Jessica Williams in Marie Claire

Speaking in ‘mixed company’ as a black woman is challenging. Located squarely at the intersection of blackness and womanhood, two identities that are often marginalized, our voices can automatically be silenced or diminished. It happens in classrooms, boardrooms and cubicles and it affects black women of all socioeconomic classes.

Jessica Williams, the incredibly talented Daily Show alumna and rising black feminist star, experienced this silencing during a Sundance celebration of women in film. The lunch, attended by heavy hitters including Shirley MacLaine, Alfre Woodard, Elle Fanning and Salma Hayek, started with a tone of solidarity but devolved when race was brought up.

LA Times reporter Amy Kaufman documented the contentious and awkward exchange.

“Then the conversation shifted to our new president.

“My feeling,” said Salma Hayek, “is that we are about to go to war.”

But she had a warning. Hayek, at Sundance with Miguel Arteta’s “Beatriz at Dinner,” agreed that more women need to be hired so that female voices can continue to be recognized by the new administration. “But be careful that we don’t fall into victimization,” she added.

“I don’t want to be hired because I’m a girl. I want them to see I’m fabulous. Don’t give me a job because I’m a girl. It’s condescending.”

Shirley MacLaine, at 82, wearing purple and pink in honor of Saturday’s Women’s Marches, chimed in, saying that Donald Trump presented a challenge to “each of our inner democracy” and urged everyone at the table to explore their “core identity.”

Then Jessica Williams, the former “Daily Show” correspondent who was at Sundance as the star of Jim Strouse’s “The Incredible Jessica James,” spoke up.

“I have a question for you,” Williams, 27, said to MacLaine. “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?”

“Right, but change your point of view,” MacLaine offered. “Change your point of view of being victimized. I’m saying: Find the democracy inside.”

“I’m sorry,” Hayek said, jumping in. “Can I ask you a question?”

“Yes, ma’am,” Williams answered.

“Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?””

The implication in Hayek’s line is all too familiar — that blackness isn’t a reasonable core identity. That embracing blackness as an identity suggests a lack of depth. But, because white women are often set as the default for womanhood, they are never challenge to examine how their thoughts, movements and behaviors are deeply embedded in their whiteness and the many privileges they possess.

“Williams took a deep breath. “A lot. But some days, I’m just black, and I’m just a woman,” she said. “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.”

“No, no, no,” Hayek said. “Take the time to investigate. That’s the trap! …There is so much more.”

“Right,” agreed MacClaine. “The more is inside.””

“The more?” It’s another tacit dismissal of blackness as an identity. As though it’s only function is as a vehicle for victimization.

“So after a few moments of reflection, Williams returned to Hayek.

“I think what you’re saying is valid, but I also think that what you’re saying doesn’t apply to all women. I think that’s impossible.”

“What part of it is impossible?” Hayek responded. “You’re giving attention to how the other one feels.”

“Because I have to,” Williams said.

”If you have to do that, then do that,” Hayek said. “Then that’s your journey. But I want to inspire other people to know it’s a choice.”

This was when “Mudbound” filmmaker Dee Rees — who had moments earlier introduced herself as a black, queer director — j?umped in. At this lunch, she said, she didn’t feel like she was posing a threat to anyone. But in line at the bank? Things were different. “I don’t see myself a victim,” she said. “[Jessica] doesn’t see herself as a victim. But it’s how you’re read.”

“I also feel like the word ‘victim’ — I feel like it has bothered me,” Williams replied. “When I talk about feminism, sometimes I feel like being a black woman is cast aside. I always feel like I’m warring with my womanhood and wanting the world to be better, and with my blackness — which is the opposite of whiteness.””

At this point celebrity chef Cat Cora, who catered the lunch, co-opted the conversation by discussing how challenging it was being gay and sexually abused as a child in Mississippi. She said she wished women could just ‘have each other’s backs’, another way to silence Williams’ exploration of her identity.

“Williams, visibly uncomfortable, said she also wanted to encourage all of the women in the room to pay special attention to women of color and LGBT women. “I think we need to not speak over black women,” she said, “not assign them labels.”

“What does this mean, ‘speak over?’” Hayek asked.

“To project your ideas on me,” Williams said. “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.”

Williams continued, referencing Planned Parenthood to support her argument. While many women may rely on the clinic, she said, four out of five women who use their services are women of color.

“So when you say women of color,” Hayek began. Then she noticed that Williams was not making eye contact with her. “Jessica, do you mind if I look at your eyes?””

*Oh Lord* And then it all kind of devolved from there…

“Williams barely looked up. Still, the back-and-forth continued, with Hayek questioning whether or not she was considered a woman of color in Williams’ estimation. Nearly everyone in the room responded that Hayek was.

