Dear Nice White Ladies,
I know you enjoyed the Tina Fey video. It was cathartic watching her let loose on Nazis and the lack of leadership on the Republican side while shoveling cake into her mouth, and I howled at “Yard sale Barbie.”
But friends, we gotta talk about the problems in the sketch. We Nice White Ladies need to have these conversations so we can hold each other accountable as we work to smash white supremacy — because that’s what we’re working toward, right?
We can simultaneously enjoy Tina Fey while also pointing out where she needs to do better. In fact, if we are serious about antiracism, it’s very important that we do hold our favorites to higher standards. One day I’ll write something more about engaging with problematic works because it’s something I struggle with regarding other artists.
Before we jump into the actual problems of the video there’s something I’d like you to think about first: Who on your timeline is applauding and sharing that video? Who is telling you that it and Tina Fey are problematic? Do you have any of the latter?
Before I watched the video late afternoon last Friday, I already had seen a very clear split in regards to the video. All my Nice White Lady friends (and a few of the men, too) were very supportive and “YES”-ing it to high heaven. On the other side of that split were the black women and anti-racism activists with a reaction very much the opposite.
By the time I watched the video on Friday afternoon, the full-throated defense of the video by white women everywhere had become a loud cacophony.
“Can’t you take a joke!”
“She’s not really telling people to sit at home and eat cake, she’s actually saying to take to the streets!”
“She’s a comedian and it’s not her job to make people get involved!”
“Don’t you know your history? She just told them to ‘Eat cake!’”
Friends, the people leveling criticism at Fey and the video aren’t stupid. They know what SNL is and they know Fey works as a comedian. They understand satire and jokes and the historical implication of eating cake. Anyone who has read the criticisms of Fey’s video know that the critics get these things, so using “It’s a joke” is among the worst and most condescending defenses possible.
A small sampling of what POC have said about the video itself and the resulting white feminist backlash:
“Tina Fey made a joke about Thomas Jefferson preying on his 14 year old slave, Sally Hemings, but I’M THE DIVISIVE ONE?”
“PSA: white Women – we 100% understand Tina Fey was doing satire… poorly executed, badly written & offensive satire.”
“If only ya’ll defended Black Women the way you defend “jokes” 💅🏽”
“She is doing the very least she possibly could with all of her power while wearing the facade of being disempowered. She is playing up white women’s innocence and their need to be rescued. She even alluded to the six foot four Black drag queen who’d show up to fight Nazis (Black man rescues white woman).”
“I don’t find any humor in white supremacy or nazis. I don’t find comfort in white people who benefit from my oppression making jokes about shit that doesn’t impact their lives.”
Sherronda J. Brown wrote at Wear Your Voice:
“In order for satire to be effective, it has to be understood by its audience, and those of us who do not find it funny have been quickly disregarded by white liberals and told that we just don’t understand the razor-sharp wit of the SNL sketch.”
Damon Young at Very Smart Brothas:
“Because she is white, Tina Fey possesses the privilege of access. She can go places I just can not go, can hear conversations I’ll never be within earshot of, and can grab audiences I’d never keep. And not just because she’s a celebrity. But because she’s a white woman, and the type of white people who need to be reached are more likely to listen to her than me. … These are the types of conversations and confrontations white people need to have with other white people (and themselves) if they’re sincere about attempting to combat white supremacy. We (black people) have done enough.”
So let’s talk about what’s wrong with Fey’s sketch and start with the two racist jokes she buried in there.
The line about Nazis being attacked by drag queens who are actually 6’4” black men? It’s both racist by reinforcing the stereotype of black male violence, as well as being transphobic. Do you know how many trans women of color have been murdered in 2017? Kiwi Herring was the 17th trans woman of color this year. She was murdered by police on Tuesday, August 22nd, just days after Fey’s joke.
Beyond the racism within the joke itself, Jasmine Banks’s above quote reminds us that it is making people of color (queer POC, even) responsible for saving white people. In essence, the oppressed must save their oppressors to save themselves which is a refrain that people of color already know well as they are regularly asked to educate white people on white supremacy. Bearing the emotional burden of educating their oppressors is traumatic for many people.
The other joke is not only racist but also a rape joke.
How many male comedians would you excoriate for making a rape joke? How many men defending a rape joke as “just a joke” would you tolerate? My own answers are all and none. Yet white feminism finds itself implicitly defending a rape joke: “I love you Charlottesville, and, as Thomas Jefferson once said, ‘Who’s that hot light-skinned girl over by the butter churn?’”
Let’s break this down because there are two large consent issues in this “joke.”
- Sally Hemings was 14 when Thomas Jefferson, then 44, began a sexual relationship with her; she was 16 when he impregnated her.
Is your 14-year-old daughter/granddaughter/niece old enough to be in a consensual relationship with a 44-year-old man? Were you old enough at 14? Do I hear you crying out “No!” in a horrified voice? Please understand, Tina Fey’s final joke is exactly based on that — a girl who was forced into a sexual relationship with a man thirty years her senior who also owned her, which leads to the second issue…
- Since Hemings was a slave, Jefferson literally owned Hemings.
Women (and men) cannot consent when a power differential exists, and the difference between a slave and a master is one of complete power of the latter over the former. Hemings could never have consented to this relationship while a slave because she never had true agency over her body or choices.
While the racist jokes are easy to point out and recognize, it’s the underlying message that is truly insidious. It reeks of white privilege and the hidden iceberg of white supremacy.
Yes, I know, the majority of the rant is meant to be taken tongue-in-cheek but at the close, when Fey slips into seriousness for just a second, she reiterates that people should stay home and let the Nazis yell into the wind before finishing with her rape “joke.”
So what was she actually telling people to do? On one comment thread for an article calling her out for telling people to stay home, there were multiple interpretations of Fey’s ultimate message:
“She didn’t literally mean to eat cake and stay home, she is telling us to get out there and fight!”
“She is telling us to keep safe and fight from home!”
“She’s talking to us about the importance of self-care!”
“She’s saying to stay safe (away from protests) and to support minority-owned businesses.”
People don’t know how to take the mixed message in Fey’s sketch. She literally made two calls to action — stay home and away from white supremacist rallies and support minority-owned businesses — but that’s all she did.
If Fey wanted to be a force for actual good in the world, she could have suggested any number of things for white people to do that wouldn’t require them to put themselves (or even their finances) in harm’s way — read a challenging piece on white privilege; call “in” a friend or family member who makes a racist comment; join a local group that supports antiracism efforts. But she didn’t use her platform for anything other than riffing on the easy jokes of the day — like Paul Ryan failing to call out the president’s white supremacy and the never-ending “but her emails.”
Am I saying you can’t like Tina Fey? Absolutely not. But if you are really against racism, if you really want to dismantle white supremacy, then it will take a lot more self-reflection than she allows.
It will take us Nice White Ladies looking in the mirror and recognizing that, Yes, we did just laugh at that racist joke. It hurts to know we’re racists. But that’s how we learn to be better antiracists: by looking internally at the things that make us defensive, angry even, and figuring out what hidden racist truths are buried there.
Let’s do better, Nice White Ladies, and let’s hold our favorites to better standards as well.