Wednesday, June 5, 2013
So Much for Sisterhood: On Liberal White Lesbians, Entitlement and Benign Racism
It was only a matter of time.
Michelle Obama is tall, intelligent, and is a graduate from two of America's best private universities. She is a black woman from a working-class home.
She is also the First Lady of the United States of America.
But you know?
She owes a lot to a lot of different factors and constituencies, right?
I mean, she has admitted as much.
How her parents were tough, fair, and loving. How her father, even after being stricken with a debilitating illness, always maintained his work ethic, not just for practical reasons but also because he wanted his children to understand that one should endeavor to power through difficulties and overcome challenges.
She owes the people of Chicago, too, those who supported her husband during his community organizing and later his political career as a young Senator from Illinois.
Of course she owes women, also, especially women who have supported her healthy food and her exercising initiatives. As for any constituencies -- blacks, women, union workers, and gays and lesbians -- that have written big checks for President Obama's two presidential election bids? Well, yeah of course, Michelle Obama is obliged to them, right?
What I am doing here is attempting to put myself into the brain of Ellen Sturtz, the 56 year-old California resident who landed in D.C. recently. She is part of an organization known as GetEQUAL, which is affiliated with a human rights organization known as Code Pink. Sturtz turned up at a fancy Democratic fundraiser in the bucolic Northwest neighborhood,Kalorama, on Tuesday night, and reportedly paid $500 to attend. Sturtz is advocating for a change to Federal workforce laws that would protect lesbians and gays against discrimination. She wanted President Obama to support the effort. Of course, President Obama was not at that fancy fundraiser in Northwest D.C., on Tuesday evening....but Michelle Obama was. Close enough, right? And also, Michelle Obama owes Sturtz, get it?
An Iraqi Man Threw His Shoe at Dubya: The Worst Presidential-level Heckling Ever!
I really, honestly, want to understand why Ellen Sturtz felt it was A-OK to shout out demands to Michelle Obama. For the record, I engaged in this same thought-experiment a few years ago, when that guy threw the shoe at George Bush, remember that? Admittedly, I undertook that exercise in that instance in an amused vein: Me, as the Shoe-thrower: "I wonder how much time I will have to set my AIM before I fling this shoe at President George Bush of America, and also, how much time I will have to drop and roll before the Secret Service comes and kicks my ass?"
I also watched with mild bemusement two weeks ago when Madea Benjamin of the advocacy group Code Pink heckled President Obama. In that instance, I took to the Twitter to observe that the President handled Benjamin with strategic calm, and TV-ready aplomb. My colleague Jeff Winbush later exposed Benjamin as a publicity-seeking crackpot-cum-gadfly but I demurred.
What I noted in the few comments that I shared during that Beltway story du jour was that the President, weighted with his Office and history, very wisely "tolerated" the woman who interrupted his address on terrorism and national security not once, twice, but three times. He is after all The President of the United States of America, so it is a big deal that he actually acknowledged that Benjamin raised a topic that was worth debating (drone strikes, secret prisons and the like.)
But I am talking about nuances of gender and culture here with this recent heckling of Michelle Obama. And I am drawing your attention to a fraught contemporary history of tone deaf white women who Mean Well but who really, deep down, either resent, fear, or are deeply flummoxed by successful, confident, well-spoken black women.
Yes, it is personal -- also, political.
It is personal because I am familiar with the Ellen Sturtz types, having grown up in San Francisco, and worked in media for many years. Without irony, I say that many of my closest friends are white, and few of them are lesbians. I know this demographic to be as diverse as any other.
But I am not trying to give cover to any partisans in the Left or Right wing of media when I say this: The shops that I've worked in since the mid-1980s have always had at least a handful of women like Ellen Sturtz in them -- self-righteous, Messianic zealots. Women who are so PC that that they made me want to go buy a gun, a Ford F-350 pickup and hightail it to my Mother's ancestral home in Rock Springs, Wyoming to hunt elk and complain about uppity Native Americans.
But really, this is no laughing matter. Politics on the ground impact politics in the voting booth, which in turn affect policy. These twin towers of realpolitik in turn affect economics, for all of us. I am an expert in my field, Communicating. Mrs. Obama is an expert in her field -- public service and yes, organizational governance. And yet neither of us are immune from the hoary stereotypes that many white people still hold about blacks in America in general, and about black women in particular. We are not immune from the attempts to dominate, "alpha," or otherwise diminish our validity by individuals or institutions that view us as expendable or unworthy of respect or serious consideration.
