Michelle Obama’s Transcendent Moment

We're not postracial, but after the first lady's heckling response, we might be post-"angry black woman."

Michelle Obama at Washington, D.C., book signing in May 2013 (Alex Wong/Getty Images)
Michelle Obama at Washington, D.C., book signing in May 2013 (Alex Wong/Getty Images)

Protest is a right in these United States, but being “taken aback” by the fact that the first lady doesn’t suffer any fools is just plain wrong. Did Sturtz simply think herself above reproach? Or perhaps that the first lady, once dogged by persistent stereotyping, would choose to remain silent at an event where she was invited to speak out? On both counts, Sturtz misjudged Obama’s mettle.

Black folks immediately recognized Obama’s quick quip as familiar, with commenters on Twitter, Facebook and beyond sharing a virtual head nod and “umm-hmm” moment. “When a black woman says, ‘Do you understand?’ ” wrote one Gawker commenter, “that’s not a question; that’s a statement. Just reading that took me back. Mom did not play that!”

But what’s more is that most of the comment-box defenses (and even critiques) of the first lady weren’t rooted in racial politics at all. Obama, who struggled to shrug off the stubborn labels of being a “strong,” “militant” or “angry” black woman early on, has, for the most part, avoided those pejoratives in this case.

There was a time — not too long ago — when the comments section on every news site covering the heckling incident would have been flooded with vitriol spewed at the first lady. That predictably idiotic tide seems to have shifted. But make no mistake: Not everyone is sailing in the first lady’s direction, although the ride itself seems much smoother than in the past. 

Whether or not folks agreed with Obama’s swift handling of the heckler or wished she had at least acknowledged Sturtz’s concerns, the point of contention boiled down to the respect due the first lady of the United States, instead of the respect due a black woman or black women’s stereotypical neck-jerk reactions.

Like it or not, Michelle Obama’s reaction to Sturtz was a Michelle moment, not a stereotypical black woman’s touchiness or a South Side time-out. It was simply the first lady being the first lady on her own terms, and for better or worse, that’s a step in the right direction.

Helena Andrews is a contributing editor at The Root and author of Bitch Is the New Black, a memoir in essays. Follow her on Twitter.