Decades before becoming the first black woman to serve as first lady, Michelle Obama was already navigating a complex web of expectations about race and gender. In her new memoir Becoming, she opens up about these expectations and how they affected her.
An early moment came during Obama’s childhood in Chicago, when she was sitting with other young girls. “At one point one of the girls, a second, third, or fourth cousin of mine, gave me a sideways look and said, just a touch hotly, ‘How come you talk like a white girl?,’” she writes.
“The question was pointed, meant as an insult or challenge, but it also came from an earnest place,” Obama writes. “It held a kernel that was confusing for both of us. We seemed to be related but of two different worlds.”
Obama never refers to it in this way, but what she is discussing here is “code-switching,” a term informally used to describe the ways people of color and those from other marginalized groups often adjust their language, behavior, and even appearance in order to navigate certain social situations or audiences. For people of color, code-switching often means speaking and acting one way among friends and family and a different way around authority figures or colleagues.
While Obama discusses code-switching in the context of her interactions with girls in her neighborhood, the concept is more often raised in instances where a person of color must adapt their behavior to fit the expectations of white audiences, be it a black man adjusting his tone to be more deferential when interacting with police or a woman changing her natural hair before starting a job in an office. For Barack Obama, code-switching played a role in his election, as he used it to gain support among white and black audiences.
Michelle Obama’s childhood story shows how she was first made aware of the expectations put upon people of color to behave certain ways in certain situations. And as her husband ran for president decades later, this knowledge would carry over into how she viewed his campaign.
Obama says her first experiences with code-switching prepared her for her husband’s presidential run
As a child, Obama says, the issue was that she did not make this switch, leading her cousin to accuse her of “talking white.” While Obama doesn’t go so far as to criticize her cousin for thinking this, Barack Obama has spoken of this as well, arguing during his 2004 Senate campaign, “Children can’t achieve unless we raise their expectations and turn off the television sets and eradicate the slander that says a black youth with a book is acting white.”
That argument, as Jenée Desmond-Harris wrote for Vox in 2017, “validates a particular social conservative worldview by placing the blame for disparate academic outcomes squarely on the backward ideas of black children and black cultural pathology.” As president, Obama would later tone down his own statements on the topic, saying in 2014 that narratives about the consequences of acting white were “sometimes overstated.”
Michelle Obama however, offers a different take on the topic, saying that the questioning of her identity as a child prepared her for what she would face when her husband began his 2008 presidential campaign:
I’d see this confusion play out on the national stage among whites and blacks alike, the need to situate someone his or her ethnicity and the frustration that comes when it can’t easily be done. America would bring to Barack Obama the same questions my cousin was unconsciously putting to me that day on the stoop: Are you what you appear to be? Do I trust you or not?
Obama says that day in Chicago offered an important lesson. “I look back on the discomfort of that moment now and recognize the more universal challenge of squaring who you are with where you come from and where you want to go,” she writes.
And as she moved from that stoop in Chicago to Princeton and Harvard, then a career at the University of Chicago and a later stint as the first black first lady in American history, Obama found a path where she did not rely on code-switching but simply continued being herself. “I like me. I like my story and all the bumps and bruises,” she recently told Oprah Winfrey in an interview for Elle magazine. “That’s what makes me uniquely me.”