On The Hiring Of Sasheer Zamata And Why An All-Black, All-Female SNL Audition Was Still Necessary

These “extra” measures are not designed to give women and people of color an advantage over white men. They’re designed to give them the exposure, access, and opportunity that white men already take for granted.

After a much touted all-black, all-female audition cycle for Saturday Night Live, the seminal sketch comedy show announced this week that they are hiring Sasheer Zamata, a New York-based Upright Citizens Brigade-trained comedian.

Am I glad that Zamata was hired? Hell yes. The super smart “Sasheer Meets Her Flasher” video is brilliant enough in 3.5 minutes to justify her casting. While her brand of comedy obviously does not represent all black women or “the black female experience” or any other massive over-generalization, I’m convinced that hers, specifically, is a perspective we desperately need to see more of on mainstream TV.

Am I glad that a “special” audition cycle was necessary to fill such an obvious gap that Kerry Washington could parody it when she hosted by attempting to play Michelle Obama, Oprah, and Beyonce in one sketch while seven different white male castmembers played versions of Matthew McConaughey? Nope, not thrilled with that at all, and if I were SNL, I’d be embarrassed that this is the state of things.

But it is the state of things.

And while some have been complaining that an all-black, all-female casting session is somehow unfair, somehow biased, “racist toward white guys,” (Have you seen those studies where white people think they are discriminated against more than black people?), those complainers don’t seem to see anything problematic about a show that hasn’t hired a black woman in six years.

Preferential casting, if you want to call it that, is only necessary to level a playing field that is so wildly uneven that it can’t be flattened out by the regular casting methods. If SNL didn’t have a history of filling every black female role with Kenan Thompson in drag, we wouldn’t need a special session. If the dozens of black female comedians who came out for that special session were already included in the slate of SNL potentials, then we wouldn’t need a special session. But Kenan Thompson does play all the black women (although, according to him, not anymore), and SNL clearly wasn’t finding these comedians using their old tried and true methods, so special session it is.

Remember when Mitt Romney got all that shit for his “binders full of women” comment during the 2012 election? There are plenty of policy holes to poke in the Romney platform, but “binders full of women” shouldn’t be on the list. Sure, it’s a funny turn of phrase, but unfortunately, tragically, we still need binders of full of women. Though I think that positively sucks, I respect Romney for going the extra mile to seek out qualified female candidates.

We need special sessions for black female comedians auditioning for SNL. We need engineering camps just for girls. These “extra” measures are not designed to give women and people of color an advantage over white men. They’re designed to give them the exposure, access, and opportunity that white men already take for granted.

This week in AdWeek, entrepreneur Cindy Gallop issued a challenge to white-male dominated ad agencies (read: almost all of them) to hire or promote three women in departments that are currently female-less. Here’s her reasoning:

Men feel more comfortable working with, hiring, promoting, and co-founding agencies with other men, and they do this unconsciously. Working with/hiring/promoting/co-founding with women is uncomfortable—because we’re “other.” We have different perspectives. Women ask tough questions that disrupt the closed loop of white guys talking to white guys about other white guys. We challenge the status quo because we’re never it.

This is not just true of advertising and business. It’s true of politics. It’s true of comedy. It is easier to fill your pipeline of prospective hires with people just like you because, well, you know where those people hang out. You were once one of them, and their methods and manners are familiar to you.

But when you fail to expand your search beyond the familiar comedy clubs, familiar improv schools, and familiar YouTube clips that your other white dude friends send you, you’re missing out on talent. Not just any talent, either, the kind of talent that will transform your business or show because it opens doors that you didn’t even know were closed. 

We need a two-pronged approach toward rectifying these types of inequality. In the short term, we find ways to actively reach into communities and give opportunities to the people operating there to show off their best work. It’s not about ignoring the old school strategies for sourcing talent; it’s about recognizing that there are limitations to our search based on whom we know and where we’re from.

In the long term, we must address the reasons that our playing field is so unequal in the first place. We can’t expect every leader to go out of his or her way to find diverse cabinet members indefinitely. We can’t expect a special audition for this demographic or that demographic every time the outcry gets too loud to ignore.

“Binders” and “special auditions” are band-aid solutions. At the moment, we’ve still only got one Beyonce and seven McConaugheys, so we’ve got a ways to go. One step at a time.

Role/Reboot regular contributor Emily Heist Moss is a New Englander in love with Chicago, where she works in a tech start-up. She blogs every day about gender, media, politics and sex at Rosie Says, and has written for Jezebel, The Frisky, The Huffington Post and The Good Men Project. Find her on Facebook and Twitter.

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