The First Lady spoke about her own experiences with racial discrimination during a commencement address Saturday

By Lindsay Kimble
Updated May 09, 2015 06:30 PM
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Credit: AP

First Lady Michelle Obama delivered a powerful commencement speech at Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama, on Saturday, addressing the stereotyping and pressure she feels not only as the First Lady of the United States, but also an African-American woman.

Michelle, who addressed the graduating class of 2015 and an audience of nearly 4,000 at the historically black university, spoke about overcoming her own insecurities regarding her public perception – specifically during her husband President Barack Obama‘s campaign in 2008.

“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?”

Obama referenced a July 2008 cover of the New Yorker, which featured a satirical illustration of the Obamas drawn by Barry Blitt. The caricature showed the future FLOTUS dressed as a Black Panther, first bumping with a turban-wearing Barack in front of portrait of Osama bin Laden.

“Then there was the first time I was on a magazine cover – it was a cartoon drawing of me with a huge afro and machine gun,” Michelle said. “Now, yeah, it was satire, but if I m really being honest, it knocked me back a bit. It made me wonder, just how are people seeing me.”

The fist bump emulated in the drawing was also cause for contention. The couple shared the sign of affection after Barack won the Democratic nomination in June 2008, something Michelle remembers being spun into a “terrorist first jab.”

Michelle also addressed the various nicknames she’s received and racial discrimination she’s felt since her husband first took office.

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“Over the years, folks have used plenty of interesting words to describe me. One said I exhibited ‘a little bit of uppity-ism.’ Another noted that I was one of my husband’s ‘cronies of color.’ Cable news once charmingly referred to me as ‘Obama’s Baby Mama.’ ”

“All of this used to really get to me,” she continued. “Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband’s chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom.

“But eventually, I realized that if I wanted to keep my sanity and not let others define me, there was only one thing I could do, and that was to have faith in God’s plan for me. I had to ignore all of the noise and be true to myself – and the rest would work itself out.”

Michelle also touched on the recent events in Ferguson and Baltimore, saying that while those events might make young African-Americans feel “invisible,” it’s “not an excuse to lose hope.”

Michelle continued, “To succumb to feelings of despair and anger only means that in the end, we lose.”