Nadia Khomami, The Guardian, July 27, 2017
Michelle Obama has spoken about the racism she faced as first lady, as she encouraged women to strive to succeed despite setbacks.
During an armchair conversation in front of 8,500 people in Denver, Colorado, Obama was commended for breaking the glass ceiling by becoming the first black first lady.
Asked which of the falling glass shards cut the deepest, she said: “The ones that intended to cut,” referencing an incident in which a West Virginia county employee called her an “ape in heels”, as well as people not taking her seriously because of her colour. “Knowing that after eight years of working really hard for this country, there are still people who won’t see me for what I am because of my skin colour,” she told the crowd.
In the speech, made on Tuesday at the Pepsi Centre in Denver as part of the Women’s Foundation of Colorado’s 30th anniversary fundraising celebration, Obama said she couldn’t pretend the experiences didn’t hurt because that would let the perpetrators off the hook.
“Women, we endure those cuts in so many ways that we don’t even know we’re cut,” she said, according to a report in the Denver Post. “We are living with small tiny cuts, and we are bleeding every single day. And we’re still getting up.”
She said the wounds of failure hurt deeply but healed with time, and if women acknowledged their scars they could encourage younger girls to strive and succeed.
The Post reported that while Obama largely stayed away from politics, she received cheers from the crowd when she took a few thinly veiled shots at the Trump administration, and boos when she reiterated that she would not be seeking public office.
“Public service and engagement will be a part of my life and my husband’s life for ever,” she added. Both Michelle and Barack Obama have signed book deals with Penguin Random House.
The former lawyer warned against the notion of a nation falling apart, saying that America was a young country that would learn from its mistakes and successes.
“The people in this country are universally good and kind and honest and decent. Don’t be afraid of the country you live in. The folks here are good,” she said, adding that instead of relying on national policies, women needed to take charge in their own lives and communities.
She also talked on a range of topics she advocated for as first lady, including education for girls and health and nutrition for schoolchildren.
“If we want girls in STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics), we need to rethink how we deliver education. Teachers, a kind word can mean the world to a young girl,” she said.
As first lady, Obama launched several campaigns around education, including Reach Higher, which inspires students to complete education past high school, and Let Girls Learn, which helps facilitate educational opportunities for young girls in developing countries.
In May, she made her strongest political intervention by attacking the Trump administration’s reversal of regulations to help improve school lunches.
Addressing the crowd in Denver, she mentioned Barack Obama’s campaign slogan. “It was never ‘yes he can’; it was ‘yes we can’,” she said. “When we put so much on a person, on a leader, we absolve ourselves of doing anything else. We’re all on a journey together . . . We all want someone who will fix things, but we’re going to have to fix it together.”
She advised people to surround themselves with other powerful figures and never be afraid to fail and to protect what they love. “What is going on within us [women] that we don’t feel worthy enough to protect the things we value?” she asked.