in a country where we’re proud to pass on to our kids, going high is the only way we get there,” she said. “It’s our patience, our tolerance, it’s our belief in honesty and truth, it’s our belief in hard work.”
Obama also shared what she learned while on a worldwide book tour for her memoir “Becoming.”
“What I learned is that people are very hungry for stories, and stories about people who look and feel like them,” she explained. “I’ve toured this book all over the world … people have found and recognized themselves in the story of a little Black girl that grew up on the south side of Chicago. So what this reminds me is that our stories as Black people, and as Black women have power.”