What Non-Black Latinxs Can Learn From this Debate Between Salma Hayek and Jessica Williams

Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Glamour)

In the months since Donald Trump was elected president, the rising swell of citizens galvanized to action has also brought concepts that were once the domain of long-time activists and academics into the mainstream. Intersectionality – and particularly the need for intersectional feminism – has been an especially prominent subject, one that garnered national coverage in the lead up to and aftermath of January’s Women’s marches. Of course, the idea that women have intersecting identities is by no means new, and certainly not new for many feminists of color.  But that doesn’t mean all women who identify as such truly understand intersectionality, as a recent tense exchange between Salma Hayek and Jessica Williams laid bare.

At a Sundance film festival luncheon celebrating women in film last week, the two actresses got into a heated discussion about their views on race, privilege, and oppression captured by the LA Times. It was an exchange that ultimately saw Salma Hayek struggling to distinguish between her own experiences as a mestiza Mexican woman of Arab descent and Jessica’s as a black woman, and it highlighted the work that still needs to be done in the non-black Latinx community to make space for black experiences.

It all began when Salma Hayek suggested that the women gathered needed to “be careful that we don’t fall into victimization” – particularly in reference to being hired on the basis of her gender. “I don’t want to be hired because I’m a girl. I want them to see I’m fabulous,” Hayek stated. “Don’t give me a job because I’m a girl. It’s condescending.” Actress Shirley MacLaine seconded Hayek, urging everyone to explore their “core identity.” In essence, the women seemed to be suggesting that gender needn’t be a fundamental part of one’s identity, and that affirmative action-like policies somehow undermine merit.

We must acknowledge that not all people of color face the same challenges.

Williams, who at 26 years old represents a younger generation, challenged this point of view for overlooking the ways gender can intersect with other identities. “What if you are a person of color, or a transgendered person who — just from how you look — you already are in a conflict?,” she asked.

“Change your point of view of being victimized,” MacLaine replied. “I’m saying: Find the democracy inside.” To this, Hayek added a heavy question: “Who are you when you’re not black and you’re not a woman? Who are you and what have you got to give?”

“A lot,” Williams retorted. “But some days, I’m just black, and I’m just a woman. Like, it’s not my choice. I know who I am.”

Jessica Williams. Vivien Killilea / Getty Images for Glamour
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Rather than taking the time to consider Williams’ point of view, Hayek shut her down. “No, no, no,” she said. “Take the time to investigate. That’s the trap! …There is so much more.”

There’s a lot to take away from this exchange. Both Hayek and MacLaine were essentially likening black feminism to victimhood, suggesting that acknowledging your identity, including the ways in which the world perceives and oppresses you, is self-victimization. This ignores that for some women, shedding these aspects of their identity is simply not possible. It also ignores that the many layers in a person’s identity are not always a hindrance, but can in fact be a source of power—these layers and complexities are at the core of intersectionality. Moreover, in a society where whiteness is hegemonic, asking someone to strip themselves of their identity is tantamount to asking for whiteness.  White art is often considered a blank canvas onto which a universal human experience can be projected, as opposed to blackness, queerness, or other non-white experiences, etc.

Both Hayek and MacLaine were essentially likening black feminism to victimhood.

Even within the broad range of non-white experiences, we must acknowledge that not all people of color face the same challenges. As Williams urged Hayek not to project her experiences onto black or trans women and to consider that her suggestions might not apply to all women, Hayek doubled down.

“Baby, I’m Mexican and Arab,” Salma said. “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.”

But she didn’t understand. Rather than acknowledging Williams’ point of view, Hayek’s tone deaf response, with its condescending “babys” essentially devalued Williams’ experience as a black woman based on her age, both infantilizing and erasing her.

In the days since this conversation surfaced, Hayek took to Instagram to refute the LA Times‘ framing of the conversation. “I have always and will always support the empowerment and the voices of black women and women of color,” she wrote, suggesting that the LA Times story had “misrepresented” her and “manipulated” her words by printing them out of context.

But judging from Williams’ tweets about the same incident, Hayek’s apology did not address the real issue at hand.

In this time of Trumpismo, one in which solidarity between minority communities is critical to resistance, we must learn to listen to one another. Listen to those who are more marginalized than you are, take the time to de-center your own experiences, to understand that oppression can be experienced at different levels of intensity.

As Williams noted, “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.”