The former first lady made the remarks at the Obama Foundation Summit, held at the Illinois Institute of Technology in Chicago.
In a sit-down interview with journalist Isabel Wilkerson, in which Obama was accompanied by her brother, Craig Robinson, an executive with the NBA’s New York Knicks, Obama described when she first became conscious of what’s been called “white flight.”
“We were doing everything we were supposed to do – and better,” Obama said of her family, recalling when they got a new address on Chicago’s South Side. “But when we moved in, white families moved out.
“I want to remind white folks that y’all were running from us,” she continued, according to the Chicago Sun-Times. “And you’re still running.”
Discrimination took another form as she advanced in her academic career, said the 55-year-old Obama, a best-selling author with degrees from Princeton and Harvard, adding she did her best to move forward and achieve despite the mistreatment.
"As people doubted us coming through — 'Are you Princeton material? Can you really make the grade?' Can you cut it?' — What do you do in those instances?” Obama asked, according to The Hill. “All you can do is put your head down and do the work and let the work, your truth, speak for itself.”
Obama added that she is mystified by the concept of discrimination.
“I can’t make people not afraid of black people,” she said, according to The Hill. “I don’t know what’s going on. I can’t explain what’s happening in your head."
"But maybe if I show up every day as a human, a good human, doing wonderful things, loving my family, loving our kids, taking care of things that I care about — maybe, just maybe that work will pick away at the scabs of our discrimination. Maybe that will slowly unravel it.”
Earlier this month, a Boston Herald-Franklin Pierce University survey found that Obama would become an instant Democratic front-runner in New Hampshire if she decided to seek the White House in 2020, although she has said there is “zero chance” that she’ll enter the race.
"There are so many ways to improve this country and build a better world, and I keep doing plenty of them,” she told Amtrak's magazine The National this past August, “from working with young people to helping families lead healthier lives. But sitting behind the desk in the Oval Office will never be one of them. It’s just not for me.”
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