Here, A Hypocrite Lives: I Probably Get It Wrong On Leslie Jones But I Tried

I want badly to get this right. That, of course, means that there is no way humanly possible for me to get this right.

I want to get this right for the usual reasons. I want Twitchy and professional feminists and black nationalists and the identity police and FOX news ambassadors to stay out of my comment section. I also want to get this right because I spent a fair amount of time this week explaining to mostly non-black academic labor organizers why they are nowhere near adept or oppressed enough to use slavery metaphors.

Then, too, this is the week that Miley Cyrus called me old for publicly ruminating on her adoption of a specific kind of black female affect in a capitalist beauty structure where chicks like me stay losing, even when we’re paid to dance like we’re winning.

And, Miley’s is some of the nicest criticism of my analysis. Sisters have flat out got in my ass in comments, emails, and Q&As at public lectures about that essay. They are angry that I am not lifting up black beauty. I am guilty of not modeling self-esteem for young black girls. Some of the younger black women feel not unlike Miley. They think I’m too old to understand how they share culture with their white girlfriends who are down.

The white women do a different kind of haranguing. They need, desperately, for me to accept that I am beautiful…just in my own way. I think they want to make me tea and tell me how they like my hair “like that” and compare me to every halfway normatively attractive black women they can think of. Brothers smell low self-esteem blood in the water of a thick thighed girl and I get thinly-veiled offers to help me feel better about myself. I am almost positive that involves meeting their penis. White men are mostly above it all because they get to be on such issues of gender and mate competition. And that is how you write from the near-left corner of the matrix of intersecting oppressions, kiddos.

That’s why I do not want to have a single thought on Leslie Jones.

A cultural moment could not be more ill-timed or perfectly contrived to fuck up my inbox for ages to come.


lupita-covers-people-magLeslie Jones is a black woman. She is a comic. She is a comedy writer at Saturday Night Live. She commented on Lupita Nyong’o being named People Magazine’s “Most Beautiful Person” this year. Jones has the job at SNL, in part, because of a pretty public backlash this year about the dearth of black women in the show’s history. Her joke starts by proposing a counter-standard of beauty (“usefulness”) that assumes the audience knows that there is a normative beauty standard and that she clearly is not winning by its measure. That is an argument about beauty as a structure and a commodity and you need to assume everyone agrees on those points for the set-up to work. Then she transitions into tropes about the value of big, tall, black female bodies like hers as valuable during slavery. By a different beauty measure, i.e. utility, Jones is saying she can hold her own against white beauty norms and the equally unattainable black exceptions that are made about once every popular culture generation (Lena Horne, Diana Ross, Diahann Carol, Pam Grier, Beyonce, Lupita, etc.). The punchline is that with her big bodied utility to white slave-owners she would have been guaranteed to have a man back in the olden days.

It is painful as shit to watch.

Just painful.

Many have taken issue with Jones making light of the horrific sexualized violence of slavery…you know, like how I took labor movements to task for minimizing the horrific reality of slavery to further the cause of underpaid college adjuncts.

So, you see, I do not want to write this because there is no way I can get it right. I have to assume or explain too much of the set-up to even try. And, experience says that more than any other charged topic on which I have written, this one about gender, race, beauty and power is the single most contentious.

Someone should have told Jones. Because she tried to do no less in a 90 second comedy sketch, for a white audience, within a history of a show whose creative overlord proclaimed it is not and never would be an “urban” comedy show. We see how that turned out.


There are times when the task to which we aspire is simply beyond our abilities. Here, I am specifically talking about myself. I fear there is no way around it and yet here I am anyway. It is one of many reasons that Vivian tells me that I’m the smartest little dummy she’s ever reared (note: I’m also the only one she’s reared but she doesn’t like it when I appeal to procedurialism).

When Vivian was rearing me I ran away regularly. I ran away all the time. Like, easily once a week. I wrote long, torrid letters and taped them to bathroom mirrors and cabinet doors where she could find them. I ran away because she did not understand why I tried to paint an impressionistic crayola masterpiece of purple rain on my bedroom wall in a Prince homage. I ran away because I did not have the vocabulary or emotional capacity to explain why I simply could not, yet again, be the only short, squat, round, dark body in the dance classes she scrimped to pay for me to have because she had never had them. I ran away because I was born with a deeply ingrained sense that no one should ever be the boss of me. I ran away because it was Tuesday and I wanted it to be Friday. All kinds of reasons.

