You Don't Heckle Michelle Obama. You Just Don't.

Ellen Sturtz wasn't just rude. She also wasted $500 on a pointless exercise.

Jun 6, 2013 at 10:00am | Leave a comment

Let's talk about Ellen Sturtz, the 56-year-old white lesbian who thought it was appropriate to heckle First Lady of the United States Michelle Obama at a private fundraising event on Tuesday night, and seemed taken aback to discover that not only was she being rude, but that Mrs. Obama was fully prepared to call her on it.

There's a whole lot going on here to talk about, from the perspective of race, activism and the basic rules of how human beings interact with each other. 

What happened?

For those just tuning in, Michelle Obama was scheduled to give a 20-minute speech at a private fundraising event for the Democratic National Committee. Private as in "held in someone's home." Attendees paid $500 for the privilege of mingling with some serious DNC bigwigs and getting to hear the First Lady. 

Partway through the speech, Ellen Sturtz, who was near the front, stood up and interrupted the First Lady because apparently Michelle Obama's speech wasn't covering the issues to her satisfaction. Mrs. Obama had just started talking about disadvantaged children, and evidently she didn't cover LGBQT issues thoroughly enough for Ms. Sturtz, who took it upon herself to take over. 

"One of the things I don't do well is this," Mrs. Obama said, before stepping down from the podium and approaching Ms. Sturtz. She informed Ms. Sturtz that: "Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice."

The audience applauded Mrs. Obama, and the heckler was politely escorted out. 

Personally, I think the First Lady handled this quite elegantly and beautifully -- no surprise, because she's one of the most awesome ladies ever. (We all know this is a FLOTUS appreciation blog, right?) She was faced with something that's jarring for anyone, no matter how experienced and skilled, and her tactic of flipping the heckler's words back on herself, and the audience, was fantastic. 

You don't mess with Michelle Obama, folks. 

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Photo credit: Steve Jurvetson.

Heckling is rude

You don't interrupt while the adults are talking, folks. You just don't. You do not attend an event with the express intent of interrupting it, being rude both to the speaker and the audience. Other people were at that event to hear Michelle Obama, not Ellen Sturtz, they paid a lot of money to be there, and they were focused on what the First Lady had to say. 

More to the point, though, heckling is also hugely counterproductive.

These kinds of "activist" stunts are getting common thanks to groups like CodePink and GetEqual (which appears to have sponsored Ms. Sturtz' little foray into the big leagues). Most are dominated by white, middle class women who have a very fixed idea of what "activism" is, and it seems to involve social disruption. 

Ms. Sturtz says she described herself as an "old abrasive lesbian" when she was escorted out and added, "Is there anything wrong with that?"

Oh, Ms. Sturtz. I know your kind. They live among my community too. And they are so often self-centered women who are convinced that they are the most oppressed, that they alone get to and should speak, that they hold the keys to all the problems with society. And many of them think that being appallingly rude and disruptive is totally appropriate.

Which isn't to say that disruption can't be a powerful tool for change, because it totally can, but not when you're making a professional career of it to the exclusion of all other forms of engagement, which is what a lot of these types of "activist groups" seem to be doing. This event didn't just provide an opportunity to harass the First Lady. 

It also provided an opportunity to directly meet policymakers and people involved in proposing, refining and targeting legislation. The very people you'd want to connect with if you want to make a difference and get your issues into the sunlight. The people that a savvy activist would network with at events like this, with the goal of getting contact information and connections and bending a few sympathetic ears. 

Ellen Sturtz wasn't just rude. She also wasted $500 on a pointless exercise. 

Government 101 

Ms. Sturtz wants an executive order on employment nondiscrimination. She, like many other LGBQT people, is concerned that because the Employment Nondiscrimination Act (ENDA) hasn't passed, there's a large chunk of the workforce that is highly vulnerable to discrimination with no legal recourse. That's a huge problem, and Congress has been struggling over the bill for years. 

So she, along with a lot of other activists, has decided that the solution should be an executive order signed by the president. I can see why one might want to buttonhole the First Lady to talk to her about it, since she's got a pretty direct line to the president, but the appropriate time to do that is not when she's otherwise engaged. 

Moreover, an executive order is so not the solution we want to this problem. Here's a little government 101, for those who are unfamiliar with the basics of how executive orders work:

Presidents can sign executive orders at will. President Obama could sign one tomorrow demanding that we all eat a pound of cheddar cheese a day. But guess what? The next president in office could rescind that executive order with another executive order. Presidents do this all the time, which is precisely why we generally do not advocate that Presidents solve systemic social problems with fragile documents that can basically be shredded after four years. 

An executive order can sometimes buy time, but it's not equivalent to legislation. And sometimes, signing an executive order can anger legislators, making it that much harder to get Congress to enact something more permanent. 

While President Obama may not necessarily always be on the side of LGBQT rights, his decision not to sign an executive order here isn't actually evidence that he hates gay people or that he's a bad president. 

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Photo credit: U.S. Embassy, Jakarta.

Now can we talk about the racism?

The President and First Lady have been subjected to appalling racism from the moment Barack Obama announced his campaign to, well, now. Not surprising, given that racism is a huge problem in this country and the Obamas are the first Black couple in the White House, but important, because racism isn't always obvious. 

It's not just that people are hurling racial epithets at the Obamas, making cartoon caricatures of them, parading an endless series of racist jokes before us, using racially loaded words and framing, and making snide comments about race and the White House. It's also that racism results in a fundamental difference in approach when it comes to a Black POTUS, or First Lady, and a white POTUS, or First Lady. 

White people feel far more comfortable being completely and utterly rude to the Obamas. In some cases this is very conscious; condescension and very direct racism are clearly present. In others, it's more insidious: white people don't even think about how racism is everywhere in society, including in them. They're convinced that because they are activists for 'progressive causes,' they can't possibly be racist. 

So they don't see anything racist or problematic about harassing a Black woman in the middle of a speech, silencing her and telling her that her words aren't important right now. They might say "well, we'd do the same thing to a white person," but would they? Certainly many of these so-called activist organizations have a track record to suggest that they would, but if they did, would it be equivalent? 

No. Because heckling a Black woman who is trying to make a speech is not the same thing as heckling a white woman. Likewise, interrupting a woman is not the same thing as interrupting a man. Both actions carry very loaded implications. There is an inherent power imbalance going on there that needs to be addressed, and if you don't examine it, it's just going to sit there, quietly bubbling away. 

And how about the response to the situation? We have white people opining on "how Michelle should have responded," with some even going so far as to suggest that she has "stuff to learn," "should have been coached," and "needs training." Like, what, she's a dog? Are you kidding me with this? You're seriously going to tell a professional, accomplished, grown woman descended from slaves that she "needs training"?

Inevitably, of course, we also have the Angry Black Woman trope rearing her firebreathing, Afro-bedecked head, terrorizing white audiences the world over. Ms. Sturtz claims Mrs. Obama was "aggressive," which is basically like throwing gasoline on a fire. "Aggressive" is a codeword: it means the mean ole Black lady didn't abide by the rules and take it like she was supposed to. 

It's "aggressive" to ask someone to please not interrupt you while you are talking? To do so in a crisp, clear way that makes it very obvious that you know you're being disrespected and you're not going to tolerate it? Or is it only "aggressive" to ask for common courtesy when you're a Black woman?

Those scary Black ladies! Ms. Sturtz has neatly positioned herself as the victim here, creating a situation where suddenly the focus is on how the First Lady responded, rather than on how inappropriate and rude it was to heckle her in the first place. Clever trick, there! 

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Photo credit: Statsministerens kontor.

Michelle, I salute you

In a painfully public world where you're constantly on display, you get even more scrutiny than the usual First Lady because of your race, your background, and who you are. And a lot of people seem to be hastening to tell you that you're doing it wrong; that your response to this situation was inappropriate and "aggressive." 

Curious, and interesting, that those people are almost universally white, and clearly troubled by the idea of a Black woman in power. The conversation I want to have here isn't just about how someone apparently thought it was totally acceptable to heckle the First Lady of the United States at a private event, but why the Obamas have been subjected to an endless tide of racism, and what it says about us culturally that we are so reluctant to confront the racial implications of how we talk about, talk to, and talk with the Obamas.