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Why Can't America Accept Funny Black Women?

Why are Americans more comfortable with black men playing sassy, matronly black female characters in drag than with black women playing black female roles?


This past weekend, Kerry Washington became only the eighth Black woman to host “Saturday Night Live.”  The paltry representation of black women on “SNL” is obviously shameful: In the 38-year history of the show, there have only been four black women cast members, averaging about one per decade.

The show attempted to poke fun at its own sexualized racism (and racialized sexism) without of course ever calling it that, by putting up a statement apologizing for its lack of black female cast members — after a particularly funny sketch in which Kerry Washington was asked to play Michelle Obama, Oprah Winfrey and Beyoncé in a span of about five minutes.

Unfortunately, the show undercut its own attempt at self-deprecation, by ending its public service announcement by saying: “we agree this is not an ideal situation and look forward to rectifying it in the near future … unless of course we fall in love with another white guy first.”

I get the attempt at irony. But who ain’t laughing is me. How can I, when the joke seems to be on black women?

Why is it that Americans are infinitely more comfortable with black men playing sassy, matronly black female characters in drag, as Kenan Thompson frequently does on the show, than with black women playing black female roles? Drag can be generative and subversive, but in this case, it just seems oppressive.

When Thompson came under fire a few weeks back for insinuating that “SNL” casting directors struggled to find black women who were “ready” to do comedic roles, he attempted to justify the systematic ignoring and excluding of black women from “SNL” by arguing that they’re simply unqualified to do comedy. Racists deploy this kind of argument to justify why they don’t have people of color employees and men make these kinds of arguments to justify not hiring women for top leadership positions.

But I’d venture to say that Americans in general are the ones who aren’t ready for black women to step outside of the most narrow and stereotypical racial boxes that have been cast for us. Thompson himself failed to recognize the ways in which his success on the show has been predicated on the exclusion of black women, while also being indebted to black women’s cultural traditions.

Thompson is not unique in his appropriation of black female labor and culture for his own success. Tyler Perry’s most successful character is Madea. Martin Lawrence’s most recognizable character is Big Momma. While black women are often told that these characters are an homage to black women, not allowing black women to play themselves is nothing to celebrate.

The ways in which black men collude with white power structures to deny black women access to spaces of cultural production is not a problem unique to hip-hop. In fact, much as Thompson argues, many male rappers would have us believe that the only reason Nicki Minaj is the most recognizable female emcee in the game is because women simply aren’t as talented as men. Many of these men fail to use their considerable pull with white corporate record executives to advocate for open doors for women. This is why the Grammys have not had a category for best female rapper since 2005. In the world of “SNL” Kenan Thompson plays a similar role: He seems to relate far more to the executives at “SNL” who couldn’t resist reminding us of their perennial love of white guys than to the black women who provide the comedic fodder for his sketches.

Lucky for black women, the tide does seem to be turning. Shonda Rhimes, creator of “Grey’s Anatomy,” has achieved mega success with her casting of Kerry Washington as Olivia Pope in “Scandal.” It is the best performing prime-time drama on network television. Unfortunately, however, it is also the only drama on network television with a black female lead.

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