What white allies can learn from Tina Fey's cake-eating sketch

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Last Thursday night, Tina Fey showed up on SNL’s "Weekend Update: Summer Edition" to riff on what had happened in Charlottesville last weekend. I laughed at the bit -- right up until the punchline. There is a point where something is too real and it stops being funny.

“I know a lot of us are feeling anxious and we’re asking ourselves, like, what can I do? I’m just one person,” she said. “I would urge people this Saturday instead of participating in the screaming matches and violence, find a local business you support, maybe a Jewish run bakery or African-American run bakery. Order a cake with the American flag on it... and just eat it.”


Comedy is risk. Sometimes comedy doesn't hit the mark. Sometimes comedy is more subjective than universal. Art takes on a life of its own after it's released, and things can have an unintended impact or an unanticipated interpretation. It seems one of the biggest unintended side effects of a comedy hero eating sheet cake is allies are being shown one of their biggest and most persistent awareness gaps.

As people are pointing out the problematic elements of the payoff, we have people scrambling to explain satire, as if that must be the only reason people aren't finding it as funny as they did. You see, she was sending up white complacency! That's the joke!

Maybe. We don't know, because Fey refuses to discuss her work in that fashion. But that moment of checking out and parroting the mistaken idea that not showing up is the way to fight was too real to be funny anymore. White people checking out and telling us to ignore the bully? That does not sit well at all. Especially when it comes from people who want to be allies.

Again, we are being told we're too sensitive. Again, allies are finding a rationale for not showing up. We obviously must not understand satire, so "allies" painstakingly or patronizingly explain satire to us as if we don't understand. Once again, us not understanding is the problem; we are the ones being divisive.

Stop. Just stop. Listen. Reflect.

An unintended result of the cake eating is that we are seeing once again how white supremacy and implicit bias has its tendrils everywhere, even in "good people." Instead of jumping to explain satire, it would be more effective to examine your reaction as an ally. Yet again white-centered perspective is assuming control of the discussion, and is declared to be the correct way to see it.

You can learn more by understanding why some felt the monologue stopped being funny. You can learn by examining your own reaction if you thought it was funny and someone else didn't. You can learn how this was just the same old complacency spun in a different way that didn't land as intended. You can learn that intent does not guarantee impact.

We get it, you don't have the stamina for this and you feel like all you can do is eat a sheet cake. But it's also not your skin on the line. They want separation, subjugation, and elimination, and you think the more pressing problem is we can't take a joke? Complacency and downplaying a credible threat are not jokes. If they are going to be a punchline, that comedy had better be crafted more solidly and mindfully than what was presented here.

Ignoring them won't make them go away, it will make them angrier. They've shown that before. Take it from people who are used to being ignored, even by people who supposedly care about a just America.

We're ignored when we are being peaceful. We're ignored when we're reasoning and calm. Then when we use what is available so we can be heard, we are too loud, angry, and causing trouble. We know being ignored all too well, because it's one huge reason why we are still where we are as a country. We don't expect perfection, but you are expected to own your shit. Even if Fey was all-in on satirizing complacency, the message -- "Don't show up" -- hit too close to home for targets of white supremacy.

Being a better ally includes being able to understand that.

If it was all satire to the bitter end, it's frustrating that some people's first reaction is "lighten up" rather than to recognize one of the biggest goals of satire may actually have been achieved: to act as a mirror.


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