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Jessica Williams, National Hero, Turned A Fancy Lunch Into a Feminist Debate


The Los Angeles Times recently published an excruciating, important recap of a Sundance lunch meant to celebrate women in film. Attended by industry heavyweights like Jill Solloway, Shirley MacLaine, Elle Fanning, and Salma Hayek, the uber-fancy lunch got heated when Jessica Williams, former queen of The Daily Show and forever queen of our hearts, challenged some of her colleagues’ second-wave feminism.

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After Salma Hayek said, “Don’t give me a job because I’m a girl. It’s condescending,” and Shirley MacLaine encouraged everyone to explore their “core identity” and “inner democracy” in response to the Trump presidency, Williams spoke up. The exchange below ensued.

“I have a question for you. 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?”

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.”

MacLaine and Hayek’s bootstrapping rhetoric went on, Hayek asked if Williams counted her as a woman of color, and the conversation continued to escalate. Some of the other attendees, like Jill Solloway and Kimberly Peirce, tried to help Williams out in somewhat ham-fisted ways. I encourage you to read the entire transcript.

I also want to applaud the LA Times‘ reporter, Amy Kaufman, for including descriptions of Williams’ physicality. The discomfort, the helplessness, the moments taken for self-control…I think most of us have participated in or been present during conversations about privilege like this, and Kaufman captured exactly how punishing that emotional labor can be. It’s exhausting to argue a point while also policing your tone and body language so as not to offend the other person’s fragility. It’s painful to try and frame your point in the most palatable, rather than the most powerful, way. Including Williams’ quotes without that context would have erased that labor, and it’s important for people to see.

After the Women’s March, there has been a lot of discussion about how to ensure that the movement going forward not only includes marginalized people, but centers them. More of these types of conversations will have to occur if we want a truly intersectional women’s movement. For white feminists, part of that means being willing to have these conversations without being confrontational, but it also means finding ways to take the burden off women of color like Williams without speaking over them. It’s going to be complicated. It’s going to be difficult to acknowledge the contributions of the previous generation of feminists without enabling their less progressive politics.

Jessica Williams just provided us with a tough, steady example of how to make those conversations happen, even when they’re painful. Now we have to follow her lead.

(Via The Los Angeles Times; image via screengrab)

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