Michelle Obama and Tracee Ellis Ross on the Power of Women’s Stories

Posted November 22, 2018 3:08 p.m. EST

Michelle Obama during a talk over breakfast with Tracee Ellis Ross at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel in Beverly Hills, Calif., Nov. 16, 2018. The former first lady and a star of ABC’s “black-ish” talked about Obama’s memoir, feeling “good enough” and what it really means to “go high.” (Emily Berl/The New York Times)

BEVERLY HILLS, Calif. — “Girl, we were throwing down!” said Michelle Obama, playfully recounting a childhood scuffle with a neighborhood girl. And the enormous crowd at The Forum arena outside Los Angeles exploded.

“A physical fight?” Tracee Ellis Ross asked incredulously. She was moderating the event that evening, the second stop on Obama’s arena tour for her new memoir, “Becoming.”

“Of course, a physical fight!” Obama replied. “That’s the way we did it on the South Side. You thought we were debating?”

It’s not every day that a working-class girl from Chicago meets the daughter of Motown royalty — unless perhaps one of them becomes an extremely popular former first lady and the other an award-winning TV star. In that case, they could meet twice in 15 hours.

This month, Ross, one of several prominent moderators on the book tour, including Oprah Winfrey and Reese Witherspoon, interviewed Obama at an exuberant show featuring videos, music from artists like the Jackson 5 and Lady Gaga and a discussion of her book and life. The next morning, the pair met again for a more intimate conversation for three at the Beverly Wilshire Hotel.

Obama, 54, was the nation’s first African-American first lady from 2009 through the beginning of 2017. Her new book chronicles not only her White House years but also her larger trajectory: from her happy childhood in a cramped second-floor apartment in Chicago, through her degrees at Princeton University and Harvard Law School, and on to a plum position at a corporate law firm.

It was there that she met Barack Obama, still a law student himself, and the lone voice among her family and friends to urge her to follow her heart and jump from her well-paid perch into the public sector. She found her stride in positions of advocacy for children and communities like her own. She continues that work to this day.

Ross, 46, the daughter of singer Diana Ross, is best known as an actress on the sitcom “black-ish,” for which she won a Golden Globe award in 2017 as best actress in a comedy series. Before that, she starred on the series “Girlfriends” for eight seasons. Like Obama, Ross is an outspoken advocate for women and girls.

Over breakfast, the pair, who have a warm rapport and a texting friendship, discussed building bridges through storytelling — whether by personal memoirs and #MeToo, or more fractious talk with political opponents and spouses in marriage counseling. These are edited excerpts from the conversation.

PHILIP GALANES It was an interesting choice to debut your book and reintroduce yourself as a private citizen on an arena tour.

MICHELLE OBAMA Well, it was sort of necessary. When I give a regular speech, without a new book, I picture a nice auditorium somewhere. And people say, “We’re giving you Oracle Arena [in Oakland, California, which seats nearly 20,000 people].” And I’m like, “A stadium? It’s not like that many people are going to come.” Then it’s full.

TRACEE ELLIS ROSS I think doing this tour in smaller rooms would have felt exclusionary.

OBAMA And if I say I’m coming somewhere, I want everyone to be able to come.

GALANES You took some heat on pricing.

OBAMA That’s the second thing: I wanted a lot of young people to come, not just a handful. I wanted thousands of girls around the country to have this opportunity. So, I’ve given away 10 percent of every venue. And 10 percent of a lot of seats is a lot.

GALANES During the preshow videos, there was huge applause for your line from the 2016 Democratic convention: “When they go low, we go high.” But I think that quote’s been misunderstood. You never said: “When they go low, we pretend it didn’t happen.”

OBAMA “Going high” doesn’t mean you don’t feel the hurt or you’re not entitled to an emotion. It means that your response has to reflect the solution. It shouldn’t come from a place of anger or vengefulness. Barack and I had to figure that out. Anger may feel good in the moment, but it’s not going to move the ball forward.

ROSS And dignity is a choice that keeps us moving toward something better.

