As I write this, I am currently burning time in my sister’s apartment while she does homework, before we strike up our version of a tradition started with our parents over twenty years ago- watching Saturday Night Live together. If we were home on Saturday night at 11:30, it would take all of 30 seconds for my mom to shout from wherever she was, “Is Saturday Night Live on?”
Most of the time, it already was.
It remains a big part of my life, as a way to process current events and develop my sense of humor. But as I’ve gotten older and learned more about the history behind it, I’ve learned more and more about the idea that it is not without fault. A tip-off by the lovely Rachel Klein gave me the opportunity to revisit that fact this week, as a new interview with creator Lorne Michaels was released on Morning Edition. He addressed the diversity controversy that has plagued the show over the past few years, making some legitimate points about the process as he spoke:
It started on a website or podcast, and then it was an editorial in The New York Times. And you go, “No, we’ve been breaking those barriers from the very beginning.”
But I understand perception is everything, and I live in a world of perception, and if that was how we were perceived then it had to be addressed, which is what I did. But it didn’t come from any place of intent or meanness; it came from looking every year for the best people we can find.
But one element of what he said in reference to the controversy, troubled me a great deal, a point that also bristled Rachel:
Oh no no no no Lorne Michaels just implied @MorningEdition that a reason it’s hard to cast POC is that they can’t believably play “a boss”?
— Rachel Klein (@racheleklein) October 9, 2015
What Lorne said, was something to the effect of “if there are three people, all other things being equal, you pick the one that’s most believable.” [again, I’m paraphrasing- the full interview can be found here] I hope it goes without saying that this stirred up a lot of feelings in me.
I was reminded, most immediately, of the most recent Emmy night- the same Emmy night where Lorne was awarded a ceremonial mug by two of his proteges (Seth Meyers and Andy Samberg), prior to the victory of another one (Julia Louis-Dreyfus). A historic number of actors of color were nominated, but three emerged victorious- and one made award show history. Viola Davis’ acceptance moment was particularly poignant in her explanation of why her victory felt so colossal outside the context of the evening:
‘In my mind, I see a line. And over that line, I see green fields and lovely flowers and beautiful white women with their arms stretched out to me, over that line. But I can’t seem to get there no how. I can’t seem to get over that line.’
That was Harriet Tubman in the 1800s. And let me tell you something: The only thing that separates women of color from anyone else is opportunity.
You cannot win an Emmy for roles that are simply not there. So here’s to all the writers, the awesome people that are Ben Sherwood, Paul Lee, Peter Nowalk, Shonda Rhimes, people who have redefined what it means to be beautiful, to be sexy, to be a leading woman, to be black.
And to the Taraji P. Hensons, the Kerry Washingtons, the Halle Berrys, the Nicole Beharies, the Meagan Goods, to Gabrielle Union: Thank you for taking us over that line. Thank you to the Television Academy. Thank you.
A tremendous amount of emphasis was placed on the role of opportunity in creating space for women like her, Regina King, and Uzo Aduba, to do what they did that night. And while I don’t generally speak about it often, I live that story.
I am cognizant of the idea that I defy some expectations that may have been set for me. I’ve been asked how I got into the colleges I went to, been asked what I was doing in predominantly white spaces like conferences or rock concerts, surprised people with the observations I’ve made as though I didn’t seem thoughtful or smart enough to say such things, and told literally countless times that “I’m not what people expect.” I have been privileged to operate fairly unbothered in predominately majority spaces- yet those spaces have never been fully mine to own comfortably. And up until fairly recently, I’ve been pretty quiet about all of these things.
Then came “I, Racist.” John Metta’s “sermon” about his stance on talking about race shook up many circles in which I travel. And while the resounding takeaway that I saw people repeat and ponder from the article referred to the chasm between those in the majority, who see themselves as singular, and those in the minority, who are treated as a monolith:
The result of this is an incessantly repeating argument where a Black person says “Racism still exists. It is real,” and a white person argues “You’re wrong, I’m not racist at all. I don’t even see any racism.” My aunt’s immediate response is not “that is wrong, we should do better.” No, her response is self-protection: “That’s not my fault, I didn’t do anything. You are wrong.”
But for me, the takeaway was different. Near the end of Metta’s piece, a single sentence hit me hard enough to shake the way I write, speak, and interact with the people around me.
Racism exists because I, as a Black person, don’t challenge you to look at it.
And there it is. All those times that I’ve been questioned, marveled at, praised for being exceptional when in fact I just work hard in a way that I’m not expected to…I let it happen. I didn’t push back. I didn’t speak up. I allowed it to appear as though it was somewhere between rare and magical.
But in my own gentle way, I’ve started pushing back where I didn’t before. I’ve spent time creating space for students who feel slighted by incidents on campus to speak about their worries. I’ve opened my door to let them speak to me about it in a way that I hadn’t previously done. And in space where I have control, like my social media feeds and in my writing, I’m changing the way I relate to elevate voices and minds of color. Featured images are diverse, new literature explored- even the GIFs I present in response to comments or questions are places where I’m showing that the majority isn’t the only place to find laughs or to express emotions.
— Amma Marfo (@ammamarfo) October 9, 2015
The reason Lorne Michaels sees a gap between who his audience will buy as a boss, and his talent pool, is because the view he’s accustomed to- that we’re all accustomed to, including those in the minority- needs challenging. And even through years of watching his program, I’m hurt that Lorne Michaels doesn’t find himself to be in the position to present that challenge. His first cast, 41 years ago, featured a black player where many may not have. He’s right when he says they’ve been breaking those boundaries from the beginning. But to go big, assume you’re covered, and settle back into the old patterns isn’t progress.
Harriet Tubman was right when she uttered that beautiful quote: there is a line. Viola Davis is still right when she evokes the quote today: there’s still a line. My wish for people in power like Lorne Michaels? Reach out. Grab good people. I promise you, they’re out there. Pull them over and let them be great. I promise there are far more people who have it in them than you could ever imagine.