“Wouldn’t it solve it if women just all had each other’s backs in general?” Cora asked suddenly.

“Sure,” Peirce said. “The thing is this, yes, all women can work together, but we have to acknowledge that black women have a different experience. She’s here struggling and we keep shutting her down.”

“I don’t think anybody here shut her down,” Cora said, fighting back.

“Can I interrupt, because I feel misunderstood,” Hayek agreed. “It’s not shutting you up. I feel misunderstood on one point: We should be also curious about our brain. By being the best that you can be. That’s what I was trying to say to you. Let’s not just spend all the time in the anger, but in the investigation.”

“Baby, I’m Mexican and Arab,” she went on, addressing Williams. “I’m from another generation, baby, when this was not even a possibility. My generation, they said, ‘Go back to Mexico. You’ll never be anything other than a maid in this country.’ By the head?s ?of studios! There was no movement. Latino women were not even anywhere near where you guys are. I was the first one. I’m 50 years old. So I understand.”

“You don’t understand,” Williams said, shaking her head quietly.”

I can relate to Williams’ well-meaning if clumsy attempts at broaching a complex topic in a room full of women who maybe, really just didn’t want to hear it. (Although Williams has said that some women at the dinner spoke in support of her.)

And while Williams was trying to articulate the challenges of black womanhood, exploring the beauty, joy and “magic” of black womanhood is also often discouraged in mixed racial company. (Like Taraji P Henson being called a “black racist” for an innocuous Instagram post that celebrated black women’s color and hair texture.)

Some women have chosen to opt out of mixed spaces altogether, reserving their discussions on identity for safe spaces with black women who can relate and understand. For those black women who choose to educate an out group, situations like Williams’ are very common.

Ladies, what are your thoughts?

Black Girl With Long Hair

Leila Noelliste, founder of Black Girl with Long Hair (April 2008). Social media, pop culture and black beauty enthusiast. bell hooks' hair twin...

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37 Comments on "Salma Hayek Shuts Jessica Williams Down For Talking About Her Experience as a Black Woman"

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Maria
I actually commend Jessica for putting herself out there and letting her voice be heard, even though other people in the room did not acknowledge the message that she was trying to convey: Which is that Black women’s experiences are very much real and cannot be silenced in the name of all women coming together. Salma could have said something like: “You know what Jessica, as a Latina, I understand where you are coming from, because not all of our experiences as women are the same. I hear what you are saying”. Feminism is a good thing, but in the… Read more »
Marquita S.
No African woman should have been present at that table. We have sooooooo much more work to do in our own hearts, minds, families, and communities. These women have all the power right now. They can go anywhere in the world and be treated well.They are favored by women and men alike of other races. They produce and rear the selfish children who will be groomed to control and exploit every other persons culture and resources. Hell, they even get the most gov’t benefits!! I said that to say they are at war with their own mean because of the… Read more »
fadzwa
Look this is said not to offend anyone, i am black and from the African continent i’m all for black people and our rights. Hey racism and all is here like a lot but to me who is not from your country i think sometimes this black lives matter is taken to a whole new context, look every life matters but it seems like everything is pushed towards black lives matter, not disrespecting anyone it sounds like our race complains a lot. Salma gave her point which wasn’t bad but instead of appreciating it sounds you are shooting her down,… Read more »
blackgirlshorthair

You’re right Fadzwa, Salma has a veru good point. she didn’t say there’s isn’t any racial bullshit, she only said not to dwell on it but to focus on the core… pls how’s that bad? We blk ppl need to stop lyk everyone out there is out to get us, PLEASE!!!!

MinimalAssembly (Jacqueline)
MinimalAssembly (Jacqueline)
I agree with Salma, unless I am missing a deeper point. Our physical identity is a distraction from our core identity. Yes it impacts the way we are treated and the opportunities we have compared to other races. That can never be diminished. However, when we only explore and see ourselves as we are seen—meaning when we live from a lens of how we are seen by others, we get stuck and never go beyond that. We experience blackness inwardly, yes, but we are not black and female to the exclusion of all other things. We are black, female and… Read more »
Trisha Marie
Black and LGBTQ rights are not synonymous and I get offended when non black people say that they are. However, I’m sure all of you are aware of the importance of intersectionalality when it comes to being black and being a woman. But what about being black and gay? Or being black, gay, and a woman? Maybe I’m reading some of the responses to this article wrong but it seems like there is a growing divide between cis hetero Black people and LGBTQ Black people and this shouldn’t be the case. I’m a woman and Black and queer and I… Read more »
Guest Writer
I think like Lissa said below it is the whole idea that not all transgendered ppl are black ppl and too often (especially recently) transgendered as a collective is being added to black issues which is dismissive of just black issues. Yes, I do understand there are black ppl with a LGBTQ identity, but not all are. Black heterosexual women are fighting for a space of their own and are even finding themselves replaced by Trans black women in some spaces and I think that’s unfair. And yes, I understand that Trans women identify as women but let’s be real…being… Read more »
Lissa
I’m definitely not dismissing the LGBT community as I identitify as lesbian also. I was just agreeing that as black people we have a tendency to take on the burden of other groups. Yes there are black transgender but not all transgender are black. I also agree that people are always dismissing or brushing off “black” issues because they don’t understand. But they’re not black so how could they right? And although Salma was doing just that, I understand that she wants to speak for women as a whole because although we as black women have it harder, not all… Read more »
Robin