It is not a "one day" or a "single news cycle" story, it is constant.
For example, in the very fiscal quarter when Sheryl Sanberg made her courageous stand for women in the corporate workforce, I was in touch with a close friend who was having run-ins with her own cut-rate Ellen Sturtz on the job. My friend was daily being described as "aggressive" by a white woman lesbian who considered herself to be a good, staunch liberal. This person said to my friend that my friend was was "loud-mouthed," "aggressive," "confrontational" -- all in the context of what should have been professional discussions involving work. In short order, it became evident to my friend that this individual was blind to her own entitlement.
My friend's "boss" is an individual who did not compete for the executive position she held. She was given the job thanks to a family connection. Her position arrived courtesy of what Rutgers professor Nancy DiTomaso forcefully describes in her book, "The American Non-Dilemma: Racial Inequality Without Racism." In shorthand, Professor DiTomaso describes the "hook up factor" that many wealthy white people enjoy, the closed networks of family members and friends that sure comes in handy when the economy contracts.
This Ellen Sturtz doppleganger that my friend dealt with is, according to my African-American friend, acutely unqualified in several core competencies required in the particular position that she held. Moreover, this individual is also culturally tone-deaf. How did my friend arrive at that conclusion? In a series of meetings, this "boss" admitted that she knew nothing about the Unitarian Church, or the African-Methodist Episcopal Church or -- God help her -- the details of the Healthcare Reform Act.
And yet, this person (who, my friend assured me, is of an age at which one should by rights be aware of such cultural, economic and political touchstones), regularly and with a degree of alpha-entitlement bordering on testosterone-driven aggression, insisted that my friend was out of line for sharing her professional counsel on key aspects of the work...assignments that called for my friend's expertise in areas for which the "boss" had zero competency.
"I am Looking For Equality Before I Die!" (While Some of Us Have Ancestors Who Literally Died.)
Yet, owing to the power differential of the arrangement, this particular woman boss, a self-described "liberal," and "lesbian," felt comfortable remarking regularly that my friend's attempts to press for high quality standards, clearly-defined ethical guidelines, and technical innovations in regard to the work -- all delivered by my friend calmly and with good humor, my friend says -- stemmed not from my friend's professional expertise, but from what the white woman boss viewed as scary "aggression" on my friend's part. Were my friend not as experienced as she is within her field, she might have been upended by those exchanges. As I received this information, I had no trouble relating: in the past, similar workplace encounters have throw me for loops of self-doubt and feelings of inadequacy.
But by now, my friend has thick skin, and a finely-attuned radar to this dynamic (which is not to say that I am hyper-sensitive or spoiling for fight, nor prone to "playing the race card.") We're not perfect but women like me and my friend are self-aware and pragmatic. And speaking only for myself, any white woman in a workplace who feels threatened by me is very likely insecure, incompetent, culturally ignorant or a combination thereof.
Ellen Sturtz -- who described as "aggressive" Mrs. Obama's action, after Mrs. O walked over and spoke to Sturtz after Sturtz had rudely interrupted the First Lady's address -- seems to have a lot in common with that "liberal" lesbian I described above. Mrs. Obama did not yell or scream or grab Sturtz around the neck. But she did make herself clear....which apparently led Sturtz to feel "taken aback." Coded words are now being deployed by Sturtz and her ilk to distract from Sturtz's coded behavior, that moment when she attempted to make an unacceptable intrusion on Michelle Obama at the fundraiser.
More important: There is a sense of entitlement that drives these kinds of interactions between black and white women, particularly women of a certain vintage. In the minds of these white women, it is a case of, "Hey 'Sista Friend,' I know what's best -- and aren't you grateful for my insight?" Their enthusiasm for their own righteousness is an assault, a bullying tactic. But Michelle Obama is, as Sturtz learned, the ultimate Alpha Woman at this time -- she doesn't owe Sturtz a single thing, least of all her own dignity.
I am not grateful. Nor will I remain silent when confronted with such self-righteous, pseudo-liberalism and cultural and professional incompetence. It appears that in that garden fundraiser in Kalorama on Tuesday night, Mrs. Obama didn't either.