A Black Woman’s Essay on The Billfold’s Problematic “Lean-In” Article

I wrote to Black Girl Nerds’Jamie Broadnax that I saw the drama with The Billfold article right before going to bed, leaving me with an angry frame of mind for sleep. “What are you so angry about?” you’re asking. Let me paint the scene.

Jessica Williams, as you probably already know, is a correspondent on The Daily Show, formerly hosted by Jon Stewart. Ever since Stewart announced he would be stepping down, tons of folks have been hoping beyond hope that Williams, who had never given any indication of wanting the job, would take the job.

Williams wrote point-blank on her Twitter page that she wasn’t pursuing hosting duties:

Case closed, right? Apparently not, for The Billfold‘s Ester Bloom. Bloom took to her computer to write a psychoanalysis on Williams’ tweet, called “On the Daily Show’s Jessica Williams, the Latest High-Profile Victim of Impostor Syndrome,” which I’m linking to with donotlink, because actually backlinking would only give her article more clicks than it deserves.

In the article, she asserts that Williams somehow doesn’t know what she’s talking about when she says she doesn’t want to take over The Daily Show. Bloom states, in so many words, that Williams should take it simply because she’s a talented black woman and us black women need all the exposure we can get:

“How modest! How self-effacing!” Bloom wrote. “You can almost hear all the old white people who benefit from the status quo nodding their approval. We did it, they whisper. We have succeeded in instilling in yet another competent, confident young woman a total lack of understanding of her own self-worth! We didn’t even need to undermine her; we gave her the tools and she undermined herself. Well done all. Good show. Let’s play eighteen holes and then hit up Hooters for lunch.

She goes to write, spectacularly, “Jessica Williams, I reject your humility. What on earth does ‘under-qualified’ mean when it comes to being a comedian? You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re self-possessed. Is there something I’m missing?” She even goes on to say Williams is “displaying clear symptoms of Impostor Syndrome, a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities vs the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down, calling themselves “unqualified.”

Okay, now that the setup has been established, let’s really get into why this article is horrible. It’s a multilayered thing, so I’ll break this up into three parts: the basic problems with the article, the horror of mislabeling someone with a psychological syndrome, and the biggest horror of all—assuming a woman doesn’t know her own mind. Especially since that woman is a black woman. This, like a lot of things in America, go all the way back to slavery. Get comfortable: this is going to take a while.

The basic problems 

I am thankful that Williams collected Bloom on Twitter the way she did. I’m also glad that  Williams’ fans also took Bloom to task because everything she said in this article was wrong, starting with the sites she quoted.

Reading the post shows you how much of a fairy tale Bloom is writing. Nowhere in Williams’ posts, nor in the articles she linked to, states that Williams is somehow destroying the will of America by not taking a job.

The New York Times article linked in the post, “A Woman’s Place Is on Late Night: Goodbye, Jon Stewart. And Hello to a Host of Possibilities,” is simply saying that having a woman hosting a late-night show would forever break up the boys’ club of late night. It’s a well-written opinion piece by writer Nell Scovell, giving a fantastic overview of why Hollywood has yet to figure out that women do want to see themselves on TV as late night hosts. Nowhere in there does Scovell suggest that 1) Williams should be the host, which would have at least had some relevance to Bloom’s article and 2) that women need to be pressured into taking a job to appease a certain group of women.

The other article by the AV Club’s Katie Rife, “Jessica Williams removes herself from the list of future Daily Show hosts,” simply states what the title says: that Jessica Williams removed herself from the running. There’s no shaming of Williams for doing so; just a report about Willliams’ statements on the matter. The article even suggests that not taking the job is a good move for Williams:

“She…probably doesn’t want to make any big commitments at this point, ven to a prestigious position like hosting The Daily Show…[T]his outpouring of support is a great sign for Williams’ career, aas it provides tangible evidence of her marketability. And the producers are taking notice; Williams tells Uproxx that director Jim Strouse recruited her directly for her part in his new film People, Places, Things and that she has many offers to choose from right now. So while Hot Tub Time Machine 2 could still be right and Williams may take the position some time before 2025, if her film career keeps growing we might see her on the other side of the interview desk instead.”

Why these two articles were used in Bloom’s article is beyond me, since both of them go directly against the premise Bloom is trying to argue.

Second, don’t tell us “Tina Fey has the answer” as if she’s the one Williams and all women need to be listening to at all times. Once again, Bloom linked to an article that has nothing to do with the premise at hand; this time the article is from Vulture’s Jesse David Fox about Tina Fey’s appearance on Late Night with Seth Meyers. The clip features Fey making light of the lack of women in late night, saying that to break through, they need to wear jackets.

