Michelle Obama: Asking me to help you get something off the shelf at Target might be racist

People are grousing about the other buzzy excerpt from this interview, in which Barack Obama claims he’s been mistaken for a valet, but that’s not that implausible. He didn’t say it happened after he became president, which would be ludicrous for a thousand different reasons. He said it happened in the past. Could a twentysomething O, standing outside a restaurant in white dress shirt and tie while waiting on a friend for lunch, have been confused for “the help” by someone who thought a young black man couldn’t afford to eat at a place that would have valet parking? Yeah, that seems possible. I can even buy Michelle Obama’s story that Barack, at a black tie dinner, was mistaken for a waiter and asked to get coffee for someone. She’s not claiming that that happened during his presidency either. It could have happened when he was an obscure state senator in Illinois or before that, at some function for “community organizers” and their patrons in Chicago. When Tim Scott volunteered at a Goodwill center in South Carolina earlier this year, one white woman asked him if he was there serving “court-ordered time.” Petty racism happens.

This, though? Embarrassing.

“Before that, Barack Obama was a black man that lived on the South Side of Chicago, who had his share of troubles catching cabs,” Mrs. Obama said in the Dec. 10 interview appearing in the new issue of PEOPLE.

“I tell this story – I mean, even as the first lady – during that wonderfully publicized trip I took to Target, not highly disguised, the only person who came up to me in the store was a woman who asked me to help her take something off a shelf. Because she didn’t see me as the first lady, she saw me as someone who could help her. Those kinds of things happen in life. So it isn’t anything new.”…

“The small irritations or indignities that we experience are nothing compared to what a previous generation experienced,” President Obama said. “It’s one thing for me to be mistaken for a waiter at a gala. It’s another thing for my son to be mistaken for a robber and to be handcuffed, or worse, if he happens to be walking down the street and is dressed the way teenagers dress.”

Are there any Targets in the metro D.C. area where the employees don’t wear red polo shirts with Target logos on them? They do in every one I’ve ever been to. Which means, unless FLOTUS was disguised as a Target employee, the odds that anyone shopping there thought she was “the help” are small. I myself have been asked in the grocery store by a fellow customer to help them get something off the top shelf. You know why? It’s not because they thought I worked there; I had a cart just like they did. It’s because they were short and I was tall enough to reach — just like FLOTUS, who stands almost six feet. That’s her “racism” story at Target.

But it gets better. Ben Shapiro at Truth Revolt remembered that Obama has told this story before, to David Letterman, with a very different tone.

I thought I was undercover. I have to tell you something about this trip though. No one knew that was me because a woman actually walked up to me, right? I was in the detergent aisle, and she said — I kid you not — she said, ‘Excuse me, I just have to ask you something,’ and I thought, ‘Oh, cover’s blown.’ She said, ‘Can you reach on that shelf and hand me the detergent?’  I kid you not…And the only thing she said — I reached up, ’cause she was short, and I reached up, pulled it down — she said, ‘Well, you didn’t have to make it look so easy.’ That was my interaction. I felt so good. … She had no idea who I was. I thought, as soon as she walked up — I was with my assistant, and I said, ‘This is it, it’s over. We’re going to have to leave.’ She just needed the detergent.

When did she decide that that encounter wasn’t a rare, heartwarming slice of normalcy outside the presidential bubble but a depressing reminder that even First Ladies aren’t immune from racism in America?

What’s especially weird about this is that she and O obviously gave this interview to People mag to do damage control after the Michael Brown and Eric Garner grand jury decisions. Obama’s been knocked by black voters for not taking more of a stand so now he’s handing a lengthy chat on racism to a general interest publication, to try to reach beyond the political class and connect with the wider electorate. If you’re going to do that, though, logically you’d want to come to People armed with your most harrowing experiences of racism. Somehow, “she asked me to get detergent off the shelf” made the cut. Um, why? The only theory I can muster is that the Obamas wanted to make the point that, even as the most powerful people in the world, they still experience the same sort of casual racism that average black Americans experience every day. So they reached for an example, and the best they could come up with was repurposing an amusing old story from Letterman’s show for the occasion. Or is it the best they could come up with? The full interview in People will be out Friday. Can’t wait.

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David Strom 8:31 PM on November 29, 2022