Jessica Williams and Salma Hayek’s Sundance conversation shows just how complicated intersectional feminism can be

At a luncheon of prominent Hollywood women at the Sundance Film Festival this weekend, attended by the likes of  Shirley MacLaine, Salma Hayek, filmmaker Dee Rees, producer Jill Soloway, and filmmaker Kimberly Peirce, actress Jessica Williams brought up some important points about intersectional feminism. The ensuing discussion showed how it is still such a challenge for women, and others, to fully understand the concept. As the topic of discussion moved to how they as women are now supposed to navigate the world in this new political climate, as well as Hollywood and their careers, Hayek warned the diverse group of women at the table to “be careful that [they] don’t fall into victimization,” while MacLaine urged the group to “find the democracy inside” and explore their “core identity,” according to Amy Kaufman of the Los Angeles Times.

That’s when Williams interjected with a question posed to MacLaine, asking, “What if you are a person of color, or a transgendered person who — just from how you look — you already are in a conflict?” Again, MacLaine doubled down on her original sentiments of finding inner democracy. “Change your point of view of being victimized,” she suggested. Hayek then came back into the conversation with a question for Williams. “Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?” Hayek asked.

Hayek and MacLaine’s responses to Williams’ initial question are indicators of just how much work still needs to be done for women to truly be intersectional feminists. It feels important to note that Williams is 27 years old, while MacLaine and Hayek are 82 and 50, respectively. One of the biggest challenges of intersectionality might be the generational gap. false

Intersectionality, and by extension, intersectional feminism, have been explicit terms since 1989, when they were coined by professor Kimberle Crenshaw to explain how oppressive “-isms,” like rascism, sexism, feminism, and the like, are interconnected and therefore can’t and shouldn’t be examined separately. MacLaine especially comes from the generation of “first wave” feminism, when most of the women fighting for equal rights were middle and upper class white women. There was little room for women of color in the conversation then, and even now women of color, especially black women, as is evidenced by Williams’ experience this weekend, are not welcome at the table.

We all need to sometimes use our listening ears and try to be open and receptive when other women, especially women of color are voicing their concerns or fears during these types of conversations. Women of color are not trying to play “victims,” nor do they often see themselves in that way. When celebrity chef Cat Cora expressed at the Sundance lunch conversation that she “wished all women would have one another’s backs,” it came off as silencing to Williams’ concerns of intersectionality amongst the group.

Sentiments like Cora’s are more damaging than not to discussions about what feminism means and should mean conversations, because they do not truly promote intersectionality, but often a desire to not create divisiveness, which is also something that people of color are often accused of during these types of discussions. But sometimes disagreement, if it’s encouraged and respected, is the only way to get from one place to another. But that means listening to women who might have more perspective on what “getting along” really means and realize that the struggle didn’t just start last week. 

When the story of the luncheon broke, writer and intersectional feminist Roxane Gay tweeted a link to the Los Angeles Times feature on the lunch, expressing her frustration with the way Williams was treated throughout the conversation. false

Many people responded, echoing Gay’s sentiments about Williams being “silenced” by the other women in the conversation and how more of the people at the table should have come to her defense. Williams responded, giving credit to those at the table to did. false

Cindi Leive, editor in chief of Glamour, who was also at the luncheon, tweeted to Gay in response:

In the end, more people need to think along the lines of Soloway who said,“With intersectional feminism, it’s our responsibility as white women to recognize that when there are people of color or people who are queer — we need to prioritize your voices and let you speak the loudest and learn from your experience, because we haven’t been listening.” That is truly the only way that we will be able to move forward and make any real progress.

Basically, instead of getting defensive, as some of the women at that luncheon did with Williams, as evidenced by the Los Angeles Times reportunderstand that giving others the rights they should already have doesn’t take away from anyone else’s rights. Equality isn’t some big chocolate cake that’s going to run out before the end of the party — there is more than enough to go around. And if you insist on thinking about it like cake, let’s put it this way: sometimes you have to wait to get a second helping until everyone else has been served.

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