It’s a story within a story within a story – or dominoes that have toppled into a surprising construction.
The story started when comedian Jon Stewart announced that when his contract ends this year, he will step aside as the host of the Comedy Central network’s The Daily Show. While he plays the part of the anchor of a nightly fake news show, other comedians play the roles of news correspondents who travel the world and interview actual newsmakers deemed mock-worthy.
One of those correspondents is Jessica Williams, a 25 year-old black woman with some of the funniest and most authoritative skits about issues of particular concern for women, such as college campus assaults and sexual harassment in public places.
Almost as soon as Stewart announced that he is leaving the show, social media lit up with suggestions for his replacement, including Jessica Williams. Her fans promoted the idea on Twitter and soon she responded.
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“Fact 1: I’m not hosting,” she tweeted. “Thank you but I am extremely under-qualified for the job!”
This is when the second part of the story began. In an opinion piece in the finance magazine The Billfold, associate editor Ester Bloom bemoaned Williams’ description of herself.
“How modest!” Bloom wrote. “How self-effacing!....Jessica Williams, respectfully, I reject your humility. What on earth does ‘under-qualified’ mean when it comes to being a comedian? You’re smart, you’re funny, you’re self-possessed. Is there something I’m missing?”
Bloom went on to diagnose Williams with “Imposter Syndrome,” which she called “a well-documented phenomenon in which men look at their abilities versus the requirements of a job posting and round up, whereas women do the same and round down.”
“All Williams needs is a pep talk,” Bloom concluded, listing people she thought might be able to convince Williams to “lean in.”
Jessica Williams was not amused. In fact, she was insulted. In a series of tweets she chastised Bloom.
“Are you unaware, how insulting that can be for a fully functioning person to hear that her choices are invalid?” she wrote. “Is it possible that I know & love myself enough to admit when Im not ready for? W/out regard to what other people want me to be?”
She added, “I am a black woman and I am a feminist and I am so many things. I’m truly honored that people love my work. But I am not yours.”
Commentators have rightly noted that even if Bloom intended her opinion piece as a tribute to Williams, it comes across as something else – condescending and breezy and unkind.
To me, what is noteworthy about Williams’ response is not her annoyance or her ire but her self-awareness of her own limitations and her refusal to be cajoled or bullied into promoting herself for the host job. She isn’t ready. She knows it. And most remarkable of all, she admits it publicly.
That sort of self-reflection is the beginning of genuine wisdom – that rarely seen virtue that includes self-knowledge, the ability to learn from experience, concern for others, a measured emotional life, and insightful tolerance. Think Socrates and “the unexamined life is not worth living.” Think Socrates after he questioned a respected politician and realized the man was an idiot. “So I left him, saying to myself, as I went away: Well, although I do not suppose that either of us knows anything really beautiful and good, I am better off than he is – for he knows nothing, and thinks he knows; I neither know nor think that I know.”
And here the story takes a final surprising turn. Ester Bloom apologized. Not the kind of slick apology often offered up to smooth over a public misstep, but a genuine, heartfelt mea culpa that she appended to her opinion piece.
“I was wrong. I was offensive and presumptuous; I messed up, and I’m sorry. Williams should not have had to deal with this …: my calling her a ‘victim’ of anything, my acting like I know better and could diagnose her with anything, all of it. Ugh. I’m leaving the post up, because at this point my stupid blog entry is News, and may it live in infamy. But I apologize, again. I am listening to folks and trying to learn, and I will try my hardest to be more damn careful & thoughtful in the future.”
How refreshing – two young women humble enough to admit their inadequacies, two young women well on the way to becoming wise.
Kay McSpadden is a high school English teacher in York, S.C. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.