Actress Sasheer Zamata On Being 'Woke', Saying No & Manifesting The Career She Wants

"If you don't know what you want out of your career, no one else will either."

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Though we know her best from her three-year stint as the fifth Black woman to join the cast of Saturday Night Live during its then-nearly 40-year history, Sasheer Zamata is continuously evolving and reinventing her career as an actress and comedienne. We've seen her in her very own stand-up comedy special titled Pizza Mind, the Pursuit of Sexiness web series co-created by herself and best friend and Nailed It! host Nicole Byer. We've also seen her in The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, Comedy Central's Corporate, and Stella Meghie-directed rom-com The Weekend. Needless to say, sis has been taking no L's since her days on primetime television and relocating to Los Angeles. Talk about a strong bounceback game!


Zamata's latest role in Hulu's Woke, co-created by award-winning cartoonist Keith Knight, is the outspoken voice of reason and queer progressive, confident reporter Ayanna. Woke is centered around protagonist and Black cartoonist Keef (Lamorne Morris) whose internal battle between social consciousness, societal issues, and artistic expression develops after he becomes the victim of racial profiling and police brutality. As he struggles with grappling his PTSD, Keef finds himself surrounded by talking inanimate objects and a wide variety of friends to help him in the right direction of mental stability and a sense of normalcy. "I play Ayanna in the show and my character is 'woke guru' for Keef. She runs a progressive paper in San Francisco and helps Keef to use his platform to talk about his blackness and his experiences," Zamata explained to xoNecole.

We caught up with the Indiana native about her growth as an actress and comedian, racial and social justice being at the forefront of conversation in the comedy industry, and her upcoming projects.

xoNecole: How has your life as a Black woman impacted your career as an actress and comedian?

Sasheer Zamata: When I write comedy for myself, I write about my life and since I'm a Black woman, that is going to come through in my work. I like telling and being a part of stories that reflect Black lives because that's also the entertainment I want to consume. I want to see myself reflected on the screen, and I hope I can do that for other people as well.


"I like telling and being a part of stories that reflect Black lives because that's also the entertainment I want to consume. I want to see myself reflected on the screen, and I hope I can do that for other people as well."

How would you say that Hollywood, in comedy and acting, has demonstrated racial bias, sexism, or colorism against Black women? Have you personally ever experienced any discrimination?

I'd say the lack of opportunity has been a thing that has consistently hindered Black voices, especially the voices of Black women. It's not like there aren't a plethora of talented Black women chomping at the bit for work; we're just not always given the opportunity. Thankfully, we're in a time where people want to see more perspectives and different types of art. Blackness is "trending" right now, so hopefully, that will stick and it'll become second nature for producers, studios, networks, directors, showrunners, and more to look for more diverse voices to help create their projects.

Now that you're in your 30s, what would you say you've learned about yourself professionally and personally in your twenties that can be applied to your day-to-day life now?

Saying "no". I love saying "no". Give me a thing, I'll say "no" to it. It's absolutely important to say "yes" and I think as a young creative you're prone to say "yes" all the time because you're hungry, you want the exposure, and you don't know when the next gig will come. But as I've gotten older and worked more, I've learned it's equally important to know when to say "no" and curate the things you work on and you get to decide how you want to spend your energy instead of letting other people spend it for you.

"It's absolutely important to say 'yes' and I think as a young creative you're prone to say 'yes' all the time because you're hungry, you want the exposure, and you don't know when the next gig will come. But as I've gotten older and worked more, I've learned it's equally important to know when to say 'no' and curate the things you work on and you get to decide how you want to spend your energy instead of letting other people spend it for you."

If you could tell your "green" industry self anything in advance about comedy and entertainment, what would it be and why?

Be specific with your goals. It's not enough to say, "I want to be an entertainer, or do something in entertainment." As soon