I’m filling Hari Ziyad and Shannon M. Houston’s impossible-to-fill shoes this week, and though there’s much to cover in “Hella Shook”—Yvonne Orji’s delivery of “That’s French for ‘palace,’ bitch!” deserves an essay of its own—I thought I’d focus on a subject I know well: white people. (I also know about adding new men to the “ho-tation,” but that’s a story for another day.)
Insecure’s white characters, most of whom work at We Got Y’all alongside Issa (Issa Rae), are among its broadest; with the exception of Frieda (Lisa Joyce), none can be said to sound more than a single note. That note is “white savior,” and its ring is brutal: On this subject the series’ humor is at its most blunt, and the flatness of the self-styled do-gooders around the table leaves no room for misinterpretation. In addition to being an incisive modern rom-com, an update of the black sitcom tradition that dates back to Living Single, and one of the funniest portraits of friendship now on TV, Insecure is a pungent satire of a white liberals, and never is that more plain than in “Hella Shook.”
We Got Y’all—the name still cracks me up—is reminiscent of the numerous programs aimed at “inner city” or “underprivileged” youth (read, black and brown students) in which the leadership and the rank-and-file are nonetheless predominantly white, and though I’m tempted to call the organization an exaggeration, I’m not quite convinced that’s correct. When I moved to New Orleans to join Teach for America after graduating from college, my intentions were, I thought, pure, and perhaps they were. In retrospect, though—I’m six years out of teaching, with the exception of a single creative writing class at a local charter high school—there’s something breathtakingly arrogant about a 22-year-old white man from an upper-middle-class family in the Boston suburbs marching into a classroom full of black teenagers from south Louisiana and believing that pure intentions are enough. Insecure’s treatment of white saviors is so lacerating because it’s built on the notion that Issa’s colleagues do, in fact, mean well—that the “current climate” indeed demands more arts education, or that the name “Betsy DeVos” should be pronounced with a guttural, soul-crushing sigh—and that this nonetheless fails to prevent well-meaning white people from bringing their privilege, even their damaging prejudices, to the table.
After all, the same characters that want to promote the arts and defeat DeVos—like me and you and every white liberal we know—bring more than one hideous assumption to bear during the group exercise at We Got Y’all’s Saturday morning “retreat.” The escalation from “changes at home” to “parents affiliated with any organizations” to “they’re probably pregnant” is Insecure’s way of dropping the veil from the euphemisms white people are taught to use in such situations. Both Frieda’s polite rendering and her co-worker’s openly offensive one frame the hypothetical student’s “disengagement”—which, as Issa points out, they think they can deduce without asking—as personal, not structural, in nature. In much the same way, one can find whites of all political stripes describing racism as if it were a trait, akin to poor manners, and not as a system, one from which all white people benefit: When you are part of the structure, “Hella Shook” suggests, you are an unlikely candidate for dismantling it.
As Insecure understands, the upset that accompanied Tina Fey’s sheetcake-eating appearance on Weekend Update is not that of false equivalences or misplaced frustrations—it is, rather, the same angst Issa expresses when she says, “Maybe instead of assuming, we should just ask them what the hell is going on.” Reasonable people can disagree as to whether Fey was lampooning complacent white liberals or simply being one. (Her track record when it comes to race, especially on Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, gives me no great confidence it was the former.) But after seeing “Hella Shook,” it’s clear to me that the speed with which Fey’s segment became a flashpoint for debate was not only a function of the gag itself—it was, rather, the perfect encapsulation of what Insecure’s been up to for going on two seasons, which is to question, in its own, riotous way, why white liberals won’t listen when black and brown people tell them what the hell is going on.
I don’t want to suggest that all people of color (or queer people, or political organizers, or anyone else who can’t afford to stay home and eat cake in the “current climate”) share the same opinion of Fey’s monologue, or that the defenses thereof are prima facie invalid if the people doing the defending are white. “Hella Shook” certainly doesn’t give Issa a pass for the trill she utters when Molly asks after her Latino date (“That was really racist,” she admits), nor does it dismiss Frieda’s concern that the failure to confront Principal Gaines about his attitudes toward Latinx students is perpetuating, rather than solving, a problem. All Insecure wants is for Joanne’s (Catherine Curtin) promise of “listening” and “empathy” to be more than mere lip service, for our opposition to DeVos (or Confederate monuments, or white supremacists) to form itself into action, for white liberals to follow and not always lead. With its depiction of We Got Y’all, Insecure shows no mercy when it comes to the arrogance of white saviors—and in fact turns their blithe disregard for the experiences of black and brown people into a guillotine-sharp gag of its own. White folks? it asks. Let them eat cake.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.