First ladies have always occupied a special place in the hearts and minds of Americans. The mental image of a first lady for most Americans is probably a mash up between Eleanor Roosevelt, Jackie Kennedy and Nancy Reagan. This mental image and many other stereotypes were shaken to their core with the arrival of Michelle Obama.
As the first black family America has ever had in the White House, the Obama’s receive more scrutiny than many of their predecessors. Many of the Obama family’s actions are questioned not only as the acts of the family in the most important house in the nation, but also as those of a black family.
Most recently, Michelle Obama came under scrutiny after responding directly to a heckler sent byan LGBT group during a private DNC fundraiser. The heckler, Ellen Sturtz, was “taken aback” when the first lady essentially told her to pipe down or she would leave. Sturtz later told the media she was surprised at how “aggressive” Obama had been.
Let’s take a look at that for a moment. Sturtz thought Obama was being aggressive? Did Sturtz not just interrupt Obama in the middle of a speech just to yell at her? Obama, in responding to someone else yelling at her, is being categorized as the confrontational party. Furthermore, in many of the articles written about the incident, Obama is described as “confronting” a heckler, and the stereotype of the “angry black woman” has been mentioned a few times. And let’s not forget conservative TV and radio host Glenn Beck’s description of the First Lady as a “monster.”
Why is Obama being categorized as the aggressor in this situation?
If one of Obama’s white predecessors had spoken to a Sturtz in the same manner – directly and firmly – would the predecessor have been viewed as angry or aggressive? Obama stood up for herself when someone initiated aggressive behavior, and as a black woman, she is being portrayed as angry for doing anything other than idly taking the disrespect. Is that fair? No, it most certainly is not.
The language used in media reports about this incident is another confirmation that subtle yet pervasive prejudice still exists in our society. We need to take a look at how we’re talking about this incident. What roles are we casting on the players and why? Using language that plays into stereotypes and encourages white privilege is unacceptable. If women like Obama are consistently cast as the “angry black woman,” every time they stand up for themselves, are we taking them seriously? Casting Obama as the controversial figure in this incident is demeaning and dismissive. Obama isn’t the one who created a scene, yet she is being portrayed as such. In describing her behavior as confrontational and dramatic, it’s easier to dismiss what she’s saying.
We’ve never had a black first lady before, but that doesn’t mean that every unexpected move she makes is a result of her skin color. Maybe it’s time we stopped analyzing Obama’s actions as those of a black woman before her role as the first lady. Her behavior isn’t directed by the color of her skin and questioning whether her white predecessors would have made the same decisions is only perpetuating a culture where racism is acceptable.
Posted by Juliana Rose, YWCA Missoula Racial Justice Intern