"F**king get up and do it": Jessica Williams on race, gender and youth

Pamela Huber

Most speakers dismiss heckles from a crowd, but Jessica Williams invited them when they came from angry AU students emboldened by her own passion.

On September 10, the Kennedy Political Union speaker delivered an off the cuff speech to students about topics she felt passionately about and which, considering her young age of 25, most students felt strongly about too. When her casual jokes about therapy diverged to a serious recommendation for all to take advantage of the campus’ free counseling services, the students couldn’t help themselves, yelling, “We tried. There’s a waiting list.” Williams, unable to make out the catcalls from the audience, decided to eschew the “dignified” route of indifference, leaned in and asked a speaker to repeat herself.

The moment of exchange between Williams and the crowd is indicative of the entire evening, with a meaningful back-and-forth between the audience and Williams. She took each comment seriously, even jokes about AU being as American as apple pie. And the students cannot be blamed for their confidence in speaking out: it is Williams who told them to.

Jessica Williams, in her own words, is “raw as hell” and she doesn’t hide it anymore. Her confidence to speak boldly inspired the audience to do just the same.

 The Daily Show correspondent struggled to find her voice and character on the political comedy show, overwhelmed by the onslaught of the negative news cycle where nothing ever seems to change. “I’m angry all the time,” Williams said. “At any moment, I feel like I could scream, because I have this pure nugget [inside me] of things that just have remained unresolved.” 

She cited her Stop and Frisk piece as the first moment of clarity for finding her raw, fed-up character.

“I had all these emotions about stop and frisk, but I didn’t know what to do with it, she said. “My character is just a raw form of expression. We all feel like we’re in this world where things are out of control – and if you don’t, I do – and what I learned at the Daily Show, what I learned from Jon [Stewart], what helps me sleep at night, is that I’m not the only person. Then I can create something, I can create art, that I identify with.”

Williams identifies with art that often straddles the intersectionality of race, gender and youth, topics that cropped up again and again in her speech. While she started off the night with light-hearted jokes about race – being unaccustomed with having not one, but two, uniformed police officers guarding her on stage – her true anger laid its crosshairs on the daily exhausting reality of being black.

The night before in New York, Williams had been denied a cab that then picked up her white boyfriend hailing it just a bit further down the street. “I had had one or two cocktails and I was starting to get hyped,” Williams said. “I got into the car and was like, guess what? Oh guess what, this is my boyfriend; I’m with this man!” When Williams asked to open the car window, the cab driver said no. When her boyfriend interjected on her behalf, the cab driver responded with a pointed racial insult: ““That’s why I didn’t want to pick her up.” The driver then called the cops on the couple, and even though Williams knew that he had no substantiated claim for this, she decided, “Now I’ve got to be here to prove a damn point.” And even though the cops came and, in her words, “told the dude he was crazy,” Williams asks, “Who wants to deal with shit like that?”

Williams’ qualm with race in today’s America is that it is persistent and all-consuming, “Part of what makes me so upset about race is that it’s exasperating,” she said. “Who wants to be dealing with that shit all the time? Who wants to take time out of their day explaining, here’s why the “N word” is wrong?”

In spite of all the racist remarks Williams faced in college and at the beginning of her tenure on The Daily Show, where she was called “token,” she sees America’s perception of blackness changing. “Right now it’s a nice time to be black, because it’s cool to be black,” Williams said. Of course, just because something is cool does not mean it’s treated fairly or depicted accurately.

In comedy, race still undermines much of the open dialogue of a sketch. “Racism happens… because a white man has trouble connecting to you, so he goes to the other white guy in the room,” Williams said to the women, particularly minority women, in the audience.

“I think oftentimes as minority women, you have to be a representative of your race, or of your gender,” she said of the constant stigma that comes with the intersectionality of race and gender. “I feel like as people of color – I feel like we get shut out, because people don’t feel comfortable, not because they’re racist.”

The answer, according to Williams, is to bring more voices into comedy.

“I think right now is a good time to be a person of color… or any sort of minorities, because the stories right now are f**king old…. They need you. You have something to offer,” Williams said. “If you’re a lady and you’re thinking about comedy, f**king get up and do it.”

“It” is not just stand-up comedy for Williams, but being an active voice that others consume, whether in comedy, the media or politics. “You just need to get out and create content,” she said. “Comedy is a boy’s club, but so is politics…so is everything.” And in a direct appeal to the minority women in the audience, Williams affirmed, “Just know that because nobody looks like you, you can take that space.”

Her direct appeals to the crowd received snaps, claps, laughs and shouts of affirmation. In her Q&A, Williams continued to engage with the crowd, saying she’d do four more questions when told there was only time for two (and in fact answering even more than that). In a particularly tender moment, a student who grew up in conservative southern Texas and who experienced a similar purity ring ceremony to one Williams earlier described as, “the first time I feel like my body doesn’t belong to me,” asked how Williams dealt with the aftermath of the experience. Williams explained, “I had to figure out that it’s not my body’s fault… I had to learn to get comfortable with my body and my sexuality.”

Williams also figured out that therapy helped in the process, and the proceeding advice to take advantage of the university’s free counseling services set off that startling open exchange between her and the audience. Putting all jokes aside, Williams showed concern and general connection with the student body – that same connection which allowed every woman in the audience to look to Williams as an example of what it means to break through the barriers of all-boys clubs and claim their space, in its entirety.