Sasheer Zamata: SNL’s Black, Female Unicorn

This week “Saturday Night Live” announced that Sasheer Zamata joined its cast. Zamata is SNL’s first black female cast member since 2007.

Most people are thrilled with Zamata’s hiring. But everyone is making a huge issue out of her race and gender, as though that played a significant part in her landing the gig. This does her a great disservice; it puts her talent firmly at the bottom of a list of traits that are part of, but do not encapsulate all of, who she is.

Yes, it’s notable that she’s black and female, and yes, it’s notable there hasn’t been a black female on the SNL cast in many years. But there’s a reason SNL didn’t have a black woman on staff and that the organization is not more inclusive — it didn’t want one.

In a televised interview with CNN, comedian Kevin Hart pointed out there’s a ton of competition for a very limited number of slots on SNL; he also said Zamata got the gig because she was qualified, that she was right for the part, not because she’s black.

I hope that’s true, that talent was the primary motivator behind her landing the gig, but I have my doubts. Civil rights group ColorOfChange.org has been giving SNL creator Lorne Michaels the blues for some time now over the show’s consistently derogatory portrayals of black women.

I think constant criticism is what led SNL to have Kerry Washington on the show this past November. I may be wrong — I hope I am because Washington is undeniably talented, and she was a smash hit. SNL could have wanted to cash in on some of the celebrity cache Washington brings thanks to the unbelievably positive following of her show “Scandal.” But Zamata has yet to prove her mettle, and no one likes being forced to do something. From the outside looking in, that’s what it appears led to her hiring.

There’s a real danger to calling out race and gender this way, to put those things before Zamata’s talent. Being the only black, the only woman, the first of, whatever, can translate to a lot of unnecessary scrutiny and drama. And it can sour even a celebratory event like new talent landing a fabulous new gig.

This much scrutiny also generates a lot of pressure, even more pressure than is already present in Zamata’s extremely high-profile role. And if something goes wrong, if, let’s say, she decides to leave SNL, or they decide to leave her, race and gender will be at the forefront of the story, whether they factor into the actual decision or not. But let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Now that Zamata is on board, why there weren’t women of color in the cast before is mostly irrelevant. The real issue now is pressure, namely, the pressure of being the only. I wish people would think about that before being so quick to call out race and gender. Think about what you’re doing.

If this was a corporate or an academic workplace, one that did not have a track record of being inclusive, what kind of conditions might such scrutiny and pressure exacerbate? How would the constant eyeballs affect morale? Not just for the new employee, but for the existing ones? Would they create resentment, mistrust, anger? Since comedy is at the forefront of this particular workplace, media scrutiny could put Zamata at the butt of many a joke from her own co-workers. That might be funny initially, but I can attest to the fact that such attention can be incredibly wearying after awhile.

The media has turned the poor woman into a kind of caricature – the first black female comic in forever – cue exclamation points, smoke, drums and unicorns. Geez. Give the lady a chance to get her transportation route to and from work down before you put her up as the poster child for black female comics everywhere.

I hope Zamata rises to the occasion. I predict that she will. She’s beautiful and her style of comedy is fearless. She can turn stereotypes on their head with that perfect tongue-in-cheek timing so many truly great comics share. SNL also hired two black female writers, LaKendra Tookes and Leslie Jones. So the new team should be able to make some moves. Time will tell, and it looks like we’ll all be watching.