GALANES Even when “going low” includes racist dog whistles?

OBAMA For me, when you are a public figure in power, everything you do models what you want the country to do.

ROSS Like parents model behavior for their children.

OBAMA Responding to a dog whistle with a dog whistle is the exact opposite of what you’d teach your child to do. GALANES Let’s try something: I’m going to “go low,” and you two “go high.” So we can see what it’s like in action.

OBAMA I get it.

GALANES Here goes: “I’m so sick of these #MeToo women playing the victim card.” I heard that on cable news. “Go high”?

ROSS I would ask: “What about a woman’s pain or experience frightens you so much?”

OBAMA Me? I wouldn’t even respond. I say: Let’s just do the work. If you said that, I know I’m not going to change your mind in the moment. You’d just feel attacked. I’d have to understand why you feel that way. I’d have to be your friend and get into your pain and hurt, your fears. And that takes time. That’s the work that needs to happen around kitchen tables and in our communities. When I say “go high,” I’m not trying to win the argument. I’m trying to figure out how to understand you and how I can help you understand me.

GALANES The most-reported passage in your book involves President Trump. With his birther lie, you write, he put your family in physical danger, and you will never forgive him. You and your husband have been so disciplined about speaking out. Why draw the line there?

OBAMA First, let me explain our discipline. Barack and I are often attacked personally. But our work is about the nation. It’s not about us. I would never deal with personal attacks as first lady.

GALANES So, why now?

OBAMA Because we — the media and the public — we’re treating this stuff too much like a game. No one knows what it’s like to be commander in chief. They don’t know the hardship, the dangers, the information he gets. Everyone thinks they know, but they don’t. So, when people tell lies about the commander in chief, I know they don’t understand what they’re doing. When other people repeat it, they don’t understand, either. What I wanted to explain is that when you do this, you escalate the risks. You put the person who’s in charge of the welfare of this country and his family at risk. We have to stop it.

I assume that Trump didn’t get that when he was out of office. I’m giving him the benefit of the doubt. And I hope that by personalizing it in the book, as a wife and mother whose kids go out into the world every day, to have someone just make something up about our existence is problematic. And since you brought it up, I lived with a bullet lodged in the window of the Truman balcony that was shot into the home where my family lived by someone with a high-powered rifle.

GALANES Is there a connection between the birther story and another line from the book: “A bully is a scared person hiding inside a scary person.” Is that an argument for compassion, whether for Trump or for a racist?

ROSS I didn’t read it that way. What I saw is a sharing of humanity. Knowing other people’s stories is how we connect with them. That’s where the compassion is ignited. If people who don’t know you hate you because of some idea they’ve made up about you, your honest life story is the thing that dismantles the walls between us.

OBAMA When you travel around this country, like Barack and I have, we’ve been fortunate to see the country in its fullness: sitting at people’s kitchen tables, going to people’s churches and veterans community halls. You learn two things: First, people are open to having strangers come into their homes and talk. And you know what? We would talk, and we would listen. And people would start going: “Oh! That’s who you are. I’ve heard all this stuff about you on Fox News, but you’re actually kind of reasonable.”

ROSS We’re all more the same than we are different. And the ways we’re different are actually what make life exciting.

GALANES Mrs. Obama, let’s turn to one of your earliest experiences: a kindergarten reading quiz. The teacher wrote simple words on cards, and you’d keep going until you missed.

OBAMA And I choked on the word “white.” Go figure! It was my first choke.

GALANES You tortured yourself! You worried: “Am I good enough?” You were so little. Where did that feeling come from?

OBAMA I think it seeps in through your skin, from society. Children are so perceptive, and we don’t give them credit for it. We think we can do anything to them: expose them to racism, use bad words. We think they’re playing, but no, they’re taking it all in. I couldn’t explain it back then, but I knew that stratification was happening early. I saw what was happening to the kids who got the words right, the gold stars, and what happened to the kids who didn’t.

