Show Transcript
I want to start off by saying that you guys have a lot more in common than I'm sure a lot of people know. You're both born in multiracial families. You were raised by single mothers and you've risen to the top of your respective fields. As African-Americans, which is pretty notable. But I'm curious, what do you see in each other that you recognize in yourself? Is there a common thread that allows you both to succeed? First of all, I thought you were going to say that I'm a really good dancer. I thought about it, I saw you dancing [CROSSTALK] [LAUGH] But the So I was a little let down, as you were. That was not the common thread That wasn't the common thread that she picked up on. Well first of all, I mean I couldn't be prouder of what Misty's done. As the father of two daughters, 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 is 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, and that's exciting. The other thing is, as the father of two daughters, seeing how images of strong, athletic Accomplished women, carry over and encouraging them in sports and dance and how they move physically. That turns out that every study shows that young girls who are involved in sports, dance, athletics. End up having more confidence generally. And across the board in everything that they do, end up being more assertive, happier. So this is one of the reasons why having Misty on our fitness council has been so important, absolutely. [LAUGH] I think that there is a sense of Humbleness, and humility, there's a human that's within you. And I think that that's something that I can relate to and connect with, that people are drawn to, and they feel this genuine Coming from you. And I think that it allows you to rise this level and not feel this pressure that's kind of pushing you down, but allows you to take the responsibility with sense of pride and, again, just being grounded. And I feel like As I'm embarking on my first season as a principal dancer. Right. I'm experiencing something that I didn't prepare myself for I think emotionally, and mentally, and psychologically. When you have all of these expectations and goals to reach this point that 1% get to You know, how do you, what do you do when you get there? How do you stay grounded and humble and striving? And I think that on a much smaller scale for me, but something I feel I can relate to with you that I can't imagine you must have experienced. Well, it's interesting that this whole notion of When you arrive. I don't know how it felt for you, but certainly for me, probably I burst out on the national scene with the democratic convention speech in 2004. And it was the first tim e that I had a big national audience. And everybody responded really favorably. And so I got a lot of attention and interviews and magazine pieces, and all this stuff. And 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 struggled 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. Then handling some of these issues ends up being easier because you have a better sense of perspective. You don't sense somehow that. Well this is because I'm just so special or because I'm so much smarter than that other person because in fact you've known those other people and who are talented and smart and capable and some ways you gotta break, you were lucky. And that, for me at least, keeps me grounded because it reminds me that You know for all the blessings and privileges and responsibilities that I've got, you know I'm just representing a huge cross section of people who are talented and capable. And supported me again to where I came from and So it, that takes a little bit of the edge off. Right. And more importantly, it means that your friends don't start looking at you and thinking you're acting kinda like your all that, right? [LAUGH] And it's good to have friends who will do that for you. If you start acting weird, they're all like- Check. Yeah, as far as- [LAUGH] What, suddenly you're some Prima ballerina? [LAUGH] Please, I remember when. And they'll remind us some story, okay, okay. That's awful. And you both represent the African American community. Do you, as the President of the United States, as a principle Dancer for the American Ballet Theatre, do you ever think that, how does race come to play with? Like, do you think that people still treat you differently because of race, because you're African American in your field? You know, my experience has been that A lot of what I've experienced has not always been to my face. Or it's been very subtle. But it's in a way that I know what's going on. And I feel it deep inside of me. And I, and I've. 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 kinda putting on myself. And just trying to not get too caught and too wrapped and too weighed down with being black and trying to just be the best person and the best dancer that I can be and work and work harder than Even if I see the person next to me, that you know things maybe a little bit easier for them. I'm going to try and push myself even harder than them. But I think that being African American has definitely been a huge obstacle for me. But it also allowed me to have this fire inside of me that I don't know I would have or have had. If I weren't in the field. [LAUGH] Well part of classical ballet that makes it challenging is that there's a very set way of doing things, and sort of this canon that people want in just a certain way or they want it to look a certain way. So I do find now that you're in a position where you can start pushing the barriers a little bit and boundaries in terms of what people expect now that you've established that, all right, I can do this so let me also do that. For I can. Master that style. And so now can we introduce something a little bit different? How much of that takes place? Absolutely. I mean, I think that having a platform and having a voice to be seen by people beyond the classical ballet world has really been my power, I feel. It's allowed me to say it's okay to have a healthy, athletic body. We're fully capable of doing everything that the person who doesn't have an extremely athletic body, that is more thin, We're fully capable of doing exactly the same thing. And I think that being in this position and showing that I can execute and do all of these things, that it's possible to have any skin complexion, to have a healthy body image for the ballerina body. I think it's given me more of a voice and it's I think forcing a lot of these top tiered companies to address the lack of diversity and diversifying the bodies that we're seeing in classical ballet. It's really forcing that conversation to be had, because- I have to say as an outsider, I don't know, Mia, if you feel the same way Mm. When I hear that your body type is considered sort of more athletic, or large, you're tiny. For those of you who are watching, you may not be able to see. I mean you're petite. Yeah. So the notion somehow that that was even a question is pretty interesting. Yeah. I mean, I think, I think it's. How I think it's a lot of the language and how we use. And I think for a lot of people of color, that seems to be an easy way or a way out. By saying you don't fit in, it may be your skin color. It may be the texture of your hair, whatever it is. We want a certain a look. Yeah and I think that's an easy way of addressing that. Interesting. As a father of two daughters, do you see that at all? Do you see that pressure in your own life. Yeah, well, I mean, some of this is just gender issues, generally. I mean, 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 to argue, wearing the right clothes and is your hair done the right way and And that pressure I think is historically has always been harder on African American women, than just about about any other women. But it's part and parcel of a broader way in which we socialize and press women to To constantly doubt themselves or define themselves in terms of a certain appearance. And so Michelle and I are always guarding against that. And you know the fact that they've got a tall, gorgeous mom Who have some curve and that their father appreciates I think is helpful. I do think that cultures changing for the younger generation a little bit more. You see beyonce or you see some of these pop stars and what both White, Latino, Black children are seen as representative of beauty is much broader than it was when I was a kid. You just didn't see that much representation. And that's healthy and that's encouraging. but it's still a challenge. I mean Malia will talk about white girls hair and she's pretty opinionated about the fact that it costs a lot, it takes a long time, that sometimes girls can be just as tough on each other About how they're supposed to look. And so, as a parent, that's a constant learning process that you're trying to pull them forward. And that's why somebody like a 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 ends up making a big difference. And beyond the You know, just simply being there. That obviously makes a difference. But then there's also a pressure, like you mentioned, to do more. And I'm curious, also, what you make of social movements like Black Girl Magic. When there are these, like, grass roots level reinforcement of these ideas, that, you know, black is beautiful. I understand. It's so important for this generation, and to use social media to have a positive impact on our generation is huge. I know that you. You have a presence, as well. And it's such a part. I think we have to be involved, I think, in order to really reach the younger generation on social media. But to have movements like Black Girl Magic. I think it couldn't be more positive for a young black girl to see that it's okay to be yourself. It's okay to not have to transform, and look like what you may see on the cover of a lot of magazines. That you are beautiful. That it's possible to succeed to any field that you want to looking the way you do, with your hair the way it is. I think all of that is so extremely important In something that I'm constantly celebrating, that something that I fought so hard for throughout the beginning of my career is that I didn't want to pancake my skin a lighter color to fit into the corps de ballet I wanted to be myself, I didn't want to have to wear makeup that made my nose look thinner. You know, there are just, it's important I think with this generation of young minorities, children especially, to feel comfortable and confident in their skin. Well look, social media obviously is the way in which young people are receiving information generally, so the power of young activists to help culture and politics, through things like Black Lives Matter, I think is hugely important and You know when I think about the journey I've travelled, there's no doubt that young African American, Latino, Asian, LGBT youth, they have more role models. They've got, they have more Folks that they can immediately identify. And that in itself is a value. But what we also have to remember is that the barriers that exist for them to pursue their dreams are deep and structural and So it is wonderful that the potential dancer can see Misty and say, I can do that. But if there's no dance studio at all in their neighborhood, and if their schools don't offer any extracurricular activities at all, Or if their school's chronically underfunded then it's gonna be a problem. 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. But if they are locked out of opportunity. And in neighborhoods where, even if I'm on television, they're no men in their neighborhoods who've got jobs that are able to support a family. Then you've still got problems, so. I think culture, changing attitudes is hugely important. A word, for example trying to get more girls and women to study the STEM subjects, math, science, engineering, because they're chronically underrepresented And in researching this we found out that, for example. Since CSI came on and there are women who are doing forensic investigations. That the number of women who are in this has skyrocketed. All right. So some of it is just, okay. I now picture myself Is doing that. But I think it's important for us to remember that it's not just a matter of providing a strong image. It's also making sure that they've got good schools. Making sure that they're getting programs that allow them to explore all their talents. Making sure that The economy is working in a way that gives everybody a chance to succeed. It's a both ends, rather than an either, or proposition. Mm-hm. And, how do you make sure those things are protected, when you see, for example, affirmative action in the balance again? Is that something that's important in academics, and the arts For example. Look, I'm a strong supporter of affirmative action as a way opening more doors. And I think there are ways of structuring affirmative action so that everybody's getting more of a chance. The truth of the matter is that there's always been affirmative action, it just hasn't always been towards minority folks. If you beg a big donation to your university, your kid is more likely to get in the university. It's not called a firm of action, it's called legacies, and so for school, for a dance program. A political organization to say we're gonna actively seek out and recruit talent that hasn't had insight into the, this field before, this world before. We're gonna have a bunch of young girls come into American ballet theater and just watch. And get a workshop and have them imagine themselves on that stage. Because they're much less likely to have a program available to them in their community, or to have parents who Even know about ballet. Well, that's something that's extraordinarily valuable and I think we can sustain, while not being so rigid that it ends up locking anybody else out of opportunity. I absolutely agree. I mean, I think it's so completely necessary, especially when you're dealing with a field that's Never really been open to reaching out to communities that dont have the access, that don't have the exposure and the means to be a part of something, especially this, so niche as the classical ballet world, and I think that it's It's responsibility that I feel, you know, being the only African-American at this level in American ballet theater, I feel that people are looking at me and it's my responsibility for me to do whatever I can to provide these opportunities And communities, to be able to educate them. And If that means having a program just for black dancers to allow them to have the same opportunity that generations, and generations of white dances have had it's necessary. Yeah, this is one of the reasons why I've got something called my brother's keeper that We've been mobilizing all across the country and the notion is that if we can reach young men of color who so often are channeled into destructive behavior or into dropping out of school and ending up in the prison pipeline, is we can just expose them Know what their possibilities are. Link them with a mentor. Work with the institutions, like schools, to say, examine what your policies are. On suspensions and expulsions. To make sure that black boys or hispanic boys aren't being treated differently. What you do is to, what you discover through this process is how much talent is there. Untapped. And we bring in some mentees into the White House. Each year I have lunch with them and we pair them up with senior advisors here. And a lot of them have never even been to an office setting before. A lot of them don't know what it means to be a secret service agent or what would be required for them to Pursue a professional degree. And you know we've been doing this for a few years now, and we're already seeing how the horizons that these young men suddenly have for themselves starts rising, and it The great thing is we've been able to duplicate this in hundreds of cities across the country. You're seeing companies step up saying, we're willing to bring in somebody for the summer so that they can get exposed to what a law firm looks like or what an accounting firm looks like, and that then provides a motivation for these young people To navigate and make better choices in their own lives because ultimately, I'm sure [UNKNOWN] feels this, I certainly feel it, we wouldn't have succeeded if we haven't worked hard. You can't replace hard work. And initiative and discipline and sacrifice, and delayed gratification. And there are all kinds of things you give up along whatever path to success you've chosen. But part of what inspires you to make those sacrifices is the sense that I might actually succeed, you know? And so much of what we wanna do with our young people is persuade them to, [BLANK_AUDIO] To dream big. And to not feel that somehow their circumstances, their birth or the circumstances of Their upbringing, or poverty, or race in any way inhibits them. You have to be honest with them and say, yeah it's gong to be harder for you than it might have been for somebody else. But that's okay. It turns out that kids are extraordinarily resilient if they feel like they can actually make something happen In looking back, was there anything that someone told either of you about race or didn't tell you about race that you wish they had or that you felt like you had to learn on your own and how does that impact how you talk to young people. Today. I feel like my mom pretty much covered everything [LAUGH] with me. You know being biracial, she made it very clear to me that. Yes. You are Italian and you are 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. I think that I being very shy going into a study where I was the only black Woman have allowed me to observe more rather than react. And I think that saved me a lot and it taught me a lot. And it has allowed me to, when I'm interacting with my mentees, to say to them, you know, there are just ways that you have to approach. Situations that may be difficult or may not be fair, but it's how you represent yourself. You may be carrying a responsibility that you don't want, but it is what it is being African American and being in certain environments. It doesn't matter if you're a ballet dancer, if you're an attorney, whatever it is you're trying to do, you're going to be faced with these obstacles. I think about this now as a parent, and Michelle and I have a lot of conversations around the dinner table. And for me, 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 knowledgable 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 gonna solve all our racial problems and I wasn't one of those who subscribed to that notion but what I want them to draw from it is a sense of justice for everybody. My view is, 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. And that includes thinking about and being concerned with the struggles that. That whites have in this society as well. Part of what I think is sometimes difficult but I think absolutely necessary for black activists like those who are Engaging in some of the protests around Ferguson, et