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Saartjie "Sarah" Baartman was born in South Africa around 1790. She was an orphan. One day she was tricked and shipped from South Africa to England.
When she arrived in London she was exhibited half naked in a cage. Her curvaceous body and enlarged labia were a source of fascination for Europeans who paid to peer at her. She became a sensation, a reluctant “star” and was hugely profitable for her owners. In 1814 she was sold to a man in France and died shortly afterwards.
Death didn’t mean rest for her body. The imperial fascination with her form continued and her body was displayed in Paris' Musée de l'Homme until 1974.
We live in a very different world from the one Saartjie was thrust into. But Black women are still exotic objects of fascination. They are considered an “other”. They’re scrutinised and peered at. People touch their hair without their permission. They're not humans first--they're things. This objectification isn't specific to just black women, all women experience it to varying degrees.
If you were to play the word association game with the phrase “black woman,” the following adjectives are likely to crop up: Strong, feisty, angry, aggressive. None of these terms are helpful. All they do is help carve an incomplete sculpture of what black women are.
Two adjectives that probably won’t be suggested are “funny” and “witty.” This isn’t an issue unique to black women. The consensus is that women aren't naturally funny or witty. The notion that a gender or race has a monopoly on humor is intellectually bankrupt, but watch television and it seems as if that's what the world has come to believe.
White men are the funny ones and the rest of us have the honour of hearing their jokes. The comedy world remains an exclusive boys' club and the women who have broken the proverbial glass ceiling tend to be white.
Recently Kenan Thompson (one of two black cast members on Saturday Night Live) was asked about the show's lack of black women in its cast. SNL has an abysmal track record when it comes to diversity. Since its inception 38 years ago, 4 women of color have been cast members.
Kenan explained that from his experience, the issue lies with the skills of the black women being seen:
"It's just a tough part of the business. Like in auditions, they just never find ones that are ready."
Empirical evidence indicates that there isn’t a lack of black women with the talent or ability to perform at the highest level. This piece by Buzzfeed highlights numerous black women who qualify.
I’m going to assume that those in power at SNL intellectually grasp that diversity is optimal. Whether it's in the writing room, at production level or talent--deepening and widening the pool of talent (and consequently the experiences and insight they draw from), makes for better art. I’ll also assume they understand that homogeneity creates banal predictable television that isn’t inclusive of the collective human and cultural experience.
Let’s for a moment all accept that the issue doesn’t lie with the pool of talent, but the people in positions of power who are judging this talent. Let’s also consider that the people in position of power are completely unaware that they have an issue. This is key, because painting the stereotypical image of the evil racist in power doesn’t capture how racism works. There’s something really ordinary about how racism is perpetuated. People who foster racism and behave in a prejudiced manner are often oblivious of what they’re doing.
Imagine you’re an SNL casting director. A black woman is auditioning in front of you. She nails it but something doesn’t quite “feel” right. This feeling combined with the need to guarantee high ratings means you’re reluctant to take a risk. You conclude that she’s "not quite ready." You ask your colleagues their opinions.
After all, art is fundamentally subjective, so you may be the only one with this point of view. However you forget that that your fellow casting directors all look like you. This means they’re likely to see things in a similar manner to you.
Objects are there to be commanded. When an object that we believe should be subject to our authority doesn't do what we expect it to, the issue never lies with us. It's always with the object. Therefore I’m unsurprised that the SNL diversity debate has become a conversation about proving how funny black women can be (or are not), rather than holding those in power accountable for their indifference and latent prejudice.
In 1994 President Nelson Mandela campaigned for Saartjie’s remains to be brought home. She finally returned to her homeland in 2002. Sadly, her story is generally a forgotten one.
By next week the fury over SNL’s lack of diversity will have died down. There’ll be no more calls for change and it’ll be back to business as usual. What will remain is an inadequate representation of Black, Latina, Asian and Middle Eastern women on television, especially within comedy. They will be forgotten too. I hope it doesn’t take 200 years to restore them to their rightful place.
I remember being in a car with a friend and asking her why she had frantically locked her car doors when a group of black boys (all school children) crossed the road at the traffic lights. She blushed, visibly embarrassed, “I didn’t realise. I’m sorry. It was my instinct, I’m sorry.” She kept apologising, I kept telling her it was fine. It was an awkward journey. But a necessary one.