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Michelle Obama says making progress on race is 'up to all of us'

The former first lady emphasized "self-examination" and "listening to those whose lives are different from our own" as important strategies.
Miller Mobley/Harper's Bazaar
/ Source: TODAY

Michelle Obama has felt the same confusion, fear and anger that many of us have experienced over the past several weeks, as the country simultaneously grapples with the coronavirus pandemic and racial injustice following George Floyd's death.

In a new interview for Harper's Bazaar magazine, the former first lady spoke with TV producer and writer Shonda Rhimes about the importance of voting this fall. But she also delved into why this moment in American history is giving her hope for the future.

"With everything that’s gone on over these past few months, I know a lot of folks out there have been confused, or scared, or angry, or just plain overwhelmed, and I’ve got to be honest. I count myself among them. I think we’ve all been there," the mother of two began.

"Our foundation has been shaken — not just by a pandemic that stole more than 100,000 of our loved ones and sent tens of millions into unemployment, but also by the rumbling of the age-old fault lines of race, class, and power that our country was built on," she continued. "The heartache and frustration that boiled over after the losses of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others has caused a lot of us to grapple with the very essence of who we are — the kind of people we want to be."

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But that new mindset is exactly what makes the "Becoming" author hopeful.

"I think a lot about the younger generation growing up right now, about how they’re seeing just how fragile even the best-laid plans can be," she said. "In this tumultuous period, they’ve been learning something that often took previous generations years, or decades, to understand: that life can be unfair. It can be unjust. And more than anything is always uncertain."

As a result, Obama said, we should "live by foundational truths — like honesty, compassion, decency — and if you channel your frustration into our democracy with your vote and your voice, you can find your true north even in times of crisis."

She also spoke about generational differences and the responsibility of young people to better society.

"Because of all this upheaval, this generation is learning those lessons faster than folks our age did. They’re learning it together and making their voices heard," she explained. "So even while there’s a lot of pain out there, and that pain is very real, that’s something that gives me hope — the hope that this generation will not only learn these lessons earlier than ours ever did, but apply them in ways that we never could."

This work must cross cultural and demographic barriers in order to be successful, Obama said.

"Let me be clear. Making progress on these issues isn’t just on the shoulders of young people. It isn’t just on people of color. It’s up to all of us, no matter what we look like or where we come from," she said. "We’ve all got to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting out racism and fighting for real justice. It starts with self-examination and listening to those whose lives are different from our own."

She added, "I hope we all have the strength to take that first step."

The former first lady has spoken candidly about racism and the challenges the country is facing on her Instagram page. In a recent post about Juneteenth, she praised the Black community for "(finding) something to celebrate."

"Even though the story has never been tidy, and Black folks have had to march and fight for every inch of our freedom, our story is nonetheless one of progress," she wrote Friday. "Both of my grandfathers were the grandchildren of enslaved people. They grew up in the Jim Crow South and migrated north in search of a better life.

"But even then, they were still shut out of jobs and schools and opportunities because of the color of their skin. But they pressed forward with dignity and with purpose, raising good kids, contributing to their communities, and voting in every election," she continued.

In a post in late May, Obama said she was "pained" and "exhausted" following the recent deaths of Floyd, Arbery and Taylor.

"It just goes on, and on, and on," she wrote. "Race and racism is a reality that so many of us grow up learning to just deal with. But if we ever hope to move past it, it can’t just be on people of color to deal with it. It’s up to all of us — Black, white, everyone — no matter how well-meaning we think we might be, to do the honest, uncomfortable work of rooting it out."