Sasheer Zamata On Feminism, Equal Rights and “Checking Your Privilege”

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You already know the name and the face: comedian Sasheer Zamata from ‘Saturday Night Live‘, but she has a new role added to her list of credits that has just made her one of our new fave and a very important role model. Sasheer has just been appointed as the ACLU’s newest ambassador for women’s rights. For those of our readers who live outside the US and are unfamiliar with what the American Civil Liberties Union does, they work to fight gender, racial and socio-economic inequality and structural discrimination against all Americans in employment, education, healthcare, housing, and criminal justice through advocacy and public education.

They are the organization which not too long ago launched an investigation into the widespread discriminatory hiring practices toward female directors in Hollywood. The ACLU Women’s Rights Project was co-founded in 1972 by U.S. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, who called women’s rights “an essential part of the overall human rights agenda.”

For her first order of business as an ambassador, Sasheer put her comedy chops to good use in a video outlining how gender discrimination is so rampant in our society, in ways that perhaps certain men are not really wise to. The full video can be see below.

The video presents the issue in a non-confrontational style where we see Sasheer and a friend of hers, who happens to be a young, white male, walk down the street discussing the different ways each of them view discrimination. It’s no surprise that Sasheer’s perspective, as a black woman, is completely different to that of her friend. It may seem like a simplistic approach to explaining how discrimination works and that every experiences it in different ways, but given there is so much racism, sexism and other forms of harassment, hatred and bullying still very much present in the world, perhaps it’s not that much of a stretch.

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For example, you may be familiar with the sexual assault PSA which is explained with 5 men and a bear in a college dorm room, as well as this brilliant British PSA explaining the concept of consent in a truly British way – using tea. Sometimes it takes clever humor or something other than a serious lecture to get the point across about what should be a simple issue.

In an interview with The Hollywood Reporter, Sasheer touched on the issue of privilege and why we need to get better about understanding our position in the world when it comes to sharing our thoughts on, or dealing with, discrimination. One of the biggest hindrances to the fight for women’s rights today comes from the people on the outside of the battlefield who are “misinterpreting its goals so they can refute the need for women’s rights” she explains.

It is one reason why she wanted to get involved in the ACLU because it’s not just the problem of discrimination that needs to be addressed, but also the wider perception of it, and Sasheer believes her voice as a well-known comedian can shed some light.

“Not everyone understands that women are fighting for equal treatment, not superior treatment. Also some people forget that women’s rights are human rights. We’re not working on an agenda that only benefits women, it benefits everyone,” she said.

Sasheer says the reason for making a comedic video rather than a serious piece was because comedy and entertainment can often be a vehicle to send an important message in a very non-threatening way. This is something fellow comedian Margaret Cho has talked about before in an interview with Broadly.

“Not everyone will want to read essays on privilege and systemic oppression, but they may want to watch a three minute video on it. And maybe they’ll be inspired to do further research or discuss it with their friends afterward,” said the SNL cast member.

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“Also comedy is analysis. All I do as a comedian is analyze society. So, while people are listening, I may as well highlight subjects they may not regularly analyze on their own.”

With the acknowledgement of the need to explain why quality benefits everyone in society, Sasheer also understands there will be some who don’t necessarily like the idea of someone telling them to “check your privilege” and she has received some (very predictable) backlash after releasing the ACLU video. But she is not worried, she is more focused on the people whose lives it will affect, and the conversations it will spark in order to create change. Her message about privilege is something each of us has to at some point take stock of, not just white men.

“I hope everyone takes time to think about their privilege. The other character in the video is a white man, but he’s not the only person who benefits from his position in society. I don’t want people to watch this video and think I’m saying white men are the only ones with privilege. Most people benefit from some privilege. I’m privileged because I’m able-bodied, young, thin, I have money, I was able to get a college education, etc., and those things give me advantages that a lot of people don’t have access to. But as the video points out, even those privileges don’t make me immune to bias or stereotyping,” she said.

“I hope everyone watches the video and thinks about how their lives may be at more of an advantage than others and instead of feeling guilty or defensive about it, use it to be an ally. I’m excited by the people who are sharing the video with others because they think it’s a good way to teach, inform and discuss an issue they may not have discussed before,” she added.

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Along with her fight for equality, Sasheer is coming to a better understanding of the need for intersectionality in feminism. Where the movement used to be about women getting the right to vote, today there are much more complex issues within the fight for gender equality that require intersectionality in order for feminists to support each other. There is a lot of talk about how to define a feminist, and how different groups of feminists previously marginalized, such as the voices of the transgender community, need to be included in the modern definition.

“What I do understand is that we shouldn’t lump people into general groups to understand their experiences. Not all women experience the same oppression. If you are a woman who is poor, of color, or has a disability, you are going to be oppressed in different ways than a woman who does not fall into those categories. And when people better understand that, we can better understand how to specialize the help we give to people in those groups,” explained Sasheer.

We are seeing a real insurgence of comedians using their platforms to advocate for equality and women’s issues. Late Night hosts such as Stephen Colbert, Jon Stewart and John Oliver have made this a regular part of their programming content and it’s definitely a welcome voice in the conversation around discrimination. Add to that list women like Amy Schumer, Chelsea Handler and Whitney Cummings, and Sasheer Zamata (just to name a few), and you have a number of influential people in the entertainment industry advocating in ways that non-profits, politicians, teachers and activists may not be able to.

We’re looking forward to seeing what else Sasheer and the ACLU have up their sleeve as they continue to break down discriminatory barriers in America today.


 

 

 

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