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White Privilege And First Lady Michelle Obama’s Heckler

The mainstream media’s narrative about First Lady Michelle Obama‘s handling of a heckler has largely been positive, but has also ignored the role of race in the incident, and its aftermath. Online, however, protester Ellen Sturtz and her supporters have been taking criticism over their perceived sense that interrupting Michelle Obama is not only something they’re entitled to do, but that Mrs. Obama somehow should have welcomed. The source of that sense of entitlement, the theory goes, is white privilege.

It’s no wonder that this facet of the heckling incident has been ignored by the mainstream media. White privilege is even more elusive to them than barely-coded racism, because the mainstream media’s point of view is overwhelmingly white. White privilege is like Palmolive; most white people don’t even know they’re soaking in it until Madge tells them they are, and even then, they don’t believe it. That denial is only strengthened when the person is, themselves, part of a persecuted minority.

In this case, Ellen Sturtz exercised her First Amendment right to interrupt Michelle Obama during a speech, and her right to do so is not in question. Whether it was a good idea is a separate question. She was agitating for an executive order banning discrimination by federal contractors, which can arguably be seen as an incremental step in the direction of the Employment Non-discrimination Act (ENDA). As a beneficiary of straight white privilege, I can only offer my opinion, of limited value, that President Obama seems to have demonstrated that in his case, executive action tends to energize opposition. Patiently pursuing a durable solution instead has tended to work out better. Once again, that’s easy for me to say, since I already have the right to marry, and not be fired over my sexual identity, with the added bonus of ready access to taxicabs.

Also separate from this equation is the wisdom of targeting one of the most well-liked women in the country (despite years of vicious, unquestionably racial attacks by detractors), who is married to the president who has accomplished more for gay rights than any other in history. Throwing glitter on Michele Bachmann may not be all that effective, but at least it makes sense. On the other hand, we’re talking about the issue (although we should be pressing for ENDA, not an executive order), and even allies need to be pressed. From a PR standpoint, though, Mrs. Obama was the wrong choice.

What’s rankling many is Ellen Sturtz’s reaction to Michelle Obama’s kinda badass handling of her heckling. Unlike President Obama, who has a tendency to humor hecklers, sometimes to an absurd degree (Medea Benjamin‘s extended rant reminded me of nothing so much as Will Ferrell‘s Austin Powers character complaining at length about how badly burned he was), the First Lady enacted an instant referendum. Here’s how PolicyMic’s Lauren Rankin described Sturtz’s reaction:

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.

Rankin went on to point out the reactions of other liberals to the First Lady’s response:

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 Timescolumnist 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.

Ellen Sturtz has the excuse of being an apparently inexperienced activist, who perhaps misjudged the intimacy of a private event, and who also had a bad example set for her. Barely a week earlier, Medea Benjamin had let fly at the President, and received praise in response. That experience apparently emboldened her to whitesplain the whole thing to Michelle Obama. Via Twitter:

.@MichelleObama should not have snapped at Ellen Sturtz, who was speaking up re Obama’s unfulfilled promise to LGBT folks re #ENDA Go Ellen!

@cindynorth1 Ellen didn’t scream, she talked gently. Mrs. Obama should have said “Thank you for expressing your concerns so passionately”

@cultofpolitics @MichelleObama By getting “in her face” and threatening to leave. Not very gracious. PS Ellen was happy to pay take mic.

It needs to be pointed out here that the news media reported Mrs. Obama “moving towards” or “approaching” Sturtz, which the video bears out, and not the more aggressive “in her face” framing. In case Benjamin’s lecture on manners didn’t quite deliver the message, her next tweet did (emphasis mine):

. @MichelleObama should have been coached, long ago, on how to deal diplomatically w people who stand up to protest govt policies.

Yeah, let’s get Professor Henry Higgins on that right away.

Now, my initial privileged white make reaction was that Michelle Obama could have won bigger had she looked Sturtz in the eye, and said “Excuse me, but have you met my husband? People hate him way more than they hate gay people. If he signed an executive order, it would make ENDA harder to get passed, not easier.”

However, Sturtz’s reaction made me realize that Mrs. Obama faced a different choice in that moment. Because he needs to avoid being seen as the Angry Black Man at all costs, President Obama has had to take a soft, Aikido-like approach to hecklers. The result has been that white people now feel like they can holler during his speeches like they’re at a Mystery Science Theater watch party. Faced with that prospect, Michelle Obama, who doesn’t have policy-making authority in her toolbelt, had to decide if this is how she wants all of her speeches to go, to have well-intentioned white people roll over her with what’s really important. Her decision was no.

This incident appears to have exposed a rift between communities that have become key allies to each other, and that’s unfortunate. Ellen Sturtz took her misguided stand by paying her way into a megabucks private fundraiser, which is emblematic of the privilege associated with gay rights. Rosa Parks couldn’t have done something like that. Coverage of LGBT rights issues centers around things like big gay weddings, and so I think the stakes involved have become diminished.

Being able to marry the person you love, and being free from the fear that you’ll be fired for who you are, are very important, but there’s even more at stake. What animates me to fight for marriage equality, and against employment discrimination, is the elimination of a second-class citizenship that directly contributes to a suicide rate, among gay teenagers, that is three times greater than average, and to violence against them. No imperfect messenger should obscure that, and hopefully, will not.

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