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So Michelle, we find out in your book ‘Becoming’ that your high school counsellor told you that you weren’t Princeton material? I know. I went back to my high school recently and the principal was like, ‘she doesn’t work here anymore.’


How does someone rise above a comment like that though? Especially if they don’t have a support system around them at home or among friends? Which describes a lot of people, most people right who are striving and they are coming from a place where people don’t know. You do feel like you’re alone but this is where I will challenge anyone because there’s always someone in your life who thinks well of you. There’s somebody. But if you have your mind set on the fact that it’s got to be my mother or that help has to look a certain way, that you may look past the people who are there for you. So maybe it’s not in your home where you’re getting the support, maybe it’s a teacher, maybe it’s from your church, maybe it’s from a community group.


You talk in the book about all the successful people that you’ve seen and describe them and how they operate ‘as if they had every advantage in the world’, it’s a confidence thing. When did you start feeling that for yourself? When you’re a woman and you’re a minority, you hear almost the exact opposite. You hear the ‘can’ts’, you hear more often than not, ‘No I don’t think you should try to do that’, ‘No, you’re reaching too high.’ That’s why you hear the groan when you talk about the story of my college counsellor, because that sadly happens too often. And on the flip side there are people who are never told they can’t. Very, mediocre, average people. I’ve seen a lot of mediocrity out there. I’ve sat at tables of high-powered mediocrity. And so, for me, what helped me understand it was getting to some of those tables. Let’s say Princeton, for example, when you’re told that you shouldn’t even apply, you get to the school and then you look around and go, ‘Huh – are you kidding


me? Is this who was getting in before me?’ so some of it is having access to the stuff that is so out of your reach. And then you show up and I’m thinking, ‘Well I’m here because I’m an affirmative action kid.’ and then I realise there’s all kinds of affirmative action that goes on - when my neighbour down the hall happens to have the same last name as the hall we live in! And then I learn about legacy, wow. And it’s all understandable because schools should want diversity, they want all types of kids it’s just that when it comes to race, all of a sudden, that’s sort of like, ‘Well why are we doing this?’ We let in athletes and musicians and all kinds of people who don’t match a certain grade point average or a certain test score. It happens all over the place. But this is what kids of colour and poor kids and kids from rural communities don’t understand. They walk into those schools and they are thinking ‘I don’t belong.’ and it’s not true. So that’s what changed my mind. Going to Princeton helped me kind of go, ‘Ah, I see how it works! I’m the only one that’s being told that I don’t belong but all these people…’ and then you go and you compete and you realise that I can hold my own. There are kids there who may be smart but they don’t know how to set their alarm, they can’t get up on time, they don’t know how to do their laundry, they fall apart when they get a C and they flip. We’re just so used to being told that we weren’t supposed to be there and so that story continued for me at every high table I got at, that I wasn’t supposed to be at, I found a bunch of mediocrity and I said, ‘Well I’ll be darn gone, this is how the world works.’ So I started getting more confident because I realised that oftentimes I was one of the smartest people in the room. So that’s the secret, that’s like me coming down from the mountains to tell the truth. It’s like, ‘Y’all, they’re scamming you! They don’t know what they’re doing, they’re just trying to keep you from doing it.’


From Princeton you went on to Harvard. Now someone called Barack Obama also went to Harvard. You didn’t meet up there but it was when you were assigned to advise him at the law firm you were working at. Tell us about meeting him for the first time? So I see the name Barack Obama and I thought, ‘Where did this name come from?’ and so I start picturing in my head what I think a black guy named Barack Obama, who grew up in Hawaii, ended up at Harvard, would look like. And that image was nerdy, geeky, flavourless – so I sort of had that kind of image in my head. I had to call him to have an initial conversation and so I’m expecting a ‘Barack Obama’ voice and instead I was like, ‘Hello, this is Michelle Robinson calling for Barack Obama’ and he was like [in a low silky voice] ‘This is Barack Obama’ in that voice and I was like, ‘Ooh’. I mean he’s always had that voice. He was just saying hello, he wasn’t expecting anybody, this is how he answered the phone. And I thought, ‘Not what I was expecting!’ but still I was like, ‘Ok come to the office.’ and he was late and I was talking to my secretary going, ‘This trifling so and so…’. And I was about to tell him another thing and then I walk out and it’s like, ‘Ooh! You’re not what I expected.’ but I was still on my serious game right? I was going to be the best advisor in the world so that didn’t mean hitting on your summer associate. So I definitely had him in the ‘friendzone’. So we were allowed to become friends and I fell in love with him as a friend and as a person first and foremost. Because he was smart and funny and self-deprecating. He was interesting in ways that I hadn’t seen among corporate brothers. He was a community organiser. Here I was just on my straight path, ‘I’m going to become a partner, I think this is what I’m going to do’ and he was like,


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CE L EBRIT Y INTERVI EW MICHE L L E OBAMA


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