October 31, 2013
Dear Lorne Michaels and producers of Saturday Night Live,
I am the Executive Director of ColorOfChange.org, the country's largest online civil rights organization with more than 900,000 members nationwide. ColorOfChange exists to strengthen Black Americans' political voice, in part by holding industry decision makers accountable when they promote or reinforce noxious racial stereotypes in the media.
I was deeply troubled by SNL cast member Kenan Thompson's recent comment that Black women comics just aren't "ready" to join your show. Thompson's remark gives cover to disturbing, long-held industry myths that Black women entertainers as a whole are untalented, unrelatable and unprofitable — while conveniently sidestepping SNL's glaring (and much-remarked) deficit of Black onscreen talent that has come to define the show for nearly four decades now.
It's clear the producers, casting team and writers at SNL aren't oblivious to the ways Black women are breaking barriers across the television landscape — and garnering huge audiences in the process. Your decision to tap Kerry Washington, the breakout star of ABC's tremendously popular Scandal, to host this week's show at least acknowledges that TV viewers want to see dynamic, multidimensional Black women characters on screen. But it's scandalous that after Ms. Washington's episode wraps on Saturday, this season is unlikely to feature any Black women characters at all.
In the 39-year history of SNL, just three Black women have joined the show's repertory cast. The first, Danitra Vance, was hired after the show had already been on air for a decade, and quit after a short period because she was only given tired roles written expressly to demean and dismiss Black women, including baby mamas, maids and women with a bad attitude. That was 1986 — when I was in elementary school — and it seems little has changed over the course of my lifetime.
Since Maya Rudolph's departure in 2007, SNL has failed to cast even one Black woman — yet still manages to traffic in dehumanizing portrayals that make race and gender the butt of the joke. Whether it's Kenan Thompson in drag as the crass, sexually aggressive "Virginiaca," or white cast member Cecily Strong voicing "Verquonica" — a "large, non-functional" (i.e. overweight and lazy), unmistakably "Black" Starbucks coffee machine — SNL seems committed to aggressively continuing to push images of Black women as incompetent, rude, hypersexual and financially dependent. Frankly, we're tired of this disrespect.
Further, it's critical to note that the callous, monolithic representations of Black people peddled by SNL and others have alarming real-world impacts. Media depictions of Black individuals, families and communities irrefutably shape how we're perceived in society. According to a recent study by The Opportunity Agenda, the negative perceptions of Black men and women that form in TV audiences' minds as a result of biased portrayals translate into greater chances of us being shot by the police, diminished attention from doctors, and less consideration when applying for jobs, loans and educational opportunities.
And SNL has a particularly important role to play when it comes to influencing both the casting and characters that gain traction with a wider television (and film) audience. SNL acts as a springboard for the entire comedy universe, spinning off standalone shows and movies based on SNL skits, and lending an imprimatur of bankability to cast alums. Your impact has been especially pronounced in late night — a realm of television where white male dominance persists — with Conan O'Brien, Jimmy Fallon and now Seth Meyers chosen for the handful of hosting opportunities available.
Given the substantial real-life consequences of your ability to evolve casting practices at SNL, we are demanding to know what you will do to ensure Black women are no longer excluded from the show. I urge you to treat this matter with all due seriousness and respectfully request a phone meeting by Wednesday, November 6th, to discuss how you will improve the situation at SNL.