Whether you’re a “Saturday Night Live” fan or you haven’t tuned in since Eddie Murphy left, you couldn’t have escaped hearing all the rumblings about the lack of diversity in this season’s cast. Most upsetting was the fact that out of six new cast members hired in 2013, not one of them was a black woman.
SNL, a sketch comedy TV show that parodies politics, pop culture and current events, often used black male members of its cast to portray black women including Oprah Winfrey and Whoopi Goldberg. Even those of us who were amused by the skits had to wonder why they wouldn’t simply hire a black female comedian to play these parts.
This week they finally did and now comedian Sasheer Zamata may have the toughest job on television…if she lets them get to her.
Sasheer, the first black female cast member is six years, is in a position that’s not so new for African Americans, male and female. Some call it a no-win. They say no matter how good she is, people will say she only got the job because she’s black and female.
I hope she can remember to draw on the strengths of all of the people before her who have paved the way for her to have this opportunity, and for all of us who have in some way, shape or form, been in her position.
As a black woman who has worked in the male-oriented radio profession for the last 20 years, I can offer a few pointers, some I wish I’d used myself:
1. Write your own story. You know who you are and how good you are. Don’t let anyone else tell you what you’re there for and what you will get out of the experience.
2. Forgive Kenan. He has become the fall guy for implying there were no qualified black comedians for SNL. It was a dumb comment, but since you two cast mates, along with Jay Pharoah, are the only African Americans, you should work together. I hope he’s big enough to apologize though. (no pun intended)
3. Don’t be afraid. Not only will you be criticized for getting the job “because you’re black,” you’re going to be criticized by black people who will want you to represent us in a certain kind of way. This can take you completely out of your game. You are there because you’re a talented comedian on a show that takes lots of risks. In the words of another great comic, J. Anthony Brown, don’t do “scared comedy.” You won’t be able to please everyone so don’t try. But on the other hand:
4. Keep your dignity. Don’t feel like you have to represent yourself in ways you aren’t comfortable.
5. Learn from the best. Male or female, black or white, identify the smartest people and learn what you can.
6. Don’t hide your glow. Sometimes we’re tempted to down play our talents to make someone else look better.
7. Step up your game. If your bosses tell you you’re doing enough, do more. Continue to get better.
8. Enjoy the process. The real Oprah, not the one played by Kenan, says it isn’t failure if you enjoyed the process. Sometimes we stress ourselves out so much with fear of failing that we don’t even realize all we’ve gained, the people we’ve met and the opportunities that our situation could lead to.
Like much of Black America, I’m rooting for Sasheer Zamata. No one has to sell me on the fact that in order to be chosen out of the 25 women auditioned, she must be extremely talented. I also know that being extremely talented isn’t always enough.
Pressure and politics can end a person’s career before they know what’s hit them. Sasheer Zamata’s victory should be based on knowing she’s doing the best job that she can do and how well she establishes herself as a brand that will stand, with or without SNL.
Once we recognize our own power and value, there’s no stopping us. That’s a lesson I’m glad I learned.