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SNL's Zamata talks racism in Social Justice Week speech

Delivering the keynote "State of Race" address for Emory’s Social Justice Week, “Saturday Night Live’s” Sasheer Zamata said we need to push beyond our discomfort and talk about racism. Photo by Jake Rosmarin.

As a player and writer on NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” as well as a seasoned stand-up comedian and improv actor, Sasheer Zamata knows how to make an audience laugh by pressing the limits of comedy.

For her, part of that formula involves talking about race and racism, even when it may make her audience — or even friends and family — uncomfortable.

Zamata considers it part of a larger, important conversation. To simply ignore racism would never advance dialogue, she says. Nor would it diminish the problem.

“I talk about racism in my set and with my friends all the time because it’s on my mind and something I don’t feel uncomfortable talking about,” Zamata explains. “It’s not that I can just ignore it; it’s still there.”

The comic actor shared her thoughts and experiences Friday night, March 24, as the “State of Race” speaker for Emory's Social Justice Week, drawing an appreciative crowd to the WHSCAB Auditorium.

During the week, Emory students — and others in the campus community — were invited to engage with activities that explored issues ranging from religious diversity and activism through art to sexual assault prevention, gender identity, mental health and racial justice.

Zamata opened the evening by praising Emory students for embracing the topic.

“I think it’s so cool that you as college students are learning and being culturally aware and evolved,” she said. “I think it’s great you are talking about this stuff now in college so that when you go out into the world you can spread your knowledge.”

Racism: Opening the conversation

It was while she was an undergraduate student that Zamata first recalled being awakened to blatant acts of racism, from hearing people called “the n-word” to insulting graffiti and violence.

“It was confusing, because I was naive and thought, ‘Oh, only old people are racists and then when they die it will be great, because everyone young is progressive and then we’ll be fine,’” she said. “But no, no, they pass that down to their kids and then their kids put that energy out into the world and it just continues in a cycle.”

In fact, Zamata was so stressed that she weighed leaving. She went so far as to discuss it with an adviser, a black woman who acknowledged that Zamata could, in fact, try to find a school where overt acts of racism didn’t happen.

But she also suggested that Zamata might stay and learn how to handle those kinds of situations, preparation in how to deal with racist acts in a post-college world.

“I did stay and I’m so thankful,” Zamata said, observing that at times it felt as if  “I was taking another class in social studies, learning about people and how to deal with certain situations.”

Now, “I love talking about racism with my white friends,” she said. “I want them to ask questions, I want them to be informed.

“I think it’s unfortunate that there are people who don’t think white people have the right to talk about race because they may not have experienced the same issues others do. But we need everyone to be a part of the conversation if we want these messages to be heard.”

After graduating with a degree in drama, Zamata moved to New York City, where she began performing improvisation and sketch comedy at the Upright Citizens Brigade Theatre. She would go on to perform standup at colleges and festivals across the country. 

Zamata joined the cast of “Saturday Night Live” (SNL) mid-way through the 2013-2014 season, following public criticism over the show’s lack of black female actors. Now in her fourth season, she’s made her mark with impressions of Michelle Obama, Rihanna and Solange Knowles, among others.

Following public remarks, Zamata took questions from the audience. Here are some highlights: 

It was a big deal when you were cast on SNL. How did it feel being one of the only women of color?

It’s great to be a part of the cast and it’s great to be a part of history — unfortunately, there’s such a small number of black females who were part of the entirety of that show. I get really excited and happy … when people come up to me outside of the show and say, ‘It’s nice to see someone who looks like me on the screen.’ And it is. It’s nice to be represented. And I’m glad to provide that, (to be) someone people can see. I’m glad my voice is being used in that way. It’s getting better, so that’s good.

As a player, are you able to help shape SNL content?

We all write. Not everyone’s stuff gets on air. There are so many different checkpoints it has to go through before it gets to air — we write it, then we read it out loud, and then the producers, the head writer, the host all get in a room and decide what is best for the show that week. Sometimes things are picked because they are the most topical or sometimes they get picked because it makes the host look really good. But I do write every week and just hope that stuff gets on. If it does, great. If not, there’s always a whole new week to try again.

You talk about race and hard topics. What is the role of comedy as a force for justice?

I feel like you can make a joke about anything. But if the butt of the joke is a group of people who can’t help their lot in life, I think that’s unfair. I like talking about issues that are in my life because it’s real to me — I wouldn’t know how to do otherwise. This is how I talk in real time. I talk about race and gender and things that are going on that bother me, so I do put that into my material because I can and I want to. If people want to learn from it, that’s awesome. If they don’t, that’s also okay.

SNL was a huge part of the 2016 presidential race and is continuing to focus on the new administration. Do you see that role evolving?

SNL has always been political — it’s a political show. But we are digging more into the administration than I have ever seen. I can’t remember a time when SNL made fun of the head of (the Department of) Education. I like it. I feel there is more bite to the stuff we’re putting out. I hope it sticks.

I’ll run into strangers who are excited about our take on something that happened that week. It’s nice that we get to be in a position where we can talk about it with immediacy and actually analyze what’s going on. I think that’s cathartic for a lot people.

You’re in an industry historically dominated by white men. What challenges have you overcome?

Comedy and the TV industry are predominantly white and male. All the people who make decisions at SNL are white and mostly male. So it’s still going on. I’m so glad to be a part of change, to have my face present. But it really won’t change until stuff behind the scenes changes … We definitely need people who are creating content who are not all the same type of person.

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