Michelle Obama was right to bring up race

Story highlights

  • Roxanne Jones: Michelle Obama's remarks to Tuskegee graduates that racial bias still affects how black people are treated were correct
  • She says the first lady expressed truth about ignorant stereotypes that Americans must confront if they are ever to be fixed

Roxanne Jones, a founding editor of ESPN Magazine and former vice president at ESPN, has worked as a producer and as a reporter at the New York Daily News and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She was named a 2010 Woman of the Year by Women in Sports and Events. Jones is a co-author of "Say It Loud: An Illustrated History of the Black Athlete" and CEO of the Push Marketing Group. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)My mom is an old-school Baby Boomer. She likes to color-coordinate her outfits to make sure they match head to toe -- accessories and all. And though I long ago rebelled against this traditional fashion sense, there's no denying that she always looks good, even to my Gen-X eye for mismatched fashion. Back when she was in the thick of her battles against a nearly fatal bout of cancer, Mom refused to leave the house looking defeated.

Roxanne Jones
Which is why I was so taken aback one afternoon during a mother-daughter outing when I heard an older white woman in the ladies' room say to my mom: "Wow, you people look so good in all those colors. You girls are always so colorful. If I wore so many colors, I'd look awful."
When I look at my mom, I see a proud, stylish, strong woman. One who has earned the right not to be called "girl." One who is not "you people." But that woman with her backhanded, condescending compliment looked at my mother and saw only her blackness, and all of ignorant stereotypes that have been passed down through the generations. Mom to her was just another colorful, exotic Negro woman to be observed like the newest zoo exhibit. She didn't actually see my mother at all.
    Like many of us, First Lady Michelle Obama understands too well what it's like to be taunted by racial insults and daily slights, as she told the 2015 graduating class at Tuskegee University recently. The trick, she said, is to not let the detractors define you, or limit your success.
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    "The road ahead is not going to be easy. It never is, especially for folks like you and me. Because while we've come so far, the truth is that those age-old problems are stubborn and they haven't fully gone away. So there will be times, just like for those [Tuskeegee] Airmen, when you feel like folks look right past you, or they see just a fraction of who you really are."
    Thank you, Michelle, for speaking the truth. And for being honest enough to admit that even you have been "knocked back" by some of the racial perceptions of yourself and President Obama. It is past time for Americans to publicly confront our nation's nagging race problem. Our old wounds left by racism will not heal themselves. Our silence will not make them go away. No, those wounds will just continue to fester and flare up over and over again in cities like Ferguson, New York and Baltimore and too many other places to mention.
    Predictably, the first lady is getting blowback -- mostly from right-wingers - -for having the audacity to discuss the subtle racism that today infects our nation. "She's playing the race card," some critics say, using that tired cliché as if racism is some kind of poker game.
    Let them rant. The first lady has it right. I am happy she using her platform to take the lead in a much-needed conversation, not just about the daily bigotry that she and President Obama have experienced their entire lives but the larger race problems confronting the nation:
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    "And I know that these little indignities are obviously nothing compared to what folks across the country are dealing with every single day -- those nagging worries that you're going to get stopped or pulled over for absolutely no reason; the fear that your job application will be overlooked because of the way your name sounds; the agony of sending your kids to schools that may no longer be separate, but are far from equal; the realization that no matter how far you rise in life, how hard you work to be a good person, a good parent, a good citizen -- for some folks, it will never be enough."
    So to Tuskegee grads, and all the other young, talented black students out there -- godspeed. Michelle Obama has armed you with the game plan you need to go out into the world and leave your mark. Do not be distracted or driven to destruction when someone at work smiles and tells you how "articulate" you sound, or how they just love "ethnic hair," or even when they make jokes about black people tanning when they find out that you winter on the beach in Costa Rica.
    No one says you have to smile in the face of all these insults as my mother chose to do back in that ladies' room. And certainly, my first instinct to slap the woman for the insult is not the answer, either. Nope, Michelle Obama is spot on. We have to talk it out. Educate ourselves and use our voices and our votes to help lift up one another. Be true to yourself and be courageous.
    They say if you want change, "speak truth to power." This time around, power is speaking truth to the nation. We should listen and learn.