Read of the Day: “SNL‘s Real Race Problem”
5:30 pm, January 10th | by Colette McIntyre
Enter Sasheer Zamata. For the moment she’s still a virtual unknown to most of America, and we don’t know much about her personal background yet. (Her given surname is Moore.) But we do know that she graduated from the highly selective and predominantly white University of Virginia (Tina Fey’s alma mater). She also matriculated from the overwhelmingly white, and mostly male, Upright Citizens Brigade improv troupe. Perhaps even more important, she’s friends with current SNL cast member Bobby Moynihan, an inside connection being the best credential you can have for getting any type of job, whether it’s at NBC or UPS. Even as an unknown, she had already an in with SNL’s very white old boys’ network.
And then there’s Zamata’s sense of humor. Her YouTube sketches, many of which she wrote, explore the tension of being the black actress who “isn’t urban enough,” or the awkwardness of sleeping with uncomfortable white guys. Her comedy isn’t rooted in black culture, but in the clash of cultures that goes on daily in the demilitarized zone around America’s color line—in other words, the kind of racial humor that would go over at a place like Saturday Night Live.
Sasheer Zamata is also, it should be noted, clearly very talented. The camera loves her. But her talent, as Garrett Morris pointed out, has to go hand in glove with certain social qualifications in order to thrive on the show.
Unfortunately, this is hardly a problem confined to America’s pre-eminent sketch comedy show. SNL’s current predicament is a perfect example of why our national conversation about diversity spins in place and never actually goes anywhere. For years now, from our television screens to our corporate boardrooms, we’ve been watching a tug of war take place: racial-justice advocates demanding more and more diversity and exasperated hiring managers exclaiming, We can’t find any diversity! We’re looking hard, we promise! One reason these two factions keep talking past each other is that they’re talking about two completely different things. When racial-justice advocates call for more diversity, what they’re saying is that the hiring pipelines into America’s majority-white industries need to be expanded to include a truly multicultural array of voices and talents from all ethnic corners of America; they want equal opportunity for minorities who don’t necessarily conform to the social norms of the white majority. When exasperated hiring managers use the word diversity, what they really mean is that they’re looking for assimilated diversity—people like Rudolph and Zamata. More Bill Cosbys. More Will Smiths. Faces and voices that are black but nonetheless reflect a cultural bearing that white people understand and feel comfortable with.
For the full fascinating read, click here.