So I thought I would post these thoughts from the First Lady who was welcomed with open arms at UC Merced. Merced is located in one of the most economically depressed places in the West Coast and is, I believe, a minority serving institution (which means it has a large number of first generation poc in its classes). President Obama will be speaking/has spoken (?) at University of Notre Dame which has been experiencing major controversies for inviting him. From the uni admin @ Arizona State University saying he “hadn’t done enough yet to be honored” to the conservative Catholic backlash at Notre Dame against his supposedly pro-choice stance, some colleges have continued to remind us how divided our nation truly is. And they, like Michelle below, also remind that the myth of the great equalizer is often sadly undermined from within the ranks. (Professors live in and receive the same socialization as everyone else after all.) So I for one am glad to pass along the First Lady’s words of wisdom, hope, and encouragement to all of you. Her welcome and her reception were that fitting a First Lady and her speech showed why she is both the wife of the president and a brilliant mind in her own right. (And yeah, on a Sunday, I do want to remind the conservatives in Arizona and the conservative Catholics at Notre Dame that some Catholics know how to be respectful and grateful in the face of the most powerful [black] family in N. America.)
I appreciate her bringing up racism and the U.S. racial history in her speech to a minority serving institution. At the same time, I do question her “pull yourself up by your bootstraps” message in this section that, while reflecting her reality, tends to erase the real oppressions that marginalized folks navigate to reach for those stars.
This was my favorite section of the speech b/c she also reminds how the image of who goes to college, who is intelligent, and who has the right to access the Ivory Halls, should never deter you. More than that, when you have succeeded, it is your job to throw a ladder back for others and hold it while they climb. Every year, I am blessed to work alongside academics of color who get this and I am also heartbroken by those I meet who have forgotten it.
I also love that the Obamas are committed to real service as a solution to the rugged individualism and “two for me, none for you” that have put us in this economic and social mess.
As always, I am awed by how well the First Lady moves between acknowledging the reality of multiple and intersecting oppressions and the hope and promise of a better union through connected communities. I wish she’d been here to speak to my students (tho our speaker was pretty astute as well). Despite the media obsession with her arms, her garden, and her mom talk, I tell you what, she is all of those things AND an accomplished professional, brilliant mind, and powerful speaker. I hope those grads at Merced know how lucky they were to have her there and I hope that we all learn a little something from hearing her call us to honor all the people who make up this union and to be “the realization of our dreams.”