One of them became the first African American to hold the title of President of the United States, and the other was the first African American female principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre (as well as the first black female soloist at the ABT company in over 20 years, and only the third in its entire history).
We’re pretty sure you know who did what, between Barack Obama and Misty Copeland. Both history-makers also come from mixed-race families and have had an uphill battle against discrimination to get where they are today. Time Magazine sat down with both of them at the White House for a powerful conversation about body image, racism, and female empowerment.
While it seems like an odd pairing, except for the similarities of breaking boundaries in their respective fields and sharing the same ethnicity, the conversation between the two showed a lot of common ground. President Obama spoke about his two daughters Sasha and Malia and how being a father of girls has taught him to understand the need for powerful female role models in their lives.
“One of the things I’m always looking for are strong women who are out there who are breaking barriers and doing great stuff. And Misty’s a great example of that. Somebody who has entered a field that’s very competitive, where the assumptions are that she may not belong. And through sheer force of will and determination and incredible talent and hard work she was able to arrive at the pinnacle of her field…The other thing is, as a father of two daughters, seeing how images of strong athletic accomplished women carry over…it turns out that every study shows that young girls who are involved in sports, dance, athletics end up having more confidence generally,” he said.
The topic turned to how you stay grounded once you reach such incredible heights, as both have done. President Obama said what many successful people do when asked about their journey, that it wasn’t an “overnight” success.
“I still remember telling Michelle and my closest friends, I said I’m not any smarter today than I was last week, right. In some ways, when you struggle for a while, and you’ve had the ability of being an ordinary person and you’ve gone shopping, changed diapers and tried to figure out how to pay the bills and so forth, so that you’re not some overnight success,” he said, adding that although his political career has been long, it was a speech he gave at the Democratic Convention in 2004 that made mainstream media and others outside his immediate circle start to take notice of the then-Senator from Illinois.
Of course race is an issue both President Obama and Misty Copeland have had to grapple with, alongside all the other challenges that are part of their jobs.
“Being the only African American in almost every environment in terms of classical ballet, it weighs on you and it wears on you after a while. And I feel like a lot of it as well is what I’m kind of putting on myself. And this just trying to not get too caught up and too wrapped up and too weighed down with being black and trying to just be the best person and the best dancer that I can be… being African American has definitely been a huge obstacle for me. But it’s also allowed me to have this fire inside of me that I don’t know if I would have or have had if I weren’t in this field,” said Misty.
She has said a number of times in previous interviews that she had to battle the stereotype that being athletic and muscular meant you can’t be a prima ballerina. Yet now that she has reached the pinnacle of her industry, she is able to give visibility and hope to a generation of black girls who want to be a professional dancer but haven’t had such a well-known figure like Misty in the mainstream media to draw inspiration from.
For his part, President Obama says his struggles with race were a little different. As the first black president of a country that has had a dark past with race and segregation, he says there were some expectations of all the race issues falling away the minute he took office. But as we have seen over the past few years with the increase of police brutality, the deaths of black men and women by the hands of law enforcement, the creation of the Black Lives Matter movement as well as riots in Ferguson, the race issue has not gone away and nor will it simply because of one person.
“What I always try to transmit to my kids is that issues of race, discrimination, tragic history of slavery and Jim Crow, all those things are real. And you have to understand them and you have to be knowledgeable about them. And recognize that they didn’t stop overnight. Certainly not just when I was elected. I remember people talking about how somehow this was going to solve all our racial problems. I wasn’t one of those who subscribed to that notion,” he said.
However, the unearthing of the dormant racism that lay unchecked because we as a nation were too preoccupied with other matters like war and the economy collapsing, gave rise to a new generation of activism and consciousness about how to take a stand against racism.
“The power of young activists to help shape color and politics through things like Black Lives Matter…is hugely important. And when I think about the journey I’ve traveled, there’s no doubt that young African America, Latino, Asian, LGBT youth, they have more role models. I hope that there are young men of color who are looking at me and saying, I can aspire to be the president, or a senator, or a community organizer and make change in my neighborhoods,” said the President.
It was also great to hear the President talk about how issues of race affect women differently to men, as there are often conversations within communities of color how there is an erasure of women’s experiences specifically. To hear a black man talking about understanding the struggles his daughters will face as young black women, is important.
“When you’re a dad of two daughters you notice more. When I was a kid I didn’t realize as much, or maybe it was even a part of which is the enormous pressure that young women are placed under in terms of looking a certain way. And being cute in a certain way. And are you wearing the right clothes? And is your hair done the right way. And that pressure I think is historically always been harder on African American women than just about any other women. But it’s part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance,” he said.
“The fact that they’ve got a tall gorgeous mom who has some curves, and that their father appreciates, I think is helpful…that’s why somebody like Misty ends up being so important. A lot of it is the power of that image, even if they’re not dancers, even if they’re not interested in pursuing a career in entertainment or the arts. For them to know that that’s valued end up making a big difference,” he added.
Misty said her experiences forced her to confront that the way she sees herself is going to be different to the way the world wants to define her.
“Being biracial [my mom] made it very clear to me that yes, you’re Italian and you’re German and you are black, but you are going to be viewed by the world and by society as a black woman and you should be prepared for that,” she said.
President Obama says being discriminated against an be advantageous if you choose to use that experience in a positive way.
“My view is that the strength of having been a minority on the receiving end of discrimination is that it should make you that much more attuned and empathetic towards anybody who’s vulnerable. Towards anybody who’s being locked out. So what I say to my kids is use this as something that provides you a particular power to be willing to fight on behalf of what you think is right,” he said, while adding it means being willing to listen to the struggles of white people in our society as well.
When asked was what is the single biggest “fixable” obstacle to the success of young people today, President Obama took this as an excuse to showcase his feminism (we will NEVER get tired of the most powerful leader in the world talking feminism!).
“We can do a lot to keep the economy moving forward, we can do a lot to make sure that we’re enforcing our nondiscrimination laws. We can do a lot more to open up people’s perspective about who belongs where. And press to make sure that we have more women CEOs, and more African American film directors. And more Latino police officers. And all those things are important. But the foundation that all this depends is making sure…that we are giving [children] the kind of education and the nurturing that they need. So that they’re off to a good start,” he said.
What we love about President Obama is that the one message that has rung true and consistently throughout both his terms in office is the message of hope. He doesn’t fear-monger, even when things are bad. And he has the heart to see that inspiring people from a platform of positivity is going to go a lot further than campaigning on a platform of fear or hate.
“If we could decide tomorrow that there was no discrimination, that we had some new drug that everybody took and suddenly nobody would be racially prejudiced. We still have a whole bunch of really poor kids who need help. And that still requires us making investments in them…people are fundamentally good people. And they want to do the right thing,” he said.
Take a look at the full video conversation below: