Sasheer Zamata made her "Saturday Night Live" debut last weekend, playing Rihanna, a bar mitzvah attendee, and a teenage girl at a slumber party, among other things. But regardless of what roles she played during her Jan. 18 debut, Zamata brought some diversity to a show whose cast has over the course of 39 seasons been heavily white and mostly male.
Just how homogeneous has the show been? I set out to count up past cast members by race, ethnicity and gender. As I found, quantifying that is next to impossible.
It's a project that at first blush seems like it shouldn't be that hard. Finding the basic data of who has been on the show and in which season was easy enough: NBC pointed me to the SNL Archives, an obsessively detailed online trove of cast members, characters played, and sketches. And figuring out how to do the breakdown seemed to be simple enough – the Census is the nation's official count of race and ethnicity, so the Census Bureau's broad categories (Black, Caucasian, American Indian, a variety of Asian divisions, and different categories of Hispanics of any race) would work.
But what would an official count of the show's races and ethnicities even look like, and who would maintain that? When I asked the network if they had such a list – admittedly, a long shot, but due diligence is important – there was no response.
Trying to count on my own wasn't going to work, either, because this is journalism, there is fact-checking involved, and there's no conscionable way of saying, "I guessed at [famous person]'s race." And when you try to Google this sort of thing, what sites are reputable? Does Ethnicelebs.com count as a trustworthy source?
Plus, when you start asking yourself about mixed-race cast members, it leads to questions about people who might seem easier to categorize. Fred Armisen has said he is half-Latino, one-quarter Japanese, and one-quarter German, but what about Garrett Morris? Is he black? Are you sure? Is Bill Murray white?
This is where the rabbit hole starts.
It is true that in the run-up to Zamata's hiring and first show, article after article pointed out that "SNL" cast members have been heavily white and male. Society knows this, even if there is no official count. So I decided to go to the place where modern society mashes together its knowledge: Wikipedia.
Under normal circumstances, any journalist who based her research on Wikipedia would have her journalism license revoked. But as an example of how the hive mind puts people into boxes, the online encyclopedia is perhaps the best possible source. And the entries make it easy: Choose any person with an entry, scroll to the bottom of his or her page, and you find how the site's authors have categorized the subject. Tracy Morgan is an African-American comedian, for example, and is also on the list of "People from Bedford-Stuyvesant." Tina Fey is of Greek and Scottish descent and, for those wondering, is also among people born in 1970.
For some cast members, the racial and ethnic categories are blank – that is, no race or origins are mentioned. That group includes Chris Farley, as well as Cheri Oteri and Jane Curtin. And some had races that easily fit into Census boxes – Morgan, for example, as well as Danitra Vance and Zamata, all of whom are listed as African-American.
Below is a map of what Wikipedia has to say about every "SNL" cast member over the years. Bubble size is proportional to a cast member's tenure on the show. Women are represented by darker colors, while men are represented with lighter colors.
(Danielle Kurtzleben for USNWR; Source: SNL Archives, U.S. Census Bureau, Wikipedia)
Note: Two cast members had no Wikipedia pages and have races/ethnicities listed as "unknown."It should be emphasized that there's no guarantee all of this information is perfect. There already seem to be some problems inherent with this sort of categorization: Rich Hall, for example, is in many places listed as "part-Cherokee," but Cherokee is the only classification that Wikipedia provides him. But let's say the (only somewhat reliable) numbers are relatively useful. What does it all mean? For one, it means that for a large share of the cast members on "SNL," represented in light blue (men) and dark blue (women) above, Wikipedia's authors did not even mention race. It is also safe to say that the people who fall into this category are largely people whom many Americans would, at a glance, likely characterize as white. It could mean no one researched them, or it could also mean that information is not out there – perhaps because the cast members never felt compelled to mention it or the authors never bothered to look. The point seems to be less something about "SNL" than about a broader racial phenomenon: that being non-Hispanic white and not having your race commented upon are related.
Still, there is of course that large mass of cast members, represented in light and dark green, who by the Census Bureau's definition are "white," though precisely zero of those people were categorized on Wikipedia as "caucasian" or "white."
The bureau says the "white" category includes people who "report entries such as Irish, German, Italian, Lebanese, Arab, Moroccan, or Caucasian." Wikipedia listed people under these types of categories, as well as "Tunisian" and "Iranian" – two other groups that "SNL" cast members share and that would seem to fall into the Census Bureau's definition of "white." Cast members of Jewish descent would also seem to fall into this category.
The point is not to point the finger at Wikipedia or the Census Bureau for handling race incorrectly. Rather, it is simply that race is, to use a scientific term, really terribly squishy. For proof, look no further than the ever-evolving Census form. While for some people, Wikipedia's authors see no need to use a racial category, minorities' differences are readily pointed out, with their own separate classifications.
Meanwhile, any given race is a hodgepodge of different ethnicities or nationalities (and vice versa), sometimes vastly so. What does it mean to be "white" when the category includes so many different variations? Do America's Arabs feel a particular racial kinship with their fellow Irish countrymen? What about white Jews and Italians? Or, for that matter, what about African-Americans and blacks from Haiti?
It doesn't mean that race doesn't matter, and certainly not that it doesn't exist. There are those who argue about the biological basis of race, but society most definitely constructs its own concepts of race and ethnicity and their importance. The same goes for gender – it may be a societal construct, but lots of women laughed just a little bit harder when the Tina Fey era of "SNL" included bits like the hilarious Annuale commercial. Being in on the joke – especially with a show that has been as big a part of the zeitgeist as "SNL" has – is important, and with every new, less Caucasian and less male hire the show makes, a few more people may find themselves watching (and maybe even laughing).