On Monday night, first lady Michelle Obama gave her "Farewell Interview" with Oprah Winfrey on CBS. The two women began by taking a look back at the Obama's first years in office, focusing on the history that the family made just by being in the White House. But the interview was more of a look back at the impact on American culture that the family had and the first lady's role in making that happen. Nothing can show that impact more than the clip Oprah showed featuring Michelle Obama's "firsts" in the White House. Each "first" is a testament to how seriously the first lady took her job in making sure every American was represented in their administration. And her House.
The clip included Mrs. Obama walking with Jeremy Bernard, the first male to serve as social secretary; the first openly transgender staff member, Raffi Freedman-Gurspan; and the first work of art in the White House by an African American woman, Alma Thomas. These"firsts" were all headline-making at the time and Winfrey was right to still be excited by them. The first lady agreed, watching the video.
Mrs. Obama said that the point of doing things like hiring LGBTQ staff, or opening the White House dining room to the public, was all about visibility and exposure.
"That was purposeful. That was necessary," the first lady said. "Images and experiences can be life changing particularly for our kids," she added, talking about students getting to sit at the State dining room table on a field trip.
As the first African American family in the White House, the Obamas understood just how important exposure can be for the public. Making room for a female African American artist on the White House's expansive walls or hiring a transgender woman means that young Americans know that being who they are and where they come from is not something to shy away from. After an election season plagued with exclusionary rhetoric, Mrs. Obama's message of inclusivity is all the more profound.
Every time a person sees themselves represented in popular culture, and especially in the White House, it matters. And that's something Mrs. Obama has ensured happened for all kinds of Americans over the past eight years.
The Obama presidency has been marked by its open door policy. There's a reason that President and Mrs. Obama are sometimes compared to the Kennedys — they know how to throw a good party with people from all corners of pop culture and rock the best in fashion while doing it. But they have been a more unique first family than the Kennedy's could have ever been.
It's wild to think that it took until Obama's first term in office to get a piece of artwork created by a black woman framed on the walls of the White House. Or accept that a man could run a social calendar. Or that a transgender woman could work in the White House. Or let kids (and their sticky fingers from bagged lunches) on a school trip take a seat at the fanciest dining room in the country.
It just took a first family, and a first lady, that understood exactly how important that kind of visibility can be to "everyday" Americans. Oprah said it best at the end of the interview. She remarked that the fact that the Obama's "were here," in the public eye, in the White House, was important enough. That's one thing about the Obama family that crosses party lines.
The Obamas understood that they were making history and decided to make a little more while they were at it, by making room for people who have been marginalized. That's what we call a legacy, friends.