I personally have nothing against Fey, and I think she’s smart and a role model for women. However, when certain feminists like Bloom use Fey, Amy Poehler, and Lena Dunham to promote their own agendas about what they think feminism should be, then I tune out.

If I’m psychoanalyzing her, Bloom seems to be a classic “white feminist,” a term that could be considered a pejorative, but it’s meant to describe a white woman who rightly believes in feminism, but wrongly believes that every woman should adhere to her ideas and philosophies about feminism. Regardless of race, class, or other background markers, this particular brand of feminist believes that every woman should idolize Fey, Poehler, Dunham, et al., be a slave to Girls, and that Beyonce is the only black feminist worth listening to. (I have a separate beef about Beyonce in the feminism discussion, but that’s for another time.)

This limited view of feminism doesn’t even begin to recognize that minority women have very different views of womanhood and feminism. Every woman period has different ideas of what defines them as a woman, to be honest. But white feminism largely ignores that. For instance, instead of understanding a Muslim woman’s decision to wear a hijab or a burqa, they declare the articles of clothing the enemy and proceed to “liberate” (i.e. bully) women from them. Meanwhile, the argument that gets lost in the discussion is that many women use the burqa and hijab as their own form of feminism. Some use the burqa for the literal and figurative cover it provides the user to keep out of the government’s clutches and fight for women’s rights, like Parween, a women’s activist and a member of the Revolutionary Association of the Women of Afghanistan. Others use the hijab to focus more on spiritual wholeness and as a way to rail against Western beauty ideals. Women also use the hijab to step away from the hypersexualized world and reclaim their sisterhood. In all of these scenarios, the decision to wear the burqa or hijab took a lot of deep thought, including the consideration of the meaning the patriarchal society has put on these items of clothing.

The slavery component

The limited view of feminism certainly doesn’t take into context the fact that historically, white women have had more rights than black women have had. Even though it’s supposed to be a “We’re all in this together!” mindset, white women have and are historically rewarded for being human while black women still have to climb out of the hole of stereotypes the racist past of America (which was also upheld by white slaveowners’ wives) put us in.

Let’s take a trip back to slavery, shall we? We know the basic rules—whites were on top, blacks were on the bottom. But the part that often seems to get left out of the discussions is how white women helped uphold the tradition of slavery. It wasn’t just the slaveowners who were racist; the wives themselves were racist. Don’t even mention the fact that the women were also simultaneously angered of black women’s supposed “sexual ways” and disgusted by their husbands’ raping of these women and fathering children with them.

There will always be that one person who will bring up an anecdote about how a slaveowner’s wife helped a female slave take care of her child or became friends with the slave or something like that. This isn’t the norm, and stories like these, however true, only serve to placate white guilt. The real truth is that these women often doled out just as severe of punishments to slaves as their husbands did. The Guardian‘s Hadley Freeman quotes scholar Thavolia Glymph, who wrote that “physical punishment seems to have occurred much more frequently between mistresses and slaves than between masters and slaves.” The white women had no outlet for power, unlike their husbands, and so to show their superiority, they used the only way they knew how, which was to brutalize the slaves, especially the women who might tempt their husbands. And, just like their husbands, they would exoticize black men, use them, and then cry for help, stating that a sex-crazed, untamed n*gger had raped them, leading the black man to his death. The paper “Sexual Relations Between Elite White Women and Enslaved Men in the Antebellum South: A Socio-Historical Analysis” by Jacqueline M. Allain, gives proof to this fact.

“…an upper-class woman under suspicion of an affair with a slave could ‘readily invoke images of chastity in order to allay trouble for herself’-or in other words, accuse the slave of rape (Hodes, p. 135). Because black men (like black women) were seen as inherently lustful and prone to sexual vice, for an elite woman to have illicit sex with a black rather than a white man might have been a slightly saver bet; it was easier to blame a black man of rape than a white man.”

Michaela Angela Davis’ article for Jezebel, 12 Years A Slave: Privilege, Black Women and White Women takes on the task of succinctly explaining why today’s women’s lib movement can’t gain real ground until black and white women have honest talks about the wound slavery caused.

“The relationship between the mistress and the slave woman was so poisoned from its inception it could never be healed, they could never trust, they could never work for liberation together. Is this our original sin? Could this be at the root of why Black women were cut out of the American suffrage movement when it came time for voting rights for women? Why many white abolitionist women turned their backs on the violence against southern Blacks to secure their own right to vote?…Is this wicked characterization of Black women as illiterate harlots permanently seared into the psyche of white women? Is this why the feminist movement has primarily been reserved for white women of privilege?…Women’s movements can’t move in America until we have courageous honest discourse about the sadistic historic foundation of the relationship. We were systematically cultured to distrust and envy each other. We were never meant to be sisters.”

Why do I bring all of this up? Because to me, it seems that the underlying reason why Bloom feels she has the authority to govern Williams’ life choices and critique her for not doing what Bloom wants her to do comes down to the fact that white women and black women have never been sisters in the fight for equality. One has always had more rights than the others, despite both being considered less than in a man’s world. One still feels the compulsion to reign over the other, to show that they somehow know what’s best despite their narrow worldview.  Somehow, black feminists still need help knowing what it means to be a woman. This idea can also be seen in how Bloom decides Williams is suffering from a mental malady and needs to listen to other notable black women or guidance.

The psychoanalyzing component

Bloom, don’t tell Williams she just needs to speak to Luvvie Ajayi from Awesomely Luvvie and Jazmine Hughes from The Hairpin. It’s extremely condescending to tell her that if Williams listens to other black women, they’ll feel the same as Bloom. That’s implying that Williams doesn’t know her own mind. It’s implying that every black woman thinks the same, which is also highlighting a larger problem in the mainstream world. WE DON’T ALL THINK THE SAME! We certainly don’t all look the same, so why would we think the same? WE ARE NOT VULCANS! And even they  don’t all think the same. (How else would Spock have been born?)

At the very least, don’t tell a black woman to listen to Lena Dunham. If there’s anything the majority of us black women agree on, it’s that. Dunham and Girls has done nothing for the black community, and the stories on that show certainly don’t reflect the swath of black women’s experiences. Don’t put Dunham on us.

The gall Bloom has in declaring Williams a victim of Impostor Syndrome is the most heinous thing I’ve seen in a long time. It reeks of a superiority complex disguised as “being down for the cause,” if I’m psychoanalyzing her. Who gives Bloom the right to write this? Where did she feel justified in creating this fantasy for herself? Who made her the queen of feminism?

Impostor Syndrome is serious, like all mental issues. Impostor Syndrome, according to the American Psychological Association, is a “very real and specific form of intellectual self-doubt.” The site states that depression, and anxiety are often signs of this self-doubt.

If I’m being honest, I could probably diagnose myself with Impostor Syndrome. I sometimes feel like my achievements are due to luck, or that if I had done something different, I’d be able to have achieved more or “better,” as it were. As I like to say, I’m a recovering perfectionist. But, this is also me saying this about myself. I’d never play doctor and diagnose a complete stranger as having some kind of problem like severe self-doubt. Besides, even perfectionists know when they don’t want to do things.

All Williams said is that she didn’t want to take the job. Nowhere does that indicate a lack of self-worth or is evidence of the Impostor Syndrome. But somehow, Bloom created this farcical reality for herself, and positioned herself as the one who can see what Williams really means.

This actually says a lot more about Bloom than it does anyone. Most of the time, you project on others what you yourself are dealing with. Are you dealing with Impostor Syndrome, Bloom? Do you have trouble feeling like your achievements are your own? Do you think that because you might suffer from it, that everyone else does?

Or do you think Williams does because she’s a black woman who happens to be in a position of power and is on her way to achieving more? You want her to be the Daily Show host and you are upset that she’s not doing what you’d like her to do. Instead of getting over it, you try to make her thoughts fit in with your worldview. You explain away her decisions as being defective thinking.

Without realizing it, you’ve Mammy’d her, with your Scarlett ideas of “she doesn’t know what she’s thinking, I’ll think for her” coloring reality. Like how Scarlett only cared about herself at the expense of others’ feelings and how we never knew what Mammy really wanted. Mammy was Scarlett’s prop, depicted as being devoted to Scarlett even though Mammy had been brutalized for decades by slavery. We never know her struggle because we’re told not to care. Her only purpose is serving Scarlett. Do you think Williams’ only purpose is to serve you and your white feminist ideals, Bloom?

Despite everything I’ve written, I’m not trying to start a fight. I hate calling people out. But I’ve called people out since I was in the second grade for racial and social stuff, and I’ll continue doing it. Bloom, we both call ourselves journalists. I know I have a degree for it, so I’m assuming you do as well. But in journalism school, I learned to always investigate a story, and if there’s nothing there, to leave it alone. Why didn’t you just leave this alone?

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