Most people know Jessica Williams as a former correspondent for The Daily Show. She also co-hosts a hysterical podcast called 2 Dope Queens. Jessica Williams is funny, brilliant, and on the verge of becoming known as more than just that girl who used to be on The Daily Show. Sundance marks her first time headlining a feature film in The Incredible Jessica James which was well received last week with many calling it her breakthrough moment. So I think it’s safe to say Jessica Williams was really excited when she was asked to attend a lunch during the festival celebrating women in film alongside industry vets and respected, super-famous actors like Shirley MacLaine and Salma Hayek. She probably didn’t expect that when she got the illusive, proverbial “seat at the table” we speak of so often, she would be bullied and ignored.
Early Saturday morning, the LA Times posted an article with the headline, “Celebration of women filmmakers triggers heated debate among Salma Hayek, Jessica Williams and Shirley MacLaine.” The piece, by Amy Kaufman, is a detailed account of the conversation that transpired at the lunch. Read the entire exchange here. It’s called a “heated debate” but the transcription reads more like a remarkable display of how problematic feminism can be when it’s not inclusive. My hands starting shaking with rage while I was reading Kaufman’s account. As the conversation turns to Trump and the state of America, Hayek and MacLaine start to talk about how women need to stop playing the victim and explore their “core identity” aside from being a woman. This is when Jessica Williams speaks up.
Williams: “My question is: What if you are a person of color, or a transgendered person who — just from how you look — you already are in a conflict?”
MacLaine: “Right, but change your point of view… Change your point of view of being victimized. I’m saying: Find the democracy inside.”
Hayek (to Williams): “I’m sorry. Can I ask you a question? Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?”
Williams: A lot. But some days, I’m just black, and I’m just a woman… Like, it’s not my choice. I know who I am. I know I’m Jessica, and I’m the hottest bitch on the planet I know.
Hayek: “No, no, no… Take the time to investigate. That’s the trap! ...There is so much more.”
MacLaine: “Right. The more is inside.”
Salma Hayek actually responded to Williams’ declaration of her self-identity with “No, no no.” Is she f-cking serious? Let’s acknowledge the sheer audacity and bravery of Jessica Williams to share her views in a room that looks like this:
What happened to Jessica Williams is pretty much what is expect from table that looks like this at any angle pic.twitter.com/M5en108TQZ— Jamilah Lemieux (@JamilahLemieux) January 29, 2017
The power imbalance here is spectacular. If I was in a room with an 82 year old white woman who told me to “find the democracy inside” while my country was literally crumbling at the hands of an outright bigot, I don’t know if I would have had Williams’ composure. Williams had to sit there and listen to these non-black women suggest that her blackness and/or her womanhood are things she can just take off when she pleases and she didn’t get angry, even when Hayek insinuated that she was. When Williams’ composure was pointed out on Twitter, she said it was due to her “literally shutting down after someone called [her] an angry black woman.”
Kaufman describes Williams body language throughout the piece and writes that she was “visibly uncomfortable.” In these descriptions, I felt like I was in the room, seething inside.
I have been in many discussions where I was scared to show emotion for fear that I would be labelled an Angry Black Woman. I’ve been silenced in arguments by the words, “Why are you so angry?” I don’t know if you can find a black woman who hasn’t had a similar experience. The most frustrating part of conversations like this is that the other party is being politely patronizing while not even listening to a thing you are saying. All they see is black and angry.
While Jessica Williams is being disregarded, Transparent showrunner Jill Soloway (who has been criticised in the past for inclusion and representation gaps) chimes in to mention intersectionality and the common silencing of black women in mainstream feminism. “We need to prioritize your voices and let you speak the loudest and learn from your experience, because we haven’t been listening. So please, Jessica, finish your thoughts.”
Williams: I think we need to not speak over black women.
Hayek: What does this mean, ‘speak over?
(SALMA, STOP INTERRUPTING FOR F-CK’S SAKE.)
Williams: To project your ideas on me… I think there is a fear that if we present an idea that, ‘Hey, maybe [black women] have it a little bit harder in this country’ — because we do; black women and trans women do — if we’re having it a little bit harder, it doesn’t invalidate your experience. I really am begging you to not take it personally.”
I’m going to afford Salma Hayek the respect for her experience that she didn’t give to Jessica Williams. Hayek is a woman of colour. Like she says during the discussion, she is Mexican and Arab. She has faced an industry that told her she wasn’t good enough solely because of where she was born. This experience is valid but Hayek continually refuses to, as we say, check her privilege and acknowledge a narrative apart from her own. Along with the “look me in the eyes” BULLSH-T, here’s another thing Salma said that made my blood boil:
“I’m from another generation, baby, when this was not even a possibility… Latino women were not even anywhere near where you guys are. I was the first one. I’m 50 years old. So I understand.”
Don’t even get me started on her condescending use of “baby.” It’s a clear power play that trivializes Williams’ age (she’s 27) and rejects her opinions. The “Latino women were not even anywhere near where you guys are” implies that Williams, director Dee Rees (who also spoke up a few times) and the other black women in the room should just be grateful for their careers and shut the hell up. Then, Hayek tries to one-up black women with her own story of oppression. Again, Salma Hayek’s experience is valid but she is a cisgender, non-indigenous, non-black woman who is married to a billionaire. When Jessica Williams tries to articulate her own experience, it does not mean she is trying to negate Hayek’s. No, Salma does not understand the experiences of Jessica Williams, an African-American woman who is the descendant of slaves and routinely has to deal with people who label her as an angry black woman and tell her how to feel.
Overall, this was a tough, uncomfortable dialogue. Most conversations about intersectionality are. The problem is that Salma Hayek missed an opportunity to listen to and learn from black and queer women in the room. Celebrity chef Cat Cora took Hayek’s views one step further and said that she, “wished all women would have one another’s backs.” This is White Feminism 101. There has been a lot written about intersectionality and specifically black women in feminism since the Women’s March. My favourite piece was by Jenna Wortham for The New York Times, which asked whether white women were only marching for themselves. She put it like this:
While black women show up for white women to advance causes that benefit entire movements, the reciprocity is rarely shown.
We can’t ALL have each other’s backs if one group—the more powerful one—doesn’t step up but continues to benefit on the backs of the other. When one group refuses to even LISTEN to the other, how exactly does the ‘having each other’s backs’ thing work?
I’ll leave you with the epic, impassioned speech Jessica Williams gave at the Sundance women’s march about her experience growing up as a black woman.
Oh, and because I’m petty AF, please enjoy/ ridicule Salma Hayek’s hideous SAG Awards dress. Is this dress karma?