cetera, is to try to also get yourself in the mindset of a police officer who is scared and who is trying to figure out how to navigate A really challenging job, and wants to get home safe, and may make a split second decision. And how are they being trained, and are they being provided enough guidance from their bosses that will steer them in a better direction rather than a worse direction? That's hard to do because it's easier to just kinda be angry and frustrated. And part of what I think successful social movements have involved is having a certain righteous anger about injustices being done to you. But also understanding that The people who are on the other side of this, they've got their own history and their own circumstances and you have to understand that and you have to recognize that each of us has some good and some bad in us. And that's not an excuse. But what it does do is it gives us an opportunity then to have a conversation and to reach across the divide. And that's not something that always, at a time when so much of communications is sound bytes and tweets, cable news. It's hard to have that kind of conversation. It's easier, I think, to just make everything black and white. But I think that when you look at how social change has happened throughout history, including in our country, it's been because we can Project ourselves into the circumstances of other people. And hopefully that's something that Malia and Sasha and her generation is picking up on, and I think they have. And, wrapping things up, what do you see as the single, greatest, fixable obstacle to success of young people today? How can we with the>> Single. Wow. I think everything that you were saying. Being able to have an understanding of yourself and how you fit into society and who are you are, but to be empathetic to everyone around you. I think it's such a powerful A powerful thing to hold to be able to forgive. All of those things I think can strengthen this generation of our youth. I think having a strong sense of self and And just knowing who they are and being comfortable with that. Well I spend most of my time thinking about institutions and. There's no doubt, even though it's a cliche, that the single biggest difference we can make is make sure that our kids get a good education. We can do a lot to keep the economy moving forward. We can do a lot to make sure that we're enforcing our non-discrimination 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, on the front end, when these little babies are born, and start to [BLANK_AUDIO] get curious about the world, and are Like sponges, that we are giving them the kind of education and nurturing that they need so that they're off to a good start. And that involves an imaginative leap, a moral leap on the part of society as a whole that says every kid should get Genuine opportunity and we are willing to put money behind it, and we are willing to invest in that. To break cycles of poverty and to reach out and, and pull kids up even if they aren't born onto the best of circumstances. And that is hard to do, because we are working off the legacy of hundreds of years of, of. Discrimination that gets passed on generationally. If we could decide tomorrow that there was no discrimination at all, that we had some new drug that everybody took, and suddenly nobody would be Racially prejudiced. We still have a bunch of really poor kids who need help, and that still requires us making investments in them, and that means that all of us, the government, the private sector, non profits. Have to make some sacrifices so that those kids are getting opportunity. If you talk to the average person, they embrace that ideal. One of the great things about being president is you get to me people from all walks of life and the American people are fundamentally good people and they Want to do the right thing, and if you ask them should every child have opportunity, they will tell you yes. But, if you tell them okay, that may mean we have to spend more tax dollars to provide them with better schools, and the teachers have to be paid more, and we have to make sure they have computer equipment in their schools and Arts and music programs aren't a luxury, they're something that helps that child thrive. Then, people start saying, well, I've got my own bills to pay, and I moved into this good school district, and I wanna make sure that That school district maintains its advantages, and I'm not sure whether the money's gonna be well spent. We find all kinds of excuses why we don't actually move that agenda forward, and part of my goal through things like My Brother's Keeper, part of Michelle's goal through initiatives she's got called, Let's Girls Learn. Is to keep on creating more and more avenues where we as a society can have that conversation and actually move forward and do the right thing. If we do that, we're not gonna eliminate racism and prejudice entirely in this society, but what we can do Is to greatly lessen how much it determines the life chances of people. And that should be our goal. Great. Well thank you both so much for chatting with us. This has been really great. And lastly, did you guys catch the game on Saturday? Is Steph Curry the greatest or he is just great? Steph Curry is the greatest shooter that I've ever seen. You knew that I had an opinion on this. [LAUGH] And I'm having more fun watching him than anybody since Michael Jordan in his peak. I was going to ask, is he better than Jordan? It's pretty remarkable. Even Steph wouldn't necessarily say he's better than Jordan is, but he's The fact that he's about my size and he's doing what he's doing is amazing. And I think the growth has been tremendous. I can imagine where he's gonna go to. That's a great point. It's rare where you get somebody who's already at the pinnacle, and then they take it another notch higher. And he's a wonderful young man. He's a lot of fun. Great, well, thank you guys again. Thank you so much. It's great to see you. Thanks. Thank you, I enjoyed it. Thank you. [BLANK_AUDIO]

Misty Copeland Sits Down for an Intimate Conversation with President Obama

In a three-part video series presented by TIME and ESSENCE, prima ballerina Misty Copeland sat down for an intimate conversation on race, body image and the importance of social activism.

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