Why Did Ellen Sturtz Think It Was Okay to Heckle the FLOTUS While She Spoke About Black Youth in Crisis?

So, what was Michelle Obama talking about when that GetEqual heckler interrupted her? When I first read about First Lady Michelle Obama’s confrontation with Ellen Sturtz of the gay rights group GetEqual, I laughed. The first lady was keeping it real. Sturtz clearly did not know who she was messing with, I thought.

It’s no secret that the FLOTUS does not handle as well as her husband the disrespectful ways in which her family’s been treated while her husband’s been in office. She admitted as much at least three times when she and the POTUS appeared on Oprah last year. Is it possible Sturtz then knew exactly who she was messing with and heckled the first lady hoping to get a rise?

Over at Policymic, feminist activist Laura Rankin has a provocative, well-reasoned post about the first lady’s confrontation with Sturtz. Rankin’s post is entitled “White Lady Heckles Michelle Obama — What Happens Next is Something Black Women Know All Too Well.” And at The Root, Tracy Clayton’s collected tweets from some black folks on Twitter about the incident under the headline “Why heckling Michelle Obama doesn’t pay.” These two writers have pretty much covered all the angles, including how quickly black women, even the FLOTUS, gets slapped with the angry, black woman label, and they’ve linked to others. So, I won’t do a rhetorical analysis here.

Instead, I’ll discuss what occurred to me as I listened to the audio of the exchange between the FLOTUS and Sturtz.

To me, it sounded as though Mrs. Obama was talking about the plight of children of color in urban communities. It’s a shame Sturtz drowned that out, but I wasn’t sure, so I searched the Internet for the speech. None of the articles I found discussed what Mrs. Obama was trying to say when Sturtz chose to interrupt her. They merely said that she was speaking at a Democratic Party fundraiser.

When I found the transcript of her at Whitehouse.gov, I discovered Mrs. Obama had been talking about the plight of black youth at Harper High School on Chicago’s South Side, where she grew up.  Sturtz’s decision to interrupt the speech at that point is worthy of contemplation. Why did she think it was okay to heckle the FLOTUS while the FLOTUS talked about black youth in crisis? Why did Sturtz deem that discrimination against gay people deserved more attention than black children under threat daily, living in communities overridden with drugs, gangs, guns, and murder?

Perhaps Sturtz placed her cause above black children and youth in crisis in American cities because she knows that in this nation she’s destined to assume a higher place. I won’t go so far as to say that she doesn’t give a damn about black youth because I don’t know her, but I do think that if she cared at all about black children–if she didn’t think gay rights in the workplace were more important at that moment than the rights of black children and young people on the streets–then she would not have chosen to heckle the FLOTUS during that particular speech.

I say this as someone who’s helped plan political strategy before and as someone living in New Orleans where we face the same kind of crisis Chicago is facing. Just last month I observed how quickly our problems fade from the headlines. We had a  mass shooting on Mother’s Day. By Monday night, the story had vanished from national news. Such fleeting interest in even a bleeding lead makes me think that not enough powerful, privileged people care what happens to black children and youth in urban communities. But drawing attention to this crisis is personal for me and apparently it is personal for Michelle Obama as well.

I also speak here as someone who thinks there’s nothing wrong with citizens protesting and sometimes heckling officials and as someone who disapproves when one minority is pitted against the other in the battle for Civil Rights and social justice. So, then, you may ask why bring up the words Sturtz chose to interrupt if those words force us to look at race? Why don’t I just applaud Sturtz’s right to heckle and shut up?

Well, I won’t because I can’t. I must recognize the moment Sturtz chose to heckle the FLOTUS because Sturtz failed to recognize the moment herself. She failed to recognize that the moment did not belong her but to those children, and she took their moment because on some level she must know that white privilege, even shielding the body of a gay rights activist, still trumps blackness in America.

Here is what Sturtz cut off:

MRS. OBAMA: Now, Harper is located in one of the toughest neighborhoods in the city, Englewood. You all know Englewood, right? A community that has been torn apart by poverty and hopelessness; by gangs, drugs, and guns.

