In a rare show of personal candor, the first lady opened up about her experiences with racism in an nearly half-hour address to mainly black graduates at Tuskegee University in Alabama on Saturday. She talked about fighting racial misperceptions during her husband’s 2008 campaign, saying she feared racial stereotypes could hurt her husband and that she was worried how they might affect her daughters. “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,” she said. “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 recalled various racially insensitive remarks made in the media during that time, and described being “knocked back” by a satirical New Yorker cover, portraying her in combat outfit, with a huge afro and machine gun. To deal with all this, she said “I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself – and the rest would work itself out,” a comment that drew cheers from the audience. Returning to the larger issue of race in America, she warned the graduates of the “daily slights” they would face throughout their lives, saying the road ahead would not always be easy. It was the first time the first lady opened up on the issue in such extensive manner, and her powerful, deeply personal words come at a time of increased tension between black communities and the police. She told her audience she understood their feelings of frustration and isolation, telling them “they’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible, and those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.”
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