I never ran far. It seems that I have a serious Achilles heel for a revolutionary. I really, really, really like central heat and air conditioning. I spent the hottest summer of a human life with my elders in Eastern North Carolina. My great-grandmother believed in closing all the windows at night to keep Jesus in and the white man out. I almost expired. Every night I laid butt naked under two pounds of quilts in August promising myself that I would never be that hot again. Controlling the temperature of my environment seems to me as close to being a god as I will ever come and being on the run puts you at the mercy of hot Carolina summers.

But the desire to run away never really left me. When I got to be a bit older — say, in my 20s but before I became Miley Cyrus old — I clearly remember thinking that I wanted to find a place in the world where I could be a black woman. I had a bit more learning and experience by this time. “Running away” had become “finding”. It sounds much classier. But the motivation was the same. I remember sitting in a cafe at a corporate book store, slowly putting them out of business as I paid for coffee and read the books for free.

I was reading Randall Kennedy and Elaine Brown and Town & Country and I wanted to “find” a place in the world where I could be all those things — Kennedy’s fierce identity warrior, Brown’s bad ass leader, and Town & Country’s perpetual comfort. And I thought, “surely there’s a place in this world where I can be those things, all at the same time.” I had not yet realized the sheer magnitude and scope of colonialism that had exported a racial hierarchy, gendered capitalism, and anti-black beauty structure to every single corner of the world.

I couldn’t be that kind of black woman anywhere in the world.

There is a reason that one can buy chemical skin lighteners and hair straighteners in almost every economy in the global north and south.

There is nowhere to run, no place to find, and all I could do was write letters to the world about it and tape it to the door of my website.

I watched Leslie Jones’ skit and I had to stop the video five times to finish it. Her follow-up tweets to the criticism made it worse. I felt her desire to run. Surely, she seems to be saying, there’s a world where someone like her can be what she is while simultaneously being desirable (I think she missed the section on colonialism in the bookstore, too). Because there is no geography where that is true, Jones instead collapses time and ends at slavery. For the record, that’s the same way we end up valorizing the good old days of segregation when poor and affluent blacks shared the same neighborhoods. The truth is, looking for the good ol’ black days in U.S. history is a fool’s errand. There aren’t any.

Instead of a letter to a cabinet door, Jones posted her torrid Dear John letter to colonialism on the public wall of popular culture on a very white show in a culture where: there is no structure; there is no tolerance for examining beauty as a object of institutional demoralization; and there isn’t a feminist ethic of valuing the desire to be desirable.

I think that if there was anyplace where Jones went really wrong it is in misunderstanding her social location in all of this. Someone pointed out that Jones is not merely an actor at SNL, but a writer. The implication is that she had power over what she chose to play for a joke. Choosing to play any aspect of slavery was an abuse of power. The sociologist in me would like to point out that in no institution is a black woman’s power equal to that of her non-black, male peers.

Tanner Colby wrote an enlightening essay on race and SNL earlier this year as the show clamored to find a black woman to cast. Colby has also written a book on the subject (that I’ve only skimmed; grad school; sorry). I saved the essay because I thought it was one of those great moments when previously under-appreciated scholarship meets critical cultural moment. I love it when that happens.

In the essay, Colby classifies the few black SNL cast members as belonging to either the disgruntleds/wash-outs or the successes. The difference between the two groups? In Colby’s analysis of the successes he says:

They come, mostly, from fully integrated, majority-white backgrounds. Thompson spent his teens as a child star in the lily-white halls of Nickelodeon. Rudolph is the mixed-race daughter of singer Minnie Riperton and composer Richard Rudolph. Born into a show business family, she graduated from a tony high school near Hollywood and is friends with Gwyneth Paltrow. Meadows came up through the very white stages of Chicago’s Second City, where he was extremely close with cast mate Chris Farley, so close that Meadows named his son after his late friend.* (The two of them did a sketch about Farley not being OK with his black friend trying to date his white sister; it’s a Second City classic and a great riff on racial tension.)

I think of the sole woman in the group, Maya Rudolph. I love Maya. She is criminally under-appreciated and under-utilized in Hollywood.

She is also as close to white normative ideals of beauty as a black woman can probably be.

Nothing about her social location makes it likely that she has had to consider a place to run where someone who looks like her could be considered desirable. Or, if she has (because surely that may be common to all women in a patriarchal society) that she would have to travel to the darkest recesses of black history in the United States to unearth an alternative norm of utility that might give her a chance up to bat.

