Former Daily Show correspondent Jessica Williams was silenced during a Sundance celebration of women in film. The event, attended by Alfre Woodard, Shirley McClaine and Elle Fanning to name a few – started with solidarity vibes but took a turn once the discussion moved towards the topic of race.
LA Times Reporter Amy Kaufman documented the awkward exchange.
Salma Hayek 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 said.
“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, 82, 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 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 question is that blackness isn’t a reasonable core identity. As BGLH points out, “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.”
“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.””
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?””
It pretty much continued downhill 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.”
Williams later pointed out that she wasn’t left hanging out to dry. Every queer person in the room jumped in.
What are your thoughts on this exchange between Williams and Hayek?