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?