Michelle Obama spoke candidly about experiencing racism as a Black woman in America, both in and out of the White House, on the latest episode of The Michelle Obama Podcast. On the episode, she also spoke with her longtime pals—Kelly Dibble, Denielle Pemberton-Heard, and Dr. Sharon Malone—about the power of their friendships.
When the recent incident involving a white woman calling 911 on a Black bird watcher in New York City’s Central Park came up, the discussion turned to racism. ‘That incident in Central Park, which infuriated all of us, as we watched it, it was not unfamiliar,’ Obama said. ‘I mean, this is what the white community doesn’t understand about being a person of colour 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 said that even from her eight years as First Lady of the United States, she had ‘a number of stories’ of white people treating her as invisible. ‘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,’ she recalled, later adding, ‘That is so telling of how white America views people who are not like them, like we don’t exist. And when we do exist, we exist as a threat. And that’s exhausting.’
One such incident involved not only Obama and Pemberton-Heard, but Malia, 22, and Sasha, 19. Obama recounted a time that the four women got ice cream at a Haagen-Dazs during Barack Obama’s presidency. ‘We had just finished taking the girls to a soccer game. 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 remembered. ‘There was a line, and… when I’m just a Black woman, I notice that white people don’t even see me. They’re not even looking at me.’
Sasha, Michelle and Malia and April 2012.IMAGECATCHER NEWS SERVICEGETTY IMAGES
She continued, ‘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. The girl behind the counter almost took her order. And I had to stand up ’cause I know Denielle was like, “Well, I’m not gonna cause a scene with Michelle Obama.” So I stepped up and I said, “Excuse me? You don’t see us four people standing right here? You just jumped in line?”‘
The Becoming author added: “‘She didn’t apologise, 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.’
Amid an unprecedented chapter in the Black Lives Matter movement, Obama said she has leaned on her friend group—particularly the Black women in it—for support. ‘My girlfriend group, while it is diverse, it has been so important for me to have Black women in my crew,’ she said. ‘There’s just a certain relief that comes when you don’t have to walk into your friend group and explain yourself.’ Obama concluded, ‘My group of female friends aren’t calling me to say, “What can I do?” They’re calling me to say, “How you doin’ girl? Let’s talk.”‘