Of course, any time the president or first lady gives a commencement speech, their words are carefully chosen for mass consumption, vetted for a world when anything said to a small crowd on a college campus is now heard on all of cable TV. But the speech Michelle Obama gave Saturday to graduates at Tuskegee University in Alabama, a historically black college famous for training the military’s first black pilots in an era of official segregation, sounded more intimate than that.
The text reads like the kind of private talk the first black first lady would give a largely black audience about a shared burden beyond the frame of reference for many of the rest of us. “The road ahead is not going to be easy,” she told them. “It never is, especially for folks like you and me.”
Within that intimacy, she gave a thoughtful window into what it’s like to be a black American today:
So there will be times, just like for those Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are.
The world won’t always see you in those caps and gowns. They won’t know how hard you worked and how much you sacrificed to make it to this day — the countless hours you spent studying to get this diploma, the multiple jobs you worked to pay for school, the times you had to drive home and take care of your grandma, the evenings you gave up to volunteer at a food bank or organize a campus fundraiser. They don’t know that part of you.
Instead they will make assumptions about who they think you are based on their limited notion of the world. And my husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be. We’ve both felt the sting of those daily slights throughout our entire lives — the folks who crossed the street in fear of their safety; the clerks who kept a close eye on us in all those department stores; the people at formal events who assumed we were the “help” — and those who have questioned our intelligence, our honesty, even our love of this country.
And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day — those nagging worries that you’re going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen — for some folks, it will never be enough.
Obama here gives a hint of how she’s felt about her own critics. But she’s also talking about a more pervasive kind of alienation that’s integral to our understanding of what’s happening with race relations in America today. This is the alienation that comes from people seeing “just a fraction of who you really are.” Some empathy for that feeling — or recognition of the power of it in frustrated black communities — seems like part of what we’re missing today.
She goes on:
And all of that is going to be a heavy burden to carry. It can feel isolating. It can make you feel like your life somehow doesn’t matter — that you’re like the invisible man that Tuskegee grad Ralph Ellison wrote about all those years ago. And as we’ve seen over the past few years, those feelings are real. They’re rooted in decades of structural challenges that have made too many folks feel frustrated and invisible. And those feelings are playing out in communities like Baltimore and Ferguson and so many others across this country.
Emily Badger is a reporter for Wonkblog covering urban policy. She was previously a staff writer at The Atlantic Cities.
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