I’m just wondering where was Alfre Woodard in this conversation. Is a beautiful, intelligent and wise black woman why did she not speak up? It was stated she was there.

Missy

I was wondering the same thing… guess she didn’t want to rock the boat.

Lissa
This topic is interesting… So my thoughts are that Williams was misunderstood. The only way to truly understand where she was coming from, would be to be a brown girl. I say brown because I’m not only referring to race, but I’m referring to skin color as well. Salma, although Mexican and having grown up as a minority, is also a “light skin” latina. So although she may have struggled, she would have struggled more if she were a brown latina; and when I say brown I mean darker than an olive skin-tone. I won’t deny that women as a… Read more »
Karen
Perhaps this was a wake up call. I personally never heralded the feminist agenda. I took a page out of Ida B. Wells book and never lost sight of the fact that despite “good intentions” of others they are benefactors of the current social caste. Currently, women of color are not on equal par to the White woman so the equal pay, and representation fight if won will bring the her to an equal par to the White male but there will still exist the gap between her and the rest of us. So I am going to be fighting… Read more »
Ron Mosley
Hey sistas. I’m a guy. A black guy. I happened to see this site on the side of my facebook screen, kinda like an ad. I saw Jessica Williams pic on it (I miss her on The Daily Show) so I clicked on it & read the article. I really don’t think she was “shut down”. She Spoke her mind & I think she probably got her point across to a group of older white & hispanic women. No one knows what Black people have gone thru in this country except Black people. Like the saying goes “walk a mile… Read more »
Marti Kilroy
I don’t think any of us know what another has been through or how it has affected them personally. I did teach many black teens over 30+ years and made one possibly relevant observation. Many of them believe the things they hear about black people at a subconscious level. They don’t believe they can achieve their dreams because of outside pressures from societal/political nonsense. Please constantly reinforce with them the fact that there is nothing they can’t achieve if they believe they can and work hard enough. Don’t focus on what the obstacles are but on how to overcome them.… Read more »
Noiree
No one, unless they have walked exactly in a Black person’s shoes, meaning you walk in life self labeling and being labelled as a Black person, can understand what it is like living as one. White entitlement is real and the gradient of entitlement that exist, granted to those who are light enough or have hair soft enough to be considered less Black is real as well. A lot of Latins do not consider themselves Black, so unless Salma Hayak suddenly does, IMO she nor that other woman can understand us. More importantly, the fact that she nor this other… Read more »
Candu

Salma would not have gotten any of the roles she played in had she had afro hair, a broad nose, African features and dark skin. She will never know what it’s like to be a black woman or even a dark skinned Mexican woman. She needs to have several seats and learn how to listen.

Serenity
Aint that the truth!!! You know this luncheon couldn’t have gone any more perfectly, unless Lena Dunham had been there. All sides of white womanhood and feminism were conveyed in the most cringingly annoying facets. And I feel for Jessica. I love her podcast and know she’s very intelligent, but more importantly I know how it feels to be that black girl silenced in the presence of feminism, supposedly MY feminism MY empowerment. And wtf is “the democracy within you”? Selma said one thing right this is war and the “democracy” within u ain’t got nothing to do about it!… Read more »
Drew

Truth, every word. Still cackling at the Lena Dunham part, loool.

Marti Kilroy
Too many people trying to be the experts on a topic that is deeply personal and individual. Each woman, regardless of race or ethnicity, experiences life in a unique way. We each have our own experiences and our own way of interpreting the world around us. We may have similarities due to gender or race or even what part of the world you grew up in but no two people experience that world in the exact same way and no one should tell you that your view is somehow less than or even the same as theirs. They can’t know.… Read more »
Tee

SN: Anthony Quinn, Ricardo Montalban, Rita Moreno, Freddie Prinze Sr., Rosie Perez, the list goes on…..Selma wasn’t first, so I’ll need her to stand down & understand her OWN existence before she tries to tell us OURS!

