“SNL” and Racial Diversity: It’s Not All Black and White

Amid the criticism Saturday Night Live has received based on its lack of diversity, the variety show hired its first Black female cast member in six years, Sasheer Zamata.

Sasheer Zamata

Sasheer Zamata makes her SNL debut on Jan. 18, 2014. Photo copyright ABC via New York Post

The comedienne, who stars in the web series Pursuit of Sexiness, will make her SNL debut on January 18, the first live show of 2014. The night’s host and musical guest will be Drake.

To add even more diversity, however, SNL also hired two Black women as staff writers, Leslie Jones and LaKendra Tookes. Time Magazine sees this as a significant move.

For one thing, SNL didn’t need to do this at all; the show could have made one visible cast hire and watched the diversity controversy blow over.

But while there’s always been overlap between writers and performers at SNL, as Time also suggested, having a diverse cast is only one issue. The other is having a diversity of material.

Now, I applaud SNL for taking in external criticism and doing something about it. However, SNL shouldn’t think that hiring three Black women solves the issue of diversity. Life isn’t black and white, and people aren’t either. The truth of the matter is no other races and ethnicities are represented on SNL.

And I doubt they will be any time soon.

Adding one or two Black people doesn’t mean SNL has reached diversity. Far from it. There are so many more races that are underrepresented on the show.

Let’s look at the numbers more closely.

Since SNL premiered in 1975, there have only been 15 Black performers, two Latinos and no Asian-Americans, according to Splitsider. If you want to get technical, there has been half an Asian-American (Rob Schneider is half-Filipino. But, let’s be honest, people see him as White. But that’s another story).

Since this magazine is an Asian-American entertainment magazine, let’s focus on Asians on SNL for a second.

Jackie Chan SNL

Jackie Chan hosted ‘SNL’ on May 20, 2000. Photo copyright NBC.

Since SNL’s debut, only two Asians have hosted – Jackie Chan and Lucy Liu, both in 2000.

During their stint on SNL, Chan and Liu were subjected to jokes or sketches that point out their being Asian, specifically in their opening monologues. For his monologue, Chan performed martial arts. Liu’s monologue, however, seemed to be in on the joke, portraying various Asian stereotypes (such as eating dog). In on the joke, yes, but still perpetuating those stereotypes.

Is SNL solely to blame? Not at all.

This reflects a bigger issue: There’s just no diversity in American media.

Popular films still underrepresent minority characters and directors, and reflect biases in their portrayals, according to a study by University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication.

USC researchers looked at 500 top-grossing films released in the U.S. between 2007 and 2012 and 20,000 speaking characters, finding patterns in how races, ethnicities and genders are portrayed.

Here’s more from the Los Angeles Times:

In 2012, the researchers found, 76.3% of all speaking characters in these movies were white; according to U.S. Census figures, 63% of the country is white, and according to the Motion Picture Assn. of America, 56% of movie ticket buyers are white.

“At the core, this is a visibility issue,” said Katherine Pieper, research scientist at Annenberg’s Media, Diversity & Social Change Initiative. “Who we see in film sends a powerful message about who is important and whose stories are valuable, both to international audiences and to younger viewers in our own country…. Are films communicating to audiences that only certain stories are worth telling?”

Marie Full of Grace movie poster. Courtesy of IMDb.

Maria Full of Grace movie poster. Courtesy of IMDb.

If we go by what films want us to believe, the only Asian stories worth telling are those of geishas (“Memoirs of a Geisha), or that the only Hispanic stories worth telling are those of drug mules (“Maria, Full of Grace”).

Why did I mention all this? Well, how races are portrayed in the media largely reflect SNL’s writing. SNL is a sketch show whose bread and butter is its cast’s ability to impersonate those dominating the pop culture landscape.

Why hire an Asian-American if there are no prominent Asian-Americans to portray? Are there prominent Asian Americans in pop culture?

The first step in remedying this situation would be to change America’s perception of what an American is. Unfortunately, unless you’re Black or White, you’re still seen as a foreigner.

Asian? You must be fresh off the boat. Hispanic? You must be illegal. These may or may not be truths but that’s how the media has us believing.

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