Did Saturday Night Live cross the line by using the N-word?

May 8, 2016 at 11:00 a.m. ET
Image: Dana Edelson/NBC

Last night, in a segment on Weekend Update, Sasheer Zamata spoke about Larry Wilmore’s use of the N-word to refer to President Obama at the White House correspondents' dinner last week. She spoke about how more white people than black people were upset about the usage, shared one of her own experiences being called the word and said she felt the word shouldn’t be ignored, lest we ignore the history associated with it as well. Finally, she ended the segment by casually using the word to refer to the segment’s host Colin Jost.

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Many fans were shocked and angered by SNL’s use of the word, which, of course, is valid. The word has an incredibly complex, dark history tied to slavery in the United States. It could certainly be triggering to viewers to hear it. And, really, it’s not within my power to say definitively when a term is or isn’t offensive to a community to which I do not belong.


It is, though, important to consider the context in which the word was said. As this article from NPR says, there are no distinct rules about who can and should use specific racially loaded words; rather, there are contexts in which the use is offensive or not. Anyone can use the word — but anyone has the right to get offended by its use.

Zamata is a black woman who was speaking to a white man when she said the N-word, so by using it, she was not reproducing the kinds of destructive power structures that originally made the word problematic.

More: 15 celebrity quotes about race relations in America

She clearly has her own relationship with the word, as she described a truck driver calling her that. For her to use the word is also a way for her to reclaim control over it on her own terms, which is a subversive and useful action.

Many people worry that those who are social justice oriented are policing comedy, making it so that no one can joke about anything anymore. But this is far from the case. Using Zamata’s case as an example, I argue that there are certainly people who can joke about racially sensitive material without allowing racism itself to continue. It is important that jokes challenge rather than reify inequality, though.

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Finally, however, it is also important to remember that Zamata is not working in a vacuum. It is possible, as this tweet suggests, that she was pressured into doing the bit and using the N-word for shock value. The word can be empowering if she is claiming it on her own terms, but if producers and her bosses are expecting her to do it, Zamata becomes tokenized and used for her position. Ultimately, again, it is most important to consider the conditions under which she was speaking.

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