As reported by various news outlets, Sasheer Zamata will become the first black female cast member on Saturday Night Live since Maya Rudolph, left over five years ago.
Although the new hire spells great opportunity for the young New York-based comedienne as well as positive press for SNL, which has been caught up in controversy over lack of cast diversity, not everyone is feeling the decision. More specifically, Variety’s digital editor-in-chief Andrew Wallenstein, who in the piece Diversity Done Wrong: How ‘SNL’ Mishandled Casting a Black Woman, writes that Zamata’s hiring was not only a publicity stunt but also discrimination.
He also writes:
“The primary problem is the move to demonstrate “SNL” isn’t prejudiced was in and of itself an act of prejudice. While “first black woman in five years” makes for a compelling soundbite, it’s not as if “SNL” has no African-Americans at all. But lost amid all this attention on African-American women is that there currently are no Hispanics or Asians of either gender on “SNL,” which has also been the subject of criticism.
Making finding a black female in particular a priority over other racial groups sets up an absurd hierarchy of diversity needs. Think of how much more sense it would have made if “SNL,” having felt so compelled to make such a public demonstration of its diversity outreach, hadn’t excluded anyone who wasn’t a black female and just made it a casting call about finding another funny person of any type.
It’s always funny when white folks rail on about merit, hierarchy of diversity needs (seriously?) and affirmative action when sitting comfortably in mostly white work spaces (and yes that was a jab at the journalism industry). In other words, most of the cast of Saturday Night Live‘s entire run have been white men, however, that does not mean that all those white male cast members have been funny, or the funniest comedians to cast for the show. Some (without naming names) were kind of mediocre. And their mediocrity was likely aided on by all white executives, scouts and others white folks in positions of authority, who cast the show based upon their own personal preferences, as opposed to who – and even what is – funny. Therefore, if bias is intentional than so is diversity. And let’s be real here: mainstream America (white folks in authority) has a pretty messed up track record of doing the right thing racially, when judging solely upon merit. I’m talking historic-level of f**kery here. Every bit of diversity in this country has came by way of force, pressure and flat-out intention. Every bit of it.
Merit-based hiring and labor (because that is ultimately what we are talking about here) means leaving the decision making exclusively in the hands of folks like Wallenstein, who can say rather cluelessly “it’s not as if “SNL” has no African-Americans at all,”without taking into account that those two African Americans are actually both men. And black men and women are not interchangeable, despite SNL and Keenan Thompson best effort to make us think so.
I think it is laughable that Wallenstein sees the hiring of black women as some sort of affront to other women of color. Historically and statistically speaking, black people, in particular black women, have never been on the top of hierarchy in America. Therefore the fact that Black folks were able to pressure a show into doing the right thing in terms of having black comediennes play and define black comedic characters, only strengthens the causes of other marginalized, who too find themselves on the outside of the joke.
And as amusingly articulated by Dan Obeidallah, an Arab-American and former Saturday Night Live staffer, who writes in his piece, ‘SNL’ Gets What the Rest of TV Should: Racial Diversity Means Quality:
“Adding diversity to a comedy show—or to any show for that matter—simply to fill a quota would be wrong. But as a comedian and as someone who worked at SNL on the production staff from 1999-2007, I can tell you that greater diversity truly does equal better comedy. Authentic voices representing different backgrounds only enhance the comedy stew. So instead of one-note comedy bits, we see nuanced ones that resonate as being truthful—which in turn is better comedy.
We’ve all seen the panel of three white guys telling us “what the Arab world is really thinking.”
And I say this from first-hand experience. When I worked at SNL, I was the only person on the production staff of Arab heritage. Consequently, when writers were working on sketches that dealt with the Middle East—and believe me, there were a lot in the years after 9/11- they would often ask me questions. Some were factual inquires. Others were: “Is this racist?” If I sad “yes” they made sure to put it in the sketch. (Kidding!)”
The good news is the Zamata will not be the only black woman joining the show this season, thus avoiding the “token,” label. According to the Hollywood Reporter, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones, will also be joining on to SNL crew as part of the writing team. Interestingly enough, the article states that Tookes and Jones were also “discovered” during the same black comedienne talent hunt, in which they discovered Zamata. I find that partly odd considering that I had “discovered” Jones, aka Big Les, a while ago, more specifically watching her comedy show Problem Child on Netflix. She is pretty raw, non-politically correct and seriously funny. And she is not a newcomer to the comedy world, which just goes to show you hard Lorne Michaels and his SNL team have been “searching” for diverse talent prior to their recent hires…