Michelle Obama: ‘I haven’t had time to … reflect’ on being first black first lady

One of the topics Michelle Obama has spent little time talking about during her time as first lady is race.


Michelle Obama speaks to grassroots supporters in Loudoun County on behalf of her husband President Barack Obama during a campaign rally Oct. 9, 2012 at the Leesburg, Virginia Country Fairgrounds in Leesburg, Va. (Paul J. Richards — AFP/GettyImages)

But it has been a persistent question for many. In the final sprint of her husband’s reelection campaign, Michelle Obama was asked about the issue by “Nightline’s” Cynthia McFadden.

Though she’s answered the question in other venues, on national television the first lady demurred.

“I haven’t had time to solely step back and reflect yet on my role as the first African American. I just want to make sure that I’m doing a good job,” Michelle Obama said.

Before a room full of students in Cape Town, South Africa last year, the first lady had a more expansive answer for a similar question. “Do you still feel pressure being the first African-American first lady?” one of the excited students asked.

“I don’t know if I feel pressure. But I feel deep, deep responsibility…,” Michelle Obama said. “I think whether I’m first lady or whether I was a nurse or a mother, I feel like — the pressure to be absolutely good at what I’m doing, probably so that I could make my parents proud, I could make myself proud, and I don’t disappoint my country. So I guess in a sense there is pressure, because I don’t want to let people down, you know?”

McFadden, whose interview is one-part of a three-part series on Michelle Obama, also asked the first lady: “Is it different to be a black child growing up in America today than it was four years ago?”

In response to that question, Michelle Obama told a story that she has previously relayed. “You know what, I think that because Barack and I are here. I do think kids today see a bigger world and understand, and it’s not so threatening,” she said.

Then she talked about a photo that hangs in the White House of a little black boy touching the president’s head. The boy had asked, “Does your hair feel like mine?” Michelle Obama said.

“And Barack said why don’t you touch it. It speaks to who my husband is at his core. If this is what it takes to make all kids in this country feel some kind of connection to this place and in these opportunities, and to see themselves in these seats and to thrive, every single one of our kids, then he will do it, and I will do it. And that’s what makes this job so special.”

When the president and first lady have tackled the issue of race in the past, it hasn’t always been politically helpful for them.

Remember the beer summit? That was the ultimate outcome of President Obama’s off-the-cuff remarks when asked about the 2009 arrest of Harvard scholar Henry Louis Gates, who had said he was a victim of racial profiling.

Obama said in Gates’s case the police acted “stupidly” and added: “What I think we know separate and apart from this incident is that there is a long history in this country of African Americans and Latinos being stopped by law enforcement disproportionately. That’s just a fact.”

Obama later stepped back, saying he “could have calibrated those words differently.”

Michelle Obama similarly created a stir when she said the book “The Obamas” portrayed her inaccurately.

“I guess it’s more interesting to imagine this conflicted situation here and a strong woman and — you know?” Michelle Obama told “CBS This Morning” co-host Gayle King earlier this year. “But that’s been an image that people have tried to paint of me since the day Barack took office, that I’m some angry black woman.

This week, the first lady’s answers to the questions she faced about race are unlikely to create the political buzz that accompanied that comment.

Krissah Thompson began writing for The Washington Post in 2001. She has been a business reporter, covered presidential campaigns and written about civil rights and race. More recently, she has covered the first lady's office, politics and culture.
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