First Lady Michelle Obama is known for her incredible intelligence, grace under pressure, and her charming amiability. As a result, she is one of the most popular political figures in the country. And quite honestly, she has to be; as the first black First Lady of the United States, Michelle Obama must navigate a dual terrain of sexist and racist stereotypes and bigotry with a friendly, open, and non-confrontational demeanor. But after she confronted a heckler during her speech at a Democratic fundraiser on Tuesday night, the response revealed what feminist and anti-racist activists have known all along: Michelle Obama cannot win, and it is because she is a black woman.
The heckler was activist Ellen Sturtz of the gay-rights group GetEqual, who interrupted the First Lady’s speech demanding that President Barack Obama sign an executive order giving full equality under the law to all, regardless of sexual orientation or gender identity. Cutting off her speech, Michelle Obama descended from the podium, walked over to Sturtz, and promptly said “listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have one choice.” Listen to the exchange here:
The crowd responded with support for the First Lady while Sturtz was escorted out. And that’s where, if the First Lady was a white woman, the incident would have likely ended. But of course, Michelle Obama is not a white woman.
When interviewed after being escorted out of the fundraiser, Sturtz said of the First Lady, “She came right down in my face. I was taken aback.” Interesting. Sturtz assumed that because the First Lady is supposed to be the embodiment of grace and cool, that she should stand at her lectern and silently endure what she felt was blatant disrespect. Instead, Michelle Obama decided that she had had enough and instead of shouting from across the room, spoke to Sturtz face-to-face and demanded respect. I can’t help but think that if Hillary Clinton or Laura Bush had done the same, that we would all be nodding our heads in support of the First Lady defining how she wishes to be treated.
Notice the language Sturtz uses to describe the encounter. Rutgers Anthropology Ph.D student Donna Auston emphasizes that Sturtz’s word choice of “taken aback” is one of distinct privilege; Sturtz sees herself as above reproach in this situation. As Auston inquires, why was Sturtz surprised at Obama’s response? “Is it because you did not expect her to exercise agency? Did you not expect her to assert that she is your equal?” Auston asks. Either black women are supposed to tacitly accept maltreatment and disrespect, or when they do exercise their agency, they are branded as the “Angry Black Woman.”
The choice of words Sturtz employed indicate that she has cast the First Lady as the aggressor who over-zealously responded to reason with anger. And once you label a black woman as “angry,” you have, in essence, invalidated any response, no matter how justified or rational it may be. You can silence any challenge or dissenting thought from a black woman by even remotely alluding to this offensive stereotype. Writer and creator of This Week in Blackness’ “Angry Black Lady Chronicles” Imani Gandy perfectly emphasizes this point: “Anytime [black women] speak up, not even to just defend ourselves, but just to say anything, all of a sudden it’s ‘Why are you so angry?’”
The response has revealed the troubling reality that if you’re a strong, independent, educated, empowered black woman, you are held to a different standard. Everyone from New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof to recent heckler of President Barack Obama and co-founder of Code Pink Medea Benjamin tweeted their disapproval at Michelle Obama’s response, criticizing the First Lady for her “lack of “diplomacy” and snidely labeling it as “not her finest moment.” These comments criticize both Michelle Obama’s intelligence and rationality. As feminist media activist Jamia Wilson tweeted, to attack a woman of color’s communication skills “is old hat & reiterates damaging stereotypes.” Kristof and Benjamin are brazenly perpetuating those stereotypes in their responses.
If you make the choice to heckle a speaker, fine. But to interrupt a speech by the First Lady of the United States and then, when she confronts you, claim you feel threatened, is a fairly inane reaction. The First Lady is a person, like any of us, and she has the right to determine the way she is treated. She has the right to speak in her own defense, just as you have the right to speak in yours. And she should not be caricatured, lectured, and demonized as hyper-aggressive or overly sensitive, phrases that we are so quick to call out when directed at white women, for defending herself and setting boundaries.
I’m sure that Michelle Obama is reminded of her identity as a black woman daily, and as this response has shown, in ways that reify that identity as less-than. She has previously dealt with the racist, sexist mischaracterization of the “Angry Black Woman,” and this instance most certainly will not be her last. The fact remains that if you are a black woman in the United States, your actions, words, tone, appearance, characteristics, personal associations, etc., are subject to intense scrutiny and perpetual chastisement. Black women cannot defend themselves or express normal human emotions without expecting and receiving the sad reflection of our racist, patriarchal societal norms in return.
At the end of the American day, black women just cannot win.