ROSS “Am I good enough?” haunted me. It still does. As a little girl I taught myself to smile so my top lip would disappear because I thought that’s what a pretty girl looked like. She had smaller lips. But you know what helps? Having a tribe of people around me who love me and see me even when I can’t see myself. And one of the things I do now, when I leave people, is ask myself: Do I feel better or worse?

GALANES Is the “good enough” question one that’s particularly applied to women? I’m thinking of Hillary Clinton now.

ROSS She was good enough. But one of the blind spots of patriarchy and privilege is that it doesn’t see how we use different standards of worthiness when we’re looking at black people or women. So much of what I took from the book is that we need to pivot in how we’re using our stories.

GALANES What do you mean by that?

ROSS We’re living in this time, because of social media, where everything is a sound bite. We lose the context of where things actually come from. We use our stories, and other people’s stories, to make jokes about each other and to pit ourselves against each other — instead of as a way to connect.

OBAMA And this also gets distorted by whose stories are put out there. Part of why I knew my book had to be done, and done well, is because it’s a rare moment in history that a black woman gets to tell her own story. Success stories look a certain way: They’re male; they’re white; they’re wealthy. That’s what power looks like because we’ve been taught that. And we question stories that are different from the ones we’re used to. How many stories do you know where millions of people are hearing about strong women, told by a woman, and hearing her pain?

GALANES An amazing feature of your story is the parade of accomplishments you assembled: Princeton, Harvard Law School, a top-tier law firm, only to ...

ROSS (laughing) Just so you know, I went to Brown. And I gave a TED Talk.

GALANES But just when Mrs. Obama was in a position to cash in, she jumped. She said: This is not making me happy, and she started working in advocacy. You both have.

OBAMA A lot of this is temperament. I was always that kid who couldn’t keep her mouth shut and called out a bully. But what I’ve learned is that I’m best at doing things that have a deep meaning for me. How I decide what to advocate is personal. And I tell young girls to start with their own passions. There isn’t just one way. Politics is a way. It’s never been anything I wanted to do. But I am an advocate.

ROSS Same here. You can’t shut me up if I think something is not right. And in 2007, I stretched out of my comfort zone to be a surrogate for Barack Obama for president. I mean, if someone showed up because I was on “Girlfriends,” I thought: My work was done. But I really learned from that experience. If we’re not all equal, then no one’s equal. And since then, the swirl of politics and #MeToo and Time’s Up is what gives my life meaning.

GALANES And the ironic win-win here, Mrs. Obama: You’re poised to make a fortune as a corporate lawyer; you walk away for something that feeds your heart; and in the end, you make a ton of money on this book.

ROSS (laughing) I can’t believe you said that!

OBAMA It’s a fair point. But that’s how passion works. I tell this to young people. Barack was never motivated by money. My father was never motivated by money. You want to pay your bills but you don’t need a lot of stuff. I grew up without a lot of stuff. But if you can find the thing you care about and operate from that place, good will come from it. Steer clear of money; steer clear of fame. Those aren’t goals. The hard part is digging into yourself and figuring out: What do I care about? That’s how I’ve learned to live.

ROSS I was raised with lots of things my mother’s gift afforded us. But it was never what was important. It was how we treated each other as a family. That’s where the joy came from.

OBAMA But let me put this on the table too: My career swerve was a luxury. My dad didn’t have the luxury of thinking about his passions. That’s why my parents pushed me to have an education, so I could make choices. And that’s what I want for my girls and why I promote education. I want young people to have some security, so they’re not just operating from a place of needing to pay the bills. So they get the wherewithal to find their passion. GALANES When I think back to your first moments on the national stage, helping your husband find his passion in politics, the thing that struck me was the meanness turned on you. Did you have enough experience in the world to expect that, or were you blindsided, too?

OBAMA A little of both. I loved traveling through Iowa, sharing my story. Folks were so accepting and open and warm. People of all colors and backgrounds. None of the nasty stuff was happening on the ground. And I was effective because when I got in front of people, they saw me. What I didn’t anticipate was the game of politics: It’s not about the truth; it’s about winning. The bigger my crowds got, that’s when people said: We’ve got to shut her down. That’s when the nasty stuff started.

GALANES It’s like the arc of “black-ish,” which started as a gentle, post-racial show. But as the world got harsher, the show started dealing with our new reality.

ROSS I don’t think our show consciously changed. We’re still taking things off the wallpaper of our lives and seeing how this family navigates its way through them. But we’re living in volatile times now. We really are. And a lot of it was ignited by fear that something was being taken away from people that was never theirs to begin with. That’s kicked up a lot that our show responds to. As human beings, I think we have to.

GALANES Mrs. Obama, there are a couple of personal revelations in the book that I’d like to ask about. First, you conceived your daughters through IVF. How did we not know that? Was it a privacy decision not to tell us till now?

OBAMA Not at all! Everybody close to me has heard these stories a million times. But it wasn’t my signature issue as first lady because it wasn’t my passion. Barack and I are proud of our lives. But I didn’t bring every personal thing to my role as first lady because the job is not about me. There was work to be done. Now it’s time to do it. We’re not in the job anymore.

GALANES Meanwhile, Tracee, you became a powerful voice for women who choose not to define themselves by marriage and children.

ROSS In all honesty, that became my issue because people keep asking me questions about marriage and children. It came out of advocating for myself. Being asked about it all the time presented this idea that without marriage or kids, I couldn’t be whole. So, I wanted to talk about it clearly: Did it happen because I wasn’t good enough or because I hadn’t chosen it? And I feel pretty clear that I am the chooser.

GALANES Mrs. Obama, the second revelation is about your going to marriage counseling, as a young mom, with your husband. Selfishly, I want to ask: Were you as annoyed as everyone else that a marriage counselor never says anything like: “The court finds in favor of Michelle”?

OBAMA I think we all feel that. “I know I’m right. I just need someone to tell him that.” But I hit a point of struggle. I was married to an ambitious man who traveled, and I had two little kids. That wasn’t my plan, and it hacked into my insecurities. And what I learned in counseling was that I was asking him to make me happy. This light bulb went off! What do I need to make my life work for me? And I demanded it unapologetically. I asked for more help at home, more flexibility at work. And that’s what I want for all women — the power that comes with education and the leverage to walk away.

ROSS That’s the way I was raised, knowing I had choices. And the more we can pop these stories into girls’ heads, the more choices we give them.

OBAMA That’s why girls have to be educated. If they’re hanging on to bad choices because they don’t have the power to walk away, that’s how stuff never gets fixed. And I always put myself in a position where I knew I didn’t need to be there: I don’t need this job. I love my husband, but I don’t need him to pay my bills or put my kids through school. That gives me leverage in life.

GALANES How is marriage easier after the White House?

OBAMA We celebrated our 26th anniversary this year. Now, I love my children. Obviously, I wanted them. But they are a big interruption to the process of a relationship. I joke with my girls: “You really got in the way of my marriage!” But now, after the presidency and the other jobs, the financial stress, we’re getting to that point in our 50s when we’re rediscovering each other. We’re the same people. But we went through this maze. We’ve got cuts on our backs, but we’re still holding hands. And it’s like: “Are you good? You lost a shoe. Leave it. Leave the shoe.” But we’re still there together.

GALANES Last question: First lady is a job that comes with recriminations: She gave too many parties, she didn’t give enough parties. Who elected her? When did you reach the point, both of you, when you thought: This is my voice, and I’m good with it?

ROSS About two years ago, I realized my life was actually mine. And that’s been a big unfolding for me. Here I am! And then all of a sudden you’re tripping on a new thing. Then there’s a new arrival and a new dark hallway. It’s a process.

OBAMA That’s why the book is called “Becoming.” Because there’s no one point where you just say: “Yeah!” Maybe now, at 54, I’ve done a lot of things. I think: “This is a big deal. It’s over, and I did it.” I had that sit-down with Barack, too. Stepping back from it a little and recovering from some of the wounds, I can look him in the eye and go: “Man, you were amazing!” But it takes some time to get to that place, and it’s always a process. You’re going to have so many lives within a life.