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Michelle Obama talks about her experience with racism as first lady

TODAY logo TODAY 8/27/2020 Scott Stump

Michelle Obama has recalled her "exhausting" experience with racism using the example of a simple trip to get ice cream with her daughters during her time in the White House.

The former first lady shared the story during a discussion with friends Denielle Pemberton-Heard, Dr. Sharon Malone and Kelly Dibble on the latest episode of "The Michelle Obama Podcast." The recollection was prompted by the four friends speaking about the confrontation between a white woman and a Black bird watcher in New York City's Central Park in May.

Michelle Obama wearing a dress shirt and tie: Michelle Obama Makes Remarks On Health Insurance Reform (Win McNamee / Getty Images) © Provided by TODAY Michelle Obama Makes Remarks On Health Insurance Reform (Win McNamee / Getty Images)

"That incident in Central Park, which infuriated all of us, as we watched it, it was not unfamiliar," Obama said. "This is what the white community doesn't understand about being a person of color in this nation, is that there are daily slights. In our workplaces, where people talk over you, or people don't even see you."

Obama then shared a story of her going with Pemberton-Heard and her daughters, Sasha and Malia, to grab some ice cream at a Haagen-Dazs during President Barack Obama's presidency.

"We had just finished taking the girls to a soccer game," Obama said. "We were stopping to get ice cream, and I had told the Secret Service to stand back because we were trying to be normal, trying to go in," Obama said.

"There was a line, and once again, when I'm just a Black woman, I notice that white people don't even see me. They're not even looking at me. So I'm standing there with two little Black girls, another Black female adult, they're in soccer uniforms, and a white woman cuts right in front of us to order. Like she didn't even see us."

Malia Obama, Michelle Obama, Sasha Obama standing in front of a brick wall: Michelle Obama walks with her daughters Malia and Sasha (Wang Zhao / AFP via Getty Images) © Wang Zhao Michelle Obama walks with her daughters Malia and Sasha (Wang Zhao / AFP via Getty Images)

Obama said the girl at the counter almost took the woman's order before the first lady spoke up.

"So I stepped up, and I said, 'Excuse me?' I was like, 'You don't see us four people standing right here, you just jumped in line?'" Obama said. "She didn't apologize, she never looked me in my eye, she didn't know it was me. All she saw was a Black person, or a group of Black people, or maybe she didn't even see that because we were that invisible.

"I can tell you a number of stories like that when I've been completely incognito, during the eight years in the White House, walking the dogs on the canal, people will come up and pet my dogs but will not look me in the eye. They don't know it's me."


Obama emphasized how not even being acknowledged as a human being can be hurtful.

"What white folks don't understand, it's like that is so telling of how white America views people who are not like them," she said. "You know, we don't exist. And when we do exist, we exist as a threat. And that, that's exhausting."

She also shared why having close Black friends has been important to her.

"There's a certain relief that comes when you don't have to walk into your friend group and explain yourself," she said. "My group of female friends aren't calling me to say, 'What can I do?' You guys are calling me to say, 'How you doin' girl?' You know, 'let's talk.'"


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