Michelle Obama said on Saturday that she faced a unique set of questions when she was on the brink of becoming the nation's first African-American first lady during her husband's presidential campaign.
While Obama said that she was subject to questions that could be expected of the spouses of many candidates, she added that she believed she faced certain questions because of the "fears and misperceptions" of others.
"As potentially the first African-American first lady, I was also the focus of another set of questions and speculations, conversations sometimes rooted in the fears and misperceptions of others. Was I too loud, or too angry, or too emasculating?" she said during her commencement address at the historically black Tuskegee University in Tuskegee, Alabama. "Or was I too soft, too much of a mom, not enough of a career woman?"
Obama also referred to incidents in which she was accused of displaying "uppity-ism," and called one of Obama's "cronies of color" and "Obama's baby mama." She said that it "knocked me back a bit" when a cartoon of her appeared on the cover of the New Yorker with an afro and a machine gun.
"And all of this used to really get to me. Back in those days, I had a lot of sleepless nights, worrying about what people thought of me, wondering if I might be hurting my husband’s chances of winning his election, fearing how my girls would feel if they found out what some people were saying about their mom," she said.
The stereotypes that she and her husband faced, Obama said, were based on a "limited notion" that others had of the world.
"My husband and I know how frustrating that experience can be," she said. "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."
Obama told graduates that the key to getting over that anxiety for her was to stay true to the things she was passionate about and to not let others define her.
"I have learned to block everything out and focus on my truth. I had to answer some basic questions for myself: Who am I? No, really, who am I? What do I care about?" she said, adding that the thing she cared most about were her daughters. "And at the end of the day, by staying true to the me I’ve always known, I found that this journey has been incredibly freeing. Because no matter what happened, I had the peace of mind of knowing that all of the chatter, the name-calling, the doubting -- all of it was just noise. It did not define me. It didn’t change who I was. And most importantly, it couldn’t hold me back."
She implored the Tuskegee graduates to also follow their own passions.
"I want you to act with both your mind, but also your heart. And no matter what path you choose, I want you to make sure it’s you choosing it, and not someone else," she said.