Guest Writer
I also want to add to my statement above because I truly understand Jessica, I feel for her, I just don’t agree with her strategy. She thought she was in a safe place among women BUT they’re STILL white women which LIMITS their perspective. This is the reason Asian women and Latinas keep their issues among themselves. They know ww don’t care. Trust me, other women of color have issues within their communities, but they build their own networks of support. I understood Salma’s POV, for the sole reason being that she’s UNABLE to see past her own POV. She… Read more »
Nikki

PREACH!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Lana Hene
It’s really frustrating to me that a woman would try to dictate to another woman what her identity should be. Is Hayek also going to find people who were adopted from overseas and judge them for their level of personal connection with the land of their birth, or people who do genealogical research and DNA swabs? Maybe she recognizes the cultural\ancestral parts of her identity as only being things that other people see when they look at her, not what she feels herself, but you can’t dictate that for someone else, especially in a society that works so incredibly hard… Read more »
Tesha white
This proves an interesting point a Jamaican blogger made about the feminist movement. You see, long ago, feminist groups consisted of all white women. black women had yet to receive the right to vote. It was hard for women to win on topics such as domestic violence, health care,wage equality, etc. when blacks were given the right to vote they thought they should recruit black women to retain a vote majority. They tricked black women into believing they cared about their issues and their ethnicity and the problems they faced were significant and relevant. This is case and point. Salma,… Read more »
Alexis

Couldn’t have said it better, Tesha.

Kween

This is very true and very apparent in any western society. I have had first hand experiences. A black woman’s experience is often belittled or made insignificant. I see this as a form of guilt and racism. I used to respect salma but after reading this, I have my reservations. Everyone’s opinion should hold as much regard as the next person’s.

Aisha
I’m sure Salma understood. She had roadblocks she pushed through them. She was told she could be a maid or go back to Mexico. She dug deep, found her “more”, and fought her way to get where she is. We all have to do this. Those women couldn’t give her the answer she wanted because they don’t know how to be Black and Jessica should know that. Do what your Mother, Grandmother or Elders always said: be twice as good as them, do it twice as fast. That’s how we win. Salma’s right, you have to find your “more” it… Read more »
Guest Writer
You stated what I was thinking perfectly. There is more than just being black and woman but many bw don’t know how to articulate that or that it even exists. I think what Salma was saying is that when you are in shared company (in this case) it’s not enough to bring black and woman to the table. They aren’t going to understand that if they aren’t that. You have to dig deeper on a more human level, something others can relate to so that you can form an ally. Black women need to stop expecting other races to fight… Read more »
Lissa
I like your response to this. It’s true, black people have a tendency to “not be selfish” if you will. Other races and groups have never done the same for us, and that is why we are categorized as “victims”. Transgenders go hard for themselves; they do not say “fight for us and for black people”. Its true. As frustrating as it is, I can’t be mad at people who can’t relate to the issues I’ve dealt with as a black woman, considering they are not black women. Salma only spoke about what she knew, and I guess at the… Read more »
Nikki

YES!!!! I was confused as to why she added transgendered unless she herself is transgender. I’m tired of black women trying to lift everyone up while we are STILL at the bottom.

Trisha Marie

Transgender is the correct term, not transgendered. Also, transgender Black women are Black women (not men, as one of the people before you implied) so Jessica brought them up because they have the same plight as us. Being feminine and being Black and how those things make people perceive and treat us.

O. E.

Well said!!! Thank you so much for this thoughtful response. God bless you sis.

Tee

IF YOU DON’T PREACH!!!!! I felt some kinda way even by her adding-in the plight of the transgendered. Like we’re ALWAYS doing that! We fight for our MEN when they won’t fight for US! FOCUS!!!!!

Sonya

The focus is if one voice is diminished we can never fully achieve the mission which is fairness and inclusion, be it financial or position, at equal opportunity. We fight for all because we have no choice and yes it’s hard but it makes us strong and resilient. Fighting for rights can’t be dismissive of the struggles of all involved or we will never reach the goal. Equality. If it were easy it would have been done by now. I will fight for all and I’ll have my struggles addressed. It will proceed only if that’s true.

Guest Writer

Sonya, but they aren’t fighting for you. Do you value yourself so little that you would not expect reciprocity in return for your sacrifice? Stop caping for people hoping they will somehow love you back. You’re better off dealing with your own issues directly than you are hoping someone will return the favor. They never have and never will. What world are you living in? Wake up already.

Vera

She didn’t understand. Because her experience being a white Mexican/Arab isn’t even the same as a darker Mexican/Arab. Anyone can have their own opinion on her acting talent but there’s no denying she got roles based on her sex appeal and if she was darker she wouldn’t have been cast in those same roles. She did exactly what Jessica was talking about, getting defensive and thinking her own struggles are being invalidated by Jessica saying things are more difficult for black women.

Tracey

Exactly Vera.

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