What journalism can learn from Michelle Obama’s response to the Meghan & Harry interview

Racism isn’t a new construct in this world for people of colour — Michelle Obama

Screenshot from the interview with Michelle Obama in The Today Show by Jenna Bush Hager.

The American news and talk morning television program The Today Show broadcasted an interview with attorney and author Michelle Obama and part of the conversation was the response of the former first lady to the interview Oprah Winfrey had with Meghan and Harry.

Although the whole interview with Mrs. Obama is worth watching, particularly this part (from 11:36) is important to understand the tactics she uses in talking about racism and what we can learn from that.

Interviewer Jenna Bush Hager remembers Michelle Obama telling her before how life in The White House could be very lonely. And therefore she wants to know what went through her mind when she heard Meghan Markle speak out. Obama says:

“Hmmm. Public Service is a bright, sharp, hot spotlight and most people don’t understand it and nor should they. But, you know, there are ways to steal yourself and protect yourself. But the thing that I always keep in mind is that none of this is about us, public service is about the people that we serve. And especially in times like this, you know, I want the country to be focused on the big issues that we face. Creating jobs for people who don’t have jobs, feeding people who are going hungry, making sure that people actually take the vaccine and understand the importance of continuing to protect ourselves because we’re not out of the woods on this issue yet.
I always try to push the light back out and focus it on the folks that were actually here to serve.”

Jenna Bush Hager:

“But what about when she talked about the fact that she talked about the experienced racism? I feel that was heartbreaking to hear. In her own family you know, that people thought differently of her.”

Michelle Obama:

“As I said before, racism isn’t a new construct in this world for people of colour. So it wasn’t a complete surprise to sort of hear her feelings and to have them articulated. The thing that I hope for and the thing I think about is this first and foremost is a family. And I pray for forgiveness and healing for them. So that they can use this as a teachable moment for us all. Living in a world where there are a lot of interracial families and we got to learn to live together, support each other and value each other. I think we still have work to do to understand where we all are coming from. And that’s going to take time. But it requires effort and honesty to make that happen.”

What is so interesting about this answer is that Michelle Obama doesn’t doubt Meghan Markle’s confessions about racism. She goes beyond the personal experience and draws a bigger picture. It’s important to hear a Black woman of this influence and stature analyze the case like this because it brings the debate to the level where it should be.

Let me try to explain.

The language used by Michelle Obama is very eloquent, but what I actually hear her say is that:

  • Meghan and Harry put the spotlight on themselves where they should have put the spotlight on the people they serve.
  • And even though it’s not easy to live a life in public service, there are ways to protect yourself and apparently, Meghan and Harry didn’t find the right help to do so.
  • Besides that, Obama rightfully concludes that racism isn’t new, which is actually saying that Meghan and Harry might have been a little naive.
  • She refers to the fact that it’s obviously sad to experience racism within your own family and that it’s important to learn from that experience together.
  • What I read in her comment between the lines here is that it’s more powerful to work together with your family to solve the problem instead of accusing them and walking away.

Obama ends her comment by summarizing the steps necessary towards antiracism, namely a lot more education about our history and the understanding that it takes time, effort and honesty.
With this statement, she doesn’t leave any room for people who want to downplay racism. Instead, she lets everyone know the ingredients needed in the future: patience towards the process, a willingness to change and self-reflection.
Michelle Obama’s words are worth analyzing because they bring us to a level of the racism discussion that’s hardly reached nowadays, where we’re not stuck in the sharing of personal experiences by Black people and the feeling of being personally offended on the white spectrum. Obama zooms out to a bigger picture: racism exists, the question is what we’re going to do about it.

Is her opinion new? Of course not. She stands upon the shoulders of social justice giants who’ve been fighting for equality all their lives. But those voices sometimes get overshadowed by emotional statements from (famous) people who mean well and have the same goal but lose sight of the wider context. Statements that emphasize the courageousness of Meghan to speak out against such a powerful institution and support her in her mental wellbeing. Which is great, important and necessary. But it often ends there. Obama’s contribution isn’t less compassionate towards Meghan, it just focuses on policy instead of the individual. The former first lady uses her highly respected position in society to focus on much needed long term goals.

We live in a world where personal experiences have become the default. And private feelings are hard to disagree with because why would you deny someone’s truth, right? It becomes challenging when we need a common ground on which to base our societies. Meaning rules and visions we all share and agree on that let us build a future together. There’s no need to invent such tools because we already have them, in the ethics of our professions and in human rights laws. Racism is part of that as well.
Meghan and Harry definitely have shocked the United Kingdom with their revelations and the interview most probably has shaken things up in the monarchy. The question is: now what?
This is a shortcoming concerning personal experiences, causing people to discuss if the accusations are true or false. Whereas it should go beyond the point of checks and balances. Human rights aren’t an opinion, neither is racism.

It reminds me of the dynamic in the debate about media diversity. An incident happens, everyone is shocked, people deny what is happening, they become angry and depressed and after that slowly rise towards acceptance and curiosity. Like drawn in the change curve:

Personal experiences of Black journalists are still widely shared and the lack of willingness to change something amongst the (white) establishment hardly gets pointed out. Neither are there many journalists admitting they need more self-reflection and a better understanding of the darker pages in the history of The West.

We need more people to arrive past the deep valley of depression and walk towards acceptance, curiosity, enthusiasm and commitment.

From my personal experience of going through several phases of antiracism and at the same time studying lifestyle coaching and experiencing personal crises myself, I realize more than ever the importance of acceptance from where a future can be created.
Acceptance isn’t the same as passiveness, nor similar to denial. Acceptance means seeing the reality as it is, not as you’d like it to be.

It’s even interesting to observe how the mental health issues among journalism colleagues fill multiple webinars and at the same time I still need to find the first Zoom about white journalists doing self-reflection on the topic of race. There is no doubt that mental wellbeing is of the utmost importance, but we lack an overall view, a holistic view, where both topics — mental health and racism — come down to the same roots: journalism ethics.

And I guess that’s what Michelle Obama started off with, mentioning the ethics of public service, where there is a responsibility towards the people you serve and while doing that you need to find “ways to steal yourself and protect yourself”. If Harry and Meghan would have found ways to do that — and it’s sad that they didn’t, for sure — they could’ve used their position to not only speak out about the emotional aspect of racism but fuel a debate in society and improve ethics for the long run.
Likewise, it’s important for journalism to create strategies for the future, accepting the mental health challenges, researching holistic approaches and use enthusiasm and commitment to come up with inclusive solutions.

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Exploring the solutions to the lack of inclusion in journalism, focusing on decolonising journalism and discussing whiteness, Eurocentrism and objectivity.