SNL Teaches Us 'Diversity' Means Assimilation

The Jan. 18 edition of NBC's Saturday Night Live, hosted by Drake, center, featured the first appearance of Sasheer Zamata, left, the show's newest cast member.
Courtesy NBC's Saturday Night Live

Writer Says Most Blacks on Show Have Not Been Happy

"In the early part of the past decade, I wrote biographies of two famously deceased actors from Saturday Night Live, John Belushi and Chris Farley," Tanner Colby wrote this month for Slate. "Having exhausted the dead, fat comedian genre, I decided to write a somewhat humorous but mostly serious history of racial integration in post-Jim Crow America. So, in the wake of SNL'srecent diversity controversy, and this week's casting of actress Sasheer Zamata, I seem to find myself uniquely positioned to write a history of racial integration at Saturday Night Live."


Colby's piece appeared Jan. 9, after Zamata was added to the cast following protests over lack of an African American woman on the show. Colby expanded on his essay Friday on "News One Now" with Roland Martin, which airs on TV One. Martin, referring to his own tenure in mainstream television, told viewers the essay had not received enough attention.

"The fact that a history of racial integration at Saturday Night Live can fit within the confines of a Slate article is, in itself, a pretty clear indication of the problem at hand," Colby's piece continued. "And the current struggles with race in Studio 8H offer us a sadly useful illustration of what's wrong with 'diversity' in this country generally.

"The entire roster of black performers from the show's 39-year history can be quickly broken down into three simple groups:

"a) The disgruntleds, the washouts, and the walk-offs.

"b) The ones who stuck around.

"c) Eddie Murphy. . . ."

Colby, author of 'Some of My Best Friends are Black: The Strange Story of Integration in America," also wrote, "Unfortunately, this is hardly a problem confined to America's pre-eminent sketch comedy show. SNL's current predicament is a perfect example of why our national conversation about diversity spins in place and never actually goes anywhere. For years now, from our television screens to our corporate boardrooms, we've been watching a tug of war take place: racial-justice advocates demanding more and more diversity and exasperated hiring managers exclaiming, We can’t find any diversity! We’re looking hard, we promise!


"One reason these two factions keep talking past each other is that they're talking about two completely different things. When racial-justice advocates call for more diversity, what they're saying is that the hiring pipelines into America's majority-white industries need to be expanded to include a truly multicultural array of voices and talents from all ethnic corners of America; they want equal opportunity for minorities who don't necessarily conform to the social norms of the white majority.

"When exasperated hiring managers use the word diversity, what they really mean is that they're looking for assimilated diversity — people like [Maya] Rudolph and Zamata. More Bill Cosbys. More Will Smiths. Faces and voices that are black but nonetheless reflect a cultural bearing that white people understand and feel comfortable with. . . ."


Colby noted that the largest category of black talent hired for "SNL" ended up in the "disgruntleds, the washouts, and the walk-offs" category.

He continued, "Maya Rudolph, for instance, has no shortage of talent, but her success on the show probably had as much to do with her ability to form relationships with white people as it did her ability to land a joke. Because that's what working at Saturday Night Live is. It's not performing live on television at 11:30 on Saturday night. It's hanging out with a peer group of mostly white writers, producers, and crew members and forming the relationships necessary to be given the opportunity to perform live on television at 11:30 on Saturday night — something Garrett Morris learned only in hindsight. . . ."


Colby also said, "To talk about assimilation takes the onus off of NBC's human resources department and puts it squarely on the shoulders of the rest of us. In other words, it's not just SNL that needs more racial integration. Comedians do, in their personal lives. Which will require a greater commitment on the part of government to create housing, education, and other policies that allow for greater social mobility for minorities, a willingness on the part of white people to learn how to share their toys, and a willingness on the part of black people to jettison romantic notions of multiculturalism and ethic nationalism and to jump in the melting pot with the rest of us … a fundamental reordering of society, in other words. . . ."

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