JOANNE LAUCIUS Updated: October 11, 2019
Former U.S. first lady Michelle Obama famously said at the 2016 Democratic convention: “When they go low, we go high.”
Almost at the very end of her upbeat “in conversation with” appearance at the Canadian Tire Centre in Ottawa Thursday afternoon, Obama explained what she means by that in response to a question about racism.
“One of the things my parents taught me was context,” said Obama, the author of Becoming, which became an instant bestseller when it was released last November.
The memoir outlined Obama’s journey, from her birth in the working-class South Side of Chicago to the White House.
When Obama was a child, white families would flee from neighbourhoods when black families moved in. People would look at her fearfully when she got on a bus on her way to high school, she told the predominately female audience.
“Look at that racist person and think: How did you get hurt? I know myself. I’m a good person,” she said.
“You never knew me. You just knew what you were told. I can just live my truth.”
Obama added that even though she can intellectually process the reaction that people have to their own fears, that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hurt.
“Going high is about the long term. It’s about thinking that your words matter. Every word you utter can change lives. It doesn’t mean you ignore the pain,” she said.
“We have to label (racism) and call it out and remind ourselves that it isn’t us. Going high doesn’t mean sucking it up. If we ignore it, they never own it.”
Obama didn’t talk about politics. But there were a few oblique references to her husband Barack’s controversial successor Donald Trump. The first came while Obama was recounting her reluctance to get behind her husband’s bid for the presidency. She said she reconsidered because she understood that Barack was charismatic, articulate and passionate.
“I knew how special he was. He read. He believed in fact,” she said. The audience exploded into applause at the word “fact.”
There were 12,000 tickets for the Ottawa event— including $2,000 VIP packages with front-row seats and a reception with Obama, who had a second engagement in Hamilton later in the day.
Obama’s memoir has sold 11.5 million copies and her publisher, Penguin Random House, announced this week that it is releasing a “guided journal” in November with inspiring questions and quotes relating to the book to “help readers reflect on their personal and family history, their goals, challenges, and dreams, what moves them and brings them hope, and what future they imagine for themselves and their community.”
Obama is a hero to many who attended. “I think she’s one of the most inspiring women of our generation,” said Samanthi Samarasekera, who attended with two friends. “She exemplifies living her own truth.”
Carolina Diaz and Edynes Lamothe brought their daughters Victoria, 10, and Kayla, 7, because they wanted the girls to see Obama live.
“It’s one thing watching it on TV, but another thing to see it being told by the person who lived it. It’s planting seeds,” said Diaz.
Added Lamothe: “We came so they can see different models of what is possible.”
Obama ended her talk by listing what she’s thankful for: her health, family and that her daughters made it through eight years in the White House safely and asking her audience to allow themselves to be vulnerable.
“It’s hard to hate up close. We have to let each other in.”