Two weeks ago, a few friends and I spontaneously trekked over to Dinkelspiel Auditorium for the Cardinal Nights comedy performance. As I took my seat, I had no idea who Jessica Williams was or what she stood for.
Two hours later, I left the auditorium with a few lessons in mind. One, Williams is my new Olivia Pope. Two, she deserves her own television show. And three, her comedy seamlessly harmonizes the inquietude surrounding race, sex, religion and class.
We often grapple with conflicts regarding the color of our skin, the significance of a second X- versus Y-chromosome, the way we’ve been taught to worship and the number of zeros in our parents’ bank accounts. But we often lose sight of how such diverse conflicts intersect to describe our being, and consequently, our place in an oft-unjust society. Striving to realize where we belong can be unsettling, but Williams says it’s okay.
It’s okay to be the angry black (wo)man.
What’s scary is not so much blatant racism — Confederate flags, the Ku Klux Klan, racial profiling — but more so implicit discrimination. Microaggressions: White Barbie always stands in front of black Barbie; a taxi driver passes a black woman and opens the doors for her white boyfriend, who will never completely understand her battle with racism; a white woman tells a colored stranger that “her skin is beautiful,” that she “knows another black comedian,” that there is an apparent need to relate to another race through superficiality rather than genuine human connection.
It’s okay to be the angry feminist.
After all, a woman will have to work two times harder than an average man for the same job and will still earn 79 cents for every dollar that he earns. She’ll have to be more careful walking down the street at night than her male counterpart. She’ll live in a society where a nursing student in Portland has to work at a strip club to pay for her education.
It’s okay to be the angry questioner of religion.
If the preacher of our place of worship tells us that our body belongs to some divine power and that sexuality is a sin, is it impious to disagree? Should we exchange self-understanding to adhere to the holy books? Is something right just because it is a tenet of religious doctrine?
Issues of color, sexuality, religion and economics are dangerously intertwined. Society defines a standard, and those who fall outside the clear lines of privilege are left to struggle. What’s worse than an explicit caste system is a community that divides its people, but is too righteous to acknowledge its flaws; subtle discrimination is no less disturbing and no less deserving of attention.
But that doesn’t mean things won’t change in the future. After all, it’s okay to be the angry challenge to the norm.
One day, the Williams family attended a parent-teacher conference, where Mrs. Williams learned that Jessica had a C-average in several classes. She brought her daughter home and pointed to the TV, the Harry Potter collection, the computer, the cell phone — all of the things she and her husband had struggled to provide their children with. All of these things were not the average belongings of an average African-American female, and as such, Jessica was not allowed to be just average.
Instead, Jessica Williams was destined to discover a way to channel the pain and confusion of living in a society that marginalized her for immutable characteristics into a positive opportunity to share her experiences.
Maybe you’re disadvantaged in one way, maybe more. Regardless, it is “the era of Shonda,” as Williams would put it; it is the time to stand up, make something of your experiences and send a message.
Maybe you’re hardly disadvantaged at all. You don’t have to understand the shared experience, but you should always listen and empathize, and never trivialize, the experiences of others.
Two weeks ago, I learned that it’s okay. It’s okay to struggle with race, gender, religion and class. It’s okay to be particularly unsettled when those independent issues converge to point out a worrisome aspect of contemporary society. But most importantly, it’s okay — rather, it’s necessary — to speak out about those challenges in a way that tells society that the status quo most definitely is not okay.
Contact Tashrima Hossain at thossain ‘at’ stanford.edu.