There was a considerable amount of copy last week devoted to the story of First Lady Michelle Obama and the Heckler. Ellen Sturtz, the heckler, attended a private fundraiser on behalf of LGBT civil rights group Get Equal. Sturtz interrupted Obama, the invited guest for the $500-per-ticket event, throughout her remarks, demanding that President Obama sign the Employment Non-Discrimination Act on behalf of the LGBT community.
The First Lady handled the situation deftly, approaching Sturtz and replying, “One of the things I don’t do well is this, do you understand? Listen to me or you can take the mic, but I’m leaving. You all decide. You have a choice.”
And in this impromptu game of political survivor, the crowd quickly sided with the First Lady, and Sturtz was voted off the island.
What’s remarkable about this story, if it is remarkable at all, was the response from CODEPINK, a women-led grassroots peace and social justice movement, which took to Twitter to criticize the First Lady and her lack of enthusiasm for being interrupted:
.@michelleobama should have been coached, long ago, on how to deal diplomatically w ppl who stand up to protest govt policies.
Many Twitter users quickly defended the First Lady, citing that CODEPINK played into sexist, racist stereotypes about angry black women. Once again, the fault lines between the feminist movement and women of color were exposed.
Black feminist theorists have long cited the failures of both feminism and black activism to include black women’s rights as a priority, if at all. Black feminism is predicated on the intersection of sexism, class oppression and racism. The Color Purple author Alice Walker’s term “womanism” comes out of black women having different experiences and more intense types of oppression than their white counterparts, given their unique positioning within power structures.
CODEPINK and even Sturtz’s comments that Mrs. Obama was “aggressive” in her response to Sturtz smacks of coded language. Would CODEPINK have suggested that Hillary Clinton needed to be coached?
In light of the backlash, the organization later deleted the related tweets, issuing an apology for their remarks, which they said displayed “an undeniable insensitivity to persons of color, especially women of color.”
“By tweeting about how Michelle Obama ‘should have’ responded to Ellen Sturtz’s interruption, we behaved in such a way that reflected a long history of white women dictating how Black women should behave,” the organization said. “Our actions were not in keeping with our own values as an organization. While yesterday’s interruption was not a CODEPINK action, it is exemplary of CODEPINK tactics, and the way we responded to it was insensitive and thoughtless.”
While this may have been a teachable moment for CODEPINK, the issue remains. That anyone would take issue with the First Lady of the United States firmly addressing someone who was rude to her in a private home, where she was invited, is preposterous. That anyone would take issue with a black woman choosing to speak up in her own defense is dangerous.