Why GetEQUAL’s heckling of Michelle Obama backfired

First lady Michelle Obama speaks during a veterans employment event in the East Room April 30, 2013 at the White House. She was heckled on Tuesday night by a...
First lady Michelle Obama speaks during a veterans employment event in the East Room April 30, 2013 at the White House. She was heckled on Tuesday night by a...
Alex Wong/Getty Images

The heckling of Michelle Obama by GetEQUAL protester Ellen Sturtz at a private fundraiser is an unfortunate example of why the relationship between black and white feminists is strained.  The optics of a white woman protester yelling during the First Lady’s speech was meant to put pressure on the White House for an executive order prohibiting federal contractors from discriminating against LGBT employees, an order President Obama refused to sign more than a year ago.

What it accomplished was bringing the inherent sense of privilege and racial insensitivity of groups like GetEQUAL to the forefront. Code Pink co-founder (and recent presidential interrupter) Medea Benjamin expressed her thoughts about how the First Lady should have addressed the protester:

[tweet https://twitter.com/medeabenjamin/status/342127334981255168]

Perhaps groups such as these should likewise be coached on how to deal with the response they’re getting from many African-Americans to Sturtz’s protest. GetEQUAL may have considered their protest of a helpful boost for the Employment Non-Discrimination Act (ENDA), but they soon discovered there were some immediate drawbacks. What planners failed to consider was how Sturtz’s confrontation and how they dealt with the reaction to it, symbolically, drudged up a painful, tense history of antiquated racial norms that demanded African-Americans exhibit deference to white people, especially women.

Sturtz’s protest evoked the “angry black woman” trope by saying that she was “taken aback” that Obama would actually confront her eye to eye. Media coverage also played along, portraying the First Lady as the aggressor rather than Sturtz, simply for approaching and addressing her directly. (Perhaps staying on the stage and using a microphone would have been less aggressive.)

Such a characterization read instantly to many as an exhibition of white privilege. Similar statements of any black person “stepping out of their place” in the 19th and 20th centuries resulted in beatings and lynchings. It is out of that history of pain from which much of the scorn and derision of Sturtz actions arises.

Let’s not forget, also, how much of this is about Michelle Obama’s husband. Anna Holmes wrote in Time:

Anyone who was been paying attention would have recognized in Sturtz’s outburst a petulance and sense of entitlement that echoes some of screechiest, bigoted and most resentful critics of the President himself, who have spent the past 6 years questioning Mr. Obama’s–and, by extension, black Americans’–legitimacy to lead, have an opinion, or even exist. (Remember Joe Wilson?)

Code Pink’s Benjamin only made it worse by weighing in with her tweet and a patronizing “guide” to handling a heckler’s interruption. Again, this type of respectability policing of African-Americans reeks of a tortured racial history between black and white women. While Code Pink has apologized for their statements, the damage has been done. Both GetEQUAL and Code Pink have lost credibility with a significant number of the African-American community, jeopardizing the very causes like ENDA they claim to support and advocate for LGBT equality.

The logic employed by GetEQUAL to think that their wish to see ENDA enacted by forcing the issue with this type of protest backfired. Now, not only are they being criticized by other LGBT groups, they have the wrath of African-Americans who are weary and disgusted with the disrespect shown to the president and the first lady. Most importantly, they have found out that Michelle Obama is a real woman, with real feelings. Perhaps in all of their advocating, they have forgotten that point.

If there is anyone who understands the value of protest, it is the African-American community. We may not always agree, but we definitely know what it can accomplish. I teach a class at the University of Pennsylvania every two years on Martin Luther King Jr. and Malcolm X. These men and countless others considered how to do effective protesting along with countless other black and white people, with Jews, Catholics, atheists, and Protestants. They trained protesters to be determined, focused, and strategic–not to be self-centered.

So for those who claimed I pulled a race card by talking about the incident in racial terms, it is not a race card–it is a long tortured historical memory and experience of racial animus. Challenging the wife of the president you hope will sign the bill seems an odd way to effect real change for the LGBT community.

Challenge the president, not his wife.

Anthea Butler is a professor of Religious Studies and the Graduate Chair of Religion at the University of Pennsylvania. You can find her on Twitter and at antheabutler.com. She joined the conversation on this topic on Saturday’s edition of “Melissa Harris-Perry.” See the video below.