First Lady Michelle Obama Reflects on Talking 'Like a White Girl'

Michelle Obama rebukes the stereotypes that she says impede the path to success.

ByABC News via logo
March 20, 2009, 8:47 AM

March 20, 2009 — -- First lady Michelle Obama visited one of the poorest neighborhoods in the nation's capital Thursday, hoping her example would help encourage struggling, young high school students.

It's the latest attempt by the first lady to use her bully pulpit to talk candidly with Americans, and she's sparking some compelling conversations.

Obama's remarks came as part of a career day she organized for Washington, D.C.-area students, featuring 20 other high-profile women who fanned out across the city to connect with kids. For her part, the first lady acknowledged that her childhood included struggles with language and racial identity.

And when one student asked her, "How did you get to where you are now?" she credited, in part, her command of the language.

"I remember there were kids around my [Chicago] neighborhood who would say, 'Ooh, you talk funny. You talk like a white girl.' I heard that growing up my whole life. I was like, 'I don't even know what that means but I am still getting my A.'"

Even now, Americans listen intently not just to what the Obamas say but how they say it: words, accents, even gestures.

"For many folks, Michelle Obama and Barack Obama, to a lesser extent, don't sound like as what they think of stereotypical black," said Mark Anthony Neal, a professor of African-American studies at Duke University in Durham, N.C. "And just like there might be whites invested in those stereotypes, there are obviously African-Americans invested in those also."

During the campaign, the Obamas were either "too black" or "not black enough," depending on the critic of the moment.

As for Barack Obama, he seems to know his audience. When a waiter at the black-owned Ben's Chili Bowl in Washington, D.C., tried to give him change for his order recently, the then-president-elect declined it, saying, "Naw, we straight."

The shorthand response was seen by many as a gesture to blacks.

But the Obamas have also been called out for sometimes not getting the tone quite right.

After Barack Obama's election, comedian Jamie Foxx spoke at the Lincoln Memorial and gently teased him for the way he speaks in formal occasions.

"This was the most incredible moment of my life, when our president-elect said to the American people..." Foxx said, before launching into his best impersonation of the president.