And that afternoon, I sat down with these 25 students — and these kids were the best and the brightest at that school. The valedictorian, the football star, kids in ROTC. But let me tell you something about the kids at Harper. Every day, they face impossible odds — jobless parents addicted to drugs; friends and loved ones shot before their very eyes.

In fact, when the school counselor asked these young men and women whether they had ever known any who had been shot, every single one of those students raised their hand. So she then asked them, “What do you think when the weather forecast says ’85 and sunny?’” Now, you would assume that nice weather like that, a beautiful day like today, would be a good thing. Not for these kids. They replied that a weather report like that puts fear in their hearts, because in their neighborhood, when the weather is nice, that’s when gangs come out and the shootings start.

So, see, for these wonderful kids, instead of reveling in the joys of their youth — college applications and getting ready for prom and getting that driver’s license — these young people are consumed with staying alive. And there are so many kids in this country just like them -– kids with so much promise, but so few opportunities; good kids who are doing everything they can to break the cycle and beat the odds. And they are the reason we are here tonight. We cannot forget that. I don’t care what we — they, those kids, they are the reason we’re here.

And today, we need to be better for them. Not for us — for them. We need to be better for all of our children, our kids in this country. Because they are counting on us to give them the chances they need for the futures they deserve. (Applause.)

So here’s the thing — we cannot wait for the next presidential election to get fired up and ready to go. We cannot wait. Right now, today, we have an obligation to stand up for those kids. And I don’t care what you believe in, we don’t —


MRS. OBAMA: Wait, wait, wait. One of the things —


MRS. OBAMA: One of the things that I don’t do well is this. (Applause.) Do you understand? (Applause.) One of the things — now —

(Inaudible audience interruption.)

Ellen Sturtz
Ellen Sturtz

The FLOTUS finished her speech, calling for more gun safety laws and reminding listeners that voters should be active in every election not just the presidential election.

Sturtz must know that she possesses a level of privilege that escapes Mrs. Obama even as First Lady of the United States. If nothing else, Sturtz’s outburst and the way she discusses its aftermath show that white privilege blinds and deafens its beneficiaries. She couldn’t see or hear the emotion pouring through Michelle Obama in that moment of her speech. Consequently, Sturtz failed to identify with the very people the gay community repeatedly challenge to identify with them, African-Americans.

African-Americans have been asked to see gay rights through the same lens that blacks have seen their own struggle for Civil Rights. This plea became most strident during the Proposition 8 campaign when African-Americans were erroneously blamed for the gay community’s loss.

I don’t know whether race played a role in the FLOTUS’s reaction to the heckling or not, but I do know that after nearly six years in office, Michelle Obama is still black and must suspect that there are some things people will do to her that they would not have done to other first ladies, especially supposed allies. Wow. I bet she never thought she would get heckled at a Democratic Party fundraiser.

It’s possible, too, that the FLOTUS had simply had a difficult day; Sturtz’s heckling may have felt like a boulder landing on her last nerve. Nevertheless, whatever the reason she chose to confront Sturtz rather than ignore her, it’s become clear through the way the media and the blogosphere have reacted to Mrs. Obama facing off Sturtz that many people in this country still don’t understand black women in the context of power dynamics.

I support legislation to stop discrimination based on gender identity and orientation, but I cannot support Sturtz heckling Michelle Obama as the first lady addressed the needs of black youth in crisis. As the FLOTUS said, “Today we need to be better for them. Not for us — for them.” If Sturtz had been listening rather than planning her own moment of protest, then perhaps she wouldn’t have been “taken aback” as she said she was when Mrs. Obama walked over and looked her in the eye. If Sturtz had been listening, maybe she would have said instead, “Please, Mrs. Obama, forgive my bad timing.”


Editir’s Note: Nordette Adams is a poet and freelance writer in New Orleans. Her blog is Whose Shoes Are These Anyway.