Michelle Obama spoke at Tuskegee University's commencement Saturday, and her remarks are going viral because of their blunt assessment of the racism she said the graduates of the historically black college had faced and would continue to face on a daily basis — and her admission that bigotry and bias have continued to haunt her, even in the White House.
She recalled the infamous 2008 New Yorker cover that portrayed her with a "huge Afro and a machine gun," admitting, "It knocked me back a bit," and made her wonder, "Is that how people see me?"
"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," she said. "And those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country, and I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day. Those nagging worries about whether 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."
A predictable theme: "not an excuse"
The first lady closed by returning to what's become a predictable "tough love" theme when both she and the president talk to African-American audiences (see, for example, their respective 2013 commencement speeches to Bowie State and Morehouse College). She told the Tuskegee grads that the racism-related barriers the students would face were "not an excuse," saying:
But, graduates, today, I want to be very clear that those feelings are not an excuse to just throw up our hands and give up. Not an excuse. They are not an excuse to lose hope. To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.
Obama's speech Saturday was well-received. But being lectured about personal responsibility, a value that's clearly not lacking among people who are graduating from college (and who, the evidence would suggest, have not thrown their hands up and given up, and do not plan to), is just another addition to the list of small "daily slights" that come with being black.
It would be refreshing if the type of rare — and important — blunt honesty about prejudice that we heard in Obama's speech didn't always have to come with a side of race-specific condescension. Maybe next graduation season.