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'When we do exist, we exist as a threat': Michelle Obama says even she has been treated as 'invisible' by white people

Former first lady recalled incident from an 'incognito' trip to an ice cream parlour during the Obama administration

Andrew Naughtie
Friday 28 August 2020 16:20 BST
Michelle Obama on being 'invisible' to white people

In a discussion on this week’s episode of her podcast, Michelle Obama reflected on how white people often treat Black women as if they are either “threatening” or “invisible” – and described how exhausting that treatment is.

The former first lady’s recently launched podcast features her discussing issues of gender, race, biography and health, with guests including her husband and brother.

In the latest episode, featuring her friends Denielle Pemberton-Heard, Dr Sharon Malone and Kelly Dibble, she reflected on incidents of well-publicised incidents of white women threatening to call the police on Black people – and recounted a story from her time as first lady that expressed what it is like to feel unseen and trivialised.

“We had just finished taking the girls to a soccer game,” she recalled. “We were stopping to get ice cream, and I had told the Secret Service to stand back, because we were trying to be normal …

“And 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. And the girl behind the counter almost took her order …

“So I stepped up and I said: ‘Excuse me? You don’t see us four people standing right here, you just jumped in line?’

“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.”

Ms Obama has spoken about the burden of resilience placed on Black women on many occasions. In an interview with Oprah Winfrey during the last weeks of her husband’s presidency, the then-first lady described how she had dealt with the intense negativity directed at her during the eight-year Obama administration.

“The bad stuff I just don’t hold on to … I think we as women do it, we as Black women better be able to do it, because there’s so much that comes at us all the time and every day in subtle ways that could tear your soul apart if you let it.

“But my mother always taught me, girl, you better keep it moving. You know, you’d better brush it off. And I think I’ve grown up doing that.”

Ms Obama this month briefly returned to frontline politics when she delivered one of the key speeches at the online Democratic National Convention.

Her address, in which she pointed to the killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and “a never-ending list of innocent people of colour”, won her effusive praise on the left. It also infuriated many on the right, with Fox News host Tucker Carlson comparing her to the founder of Scientology, L. Ron Hubbard, and accusing her of dictatorial domineering.

“What she wanted you to know last night is that she is still a victim,” he raged in a monologue on his show the next day, “she and everyone who looks like her. So shut up and accept her dominion over you!”

In the discussion on her podcast, released a full week after Mr Carlson’s eruption, Ms Obama reflected on how it feels to be a Black person in the US, by turns ignored and feared in equal measure.

“It’s 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’s exhausting.”

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