But these are the things we simply are not supposed to say. Beauty is how we feel. In capitalism, beauty is something we can buy. In the post-Oprah “Live Your Best Life” utopia, beauty is something we can affect. Which is all true if we think of beauty the way many white people think of race and racism — that it is a choice, a range of activities, a domain restricted to symbolic interactionism and situational discrimination.

But, if beauty is ascriptive, like race, then there is a different kind of conversation to be had. There is a conversation that says I can call myself beautiful (or cannablasian) but that in no way changes how systems, structures, institutions, and culture define me against my will.

Jones’ pain, so apparent to me as I paused and un-paused that video, is having that conversation. Jones is likely having it in the wrong place. It can be argued that she is even having the conversation without all the requisite tools or precision using them. I think of Richard Pryor’s adroitness when he slices the thin layer of fat from bone by excising his self from structure in one of SNL’s best sketches ever. Maybe Jones isn’t Pryor. Neither is she the powerful organizational actor that Tina Fey could be as a writer for the show. When you’re hired under social protest and, in part, for your identity as much as for anything else your power is greatly constrained. And being that kind of hire is compounded by being the last hired and easily first fired (common to black workers across labor contexts). Add to that situation the white bro peer culture that Garret Morris describes as essential to success at SNL:

“I was a loner, and that actually cost me. … [T]he social life is just as important as your talent. Particularly with writers, they have to hear you talk and get to know you.”

Jones seemed to be doing that thing comics do: mining personal pain to bleed for our amusement. Being who she is, in the system she is in, there is no way that cannot end at slavery. Doing it for the white gaze is unavoidable considering the context of her employment and the popular culture structure that’s signing her checks. It’s brutal to express the desire to be desirable when even the generational black beauty exception manages to still be different from you and there’s next to no feminist ethos to guide you or respect to be earned for risking it. And it takes superior skill to use slavery, even when it is a part of your inherited legacy, to move forward a critical comedic commentary. It maybe even requires a type of privileged irreverence that black men have in ways black women do not.

So, I probably got this wrong. But at least I am getting it wrong on a domain of my own and not on Lorne’s dime. It’s a small freedom in a world where there aren’t many.

I only know that I sometimes see and hear something slightly different about what constrains in ways that make us – me – uncomfortable.

Slavery isn’t a joke. That’s what I told the adjunct folks this week. I maintain that is true.

But I don’t think Jones was playing it as a joke. Her pain, so inextricably bound in the way enslavement shaped her social distance from desirability and beauty in the here and now, couldn’t let her make it a joke even if she intended to.

That’s the thing about social locations and constraints and structure. It’s always making absolutes relative.

And, as I found out long ago, there is nowhere in the world where some of us can run to get away from that.


36 thoughts on “Here, A Hypocrite Lives: I Probably Get It Wrong On Leslie Jones But I Tried

  1. Thank you for using your voice, for risking “not getting it right” and all that involves, to dig in and clarify what was a very painful scene–played out so many times, over and over again in the American past and present. Thank you for putting it in a historical, political and personal context–one that teases out many of the nuances of those few minutes. Your piece hits so close to home in so many ways as I work to become fully the black woman I aspire to be–fighting daily to dismantle racism/white supremacy while being immersed in it. Thank you for seeing, naming and courageously penning your thoughts–teaching us, pulling back the layers of twisted, fibrous tissue of those still raw wounds.

  2. your compassion is humbling and inspiring. i bow to you, as a sister, to a sister. i bow to you because only equals can do such a thing correctly. you met me inside of my heart. in the place where sisters like leslie jones live safe and fully known. the wisdom of the heart forced my ears to hear what those whose privilege silenced: that she is in pain and needs love and understanding.

    well then, i understand. i understand so much it makes me face bleed tears. because there is nowhere to run. nowhere to hide. except in my own heart’s embrace. i am my refuge and delight. and because we are one? so are you.

    so is she.

    because we are one. the united sisterhood of the unspeakable despair. she who is owed an apology.

  3. Thanks for writing this, even at peril of “getting it wrong”. The wisdom contained in your analysis is incredibly valuable.

  4. I think you got it right. You summed up the painful truth. There is no escape for black women in this world. And our pain can’t be made into a joke.

  5. I think you got it right too, and I’m an old white woman. It is still quite a fight and you’ve the ability to challenge the world with you thoughts and writing. Keep it up.

  6. I have to commend you for this essay. For all of your essays, really. But this one is so, so good. When I read something this good, I have to stop at various intervals and wonder how someone could see this clearly.

  7. Although no where near as victimized by the constraints that have made you look for a place to run, I have wished far too often for an empty chunk of land where a just society–truly just, not the white-man’s-burden-bullshit-about-replicating-their-shit-within-acceptable-standards-just–could be established, devoid of all the bigotry and ingrained hatred/backwardness. This essay is phenomenal.

  8. Sometimes (often) when reading your work I just don’t know what to say. Being male, of Scots decent, with an honours degree that I did not have to pay for, 6’7″, thin and apparently handsome I feel at a loss to even comment on some of these issues. I don’t feel qualified or educated enough to reply with much insight or intelligence.

    This leaves me with empathy which by itself is not very useful.

    1. Empathy is the most essential quality for the progression of humanity. Then action or nonaction will follow its dictates.

  9. I have no idea what you look like. I really don’t care. I probably disagree with the vast majority of your politics. I read your blog because it makes me uncomfortable and it more than any other left leaning blog I read (I read a lot), it challenges me.

    You may not have found a place in the world where you can find a “place in the world where I could be a black woman”, but you have found a place in the world where your writing and idea’s are respected, even by (I won’t say enemy) those who disagree with you.

    And at least one person won’t even notice if you did or didn’t get it wrong on Leslie Jones (who I incidentally now have to go google, just so I’m not completely culturally ignorant).

  10. Reblogged this on Just Fred and commented:
    Tressie, this is a brilliant, thought-provoking and poignant analysis. I’m going to have to look at Jones’ skit now and see what all the hubbub is about. Thank you!

  11. The persistence of your heart is palpable here. Thank you for the public grappling you’ve done with this subject. I contend that you’ve successfully held multiple truths simultaneously. This is a marvelous piece.

  12. What’s so powerful about this is the way you show how difficult it is for black women in particular to find a point from which to stand in order articulate a critique of dominant standards of beauty and desirability in the U.S. Leslie Jones tried but failed here for the reasons you describe (maybe she’ll find a better way to do this down the road… one can hope). You try — and you say you’re failing — but by taking a step back and looking at the framing of the debate over her skit you at least create the possibility of a richer kind of discussion. (It’s up to your readers to pay enough attention to see that.)

    Solidarity. (Here from an Indian-American man. Also “old.”)

  13. you did a great job on this – and yes you’re right not a joke. but it allows us to have these kinds of conversations. people come to us and ask ‘what do you think about x, y, and z’. they begin asking b/c they saw on youtube, or on Twitter, or Facebook, or SNL. we just have to be prepared to not dismiss it, take it seriously, and help them develop their consciousness to receive it. keep on keepin on…

  14. Sometimes wrestling with something is all we can do, and I think there’s some hope that wrestling with this stuff in public will, in the long run, bring positive change. So thank you for wrestling so thoughtfully and so honestly.

    One thing you got definitely got right, I think; we do need “a feminist ethic of valuing the desire to be desirable,” or at least a feminist ethic that treats that desire as a serious thing, worthy of empathy. How we get there, either, I’m not sure.

  15. And on a similar note it sucked to see with NBC’s David Gregory… absolutely painful and cringe worthy to watch the “political” white people want to be accepted by him. Absolutely grotesque he went on that platform to be used. Not to mention unnecessary. His work with Miley Cyrus, Justin Bieber, Brittany Spears, ultimately degrading. Those music videos make it look like if a white kid leans at all towards “black culture” they will go “wrong” based on stereotypical gangster and/or sexualized behavior fronting for freedom, revolution, and weaning from authority.
    His work with giving back to his own community and wanting to stop outsourcing… Well his heart is in the right place… Right?
    You’ll have to tell me if I’m one of the white people you need to stop commenting. I don’t see myself in your definitions but I will honor your request if you have labeled me as such. I like your writing plain and simple. Sometimes I have no idea what you’re talking about so maybe I learn something. Other times I relate wholeheartedly but I get the feeling you’d never believe me. Be your own Boss, Tressie… Nobody can stop you.

  16. As a middle-aged white woman, I selfishly encourage you to keep writing about things you may not get right and taking these risks. Keep writing, even though it’s easy for me to say since I cannot know what you’re experiencing and feeling in our white, patriarchal culture, and even though I am not risking the blow back you brace yourself for. What I do know is that I want to keep hearing your voice and your perspective. Thank you.

  17. Three, maybe four, blogs I always read even if I don’t have time to read anything else including messages. This is one. I never wonder why but if I did, this would be answer enough. Thank you

  18. Tressie, I always enjoy your ruminations and comments – and think that Ms. Jones was courageous, with the best of intentions to try the skit on this subject, despite these outcomes. Although some of the reactions in your piece are not unexpected, I was surprised at the reaction from the Ebony group to Ms. Jones as reported in the press, including this quote:

    “…Lemieux wasn’t pacified and continued the attack. “So the Lupita moment had to be counteracted by a Black woman acting like a big loud monkey? Just … wow.”

    I was disappointed because the imagery that Ms. Lemieux calls up is one that has classically been used around the world to denigrate black people – within the past year I have had a long discussion with airport management while traveling out of this country when I heard this term applied to me in a different language (that the folks at the gate thought that I did not understand) as I was going through a security gate in a city where I am working. Is this a case of internalizing rage and/or an unsuspecting expression of internalized anti-black racist societal sentiments on her part, ? How sad.


    Please keep on writing (including all the way through that PhD thesis) !

    Required Academic Disclaimer: My views are strictly my own, and may not be representative of those of my employer

  19. Tressie, this is so on point in so many ways. I know it has been said but it bears repeating – your prose is stunning.

    What also seemed interesting to me about Jones’s sketch is that it seemed to be not just lamenting the fact that she is rejected on the basis of beauty standards of the white world but also on the basis of black men who validate those standards and seek out women who conform to them. It seemed as though she was equally responding to the pain of being rejected by black men. It is painful to watch because it is something many black women have experienced – the dual rejection – the pain of feeling unloved. And you’re right, SNL is no place for a black woman to go and have that conversation.

  20. The problem I had with the skit, what I’ve seen of it, since SNL took it down, was that it seemed inspired by the recent Bundy/Sterling contretemps, with the intention of finding humor in that and to make Caucasians feel less tense about what those people were saying. Just ain’t no humor in slavery and humor found in it (Django) isn’t really humorous. Slaves didn’t get to ride off into the moonlight and slaves had NO choices about where or how their “talents” (bodies) would be USED

  21. I thought it was great in that, given what she was up against in that venue, she went bold – really bold. She put it all on the line and didn’t half-ass a thing. I really admire her grit and bravery. I can see why she may have viewed it as a “go big or go home” situation. And I welcome anytime white people can be made uncomfortable and a conversation about race takes place. I am white and I was so uncomfortable watching that performance, I didn’t know what to think. So of course I thought about it for awhile afterward. And it made me look for interpretations and opinions by others, like this one that you’ve written, which help me learn and which enrich the conversation.

    Thank you for writing this and thank you to Leslie Jones for being bold and igniting the discussion.

  22. WOW. Ok, first I need to see what all the hubbub about Leslie Jones is. Hadn’t heard of her until a friend shared a piece on the comments that bell hooks made about Beyoncé. I’m like Leslie who? Then same friend posts this on facebook and I’m like WHOA! This ish is deep! As I get reach my late 40s, I see my black beauty in so many different ways. Sister I think I just became smarter reading this and I need to read it again to fully grasp the depths from which you are speaking. But damn girl! Write on sis, write on.

    1. Hi Tamra, I just wanted to thank you for mentioning bell hooks commenting on Beyonce. I’d missed that and was able to view the live stream panel at The New School in NYC and it was dynamic. Very nuanced and I think critics are going after bell hooks in defense of Beyonce not fully comprehending the nuances of her argument due to her bold statements of Beyonce being anti-feminist and a terrorist to girls. I adore bell hooks and never was a fan of Beyonce for many of the same reasons as bell hooks describes by coincidence, but I see the other panelists points of view too, such as Janet, who being transgendered isn’t always accepted as a black woman. The gender/race identity topic in relation to sexuality and beauty was very well introduced in this open minded forum. So thanks again for the bell hooks shout out.

  23. LOVE, LOVE, LOVE You for writing this! I fit more into the so-called “useful” than beautiful category, but also found the SNL skit sad. It took me into my late 20s-early 30s to make peace with the way I was born: the color of my skin, texture of my hair, width of my hips, fullness of my lips. It’s challenging to keep a rein on my daughters, helping them to understand their natural beauty and discouraging their assimilation to pop/dominant culture’s beauty norms. So far, so good, but they’ll only “have to” listen to what I say about how they dress and groom themselves for a little while longer. I’m praying that they value themselves as God made them. I’m going to encourage them to read this beautiful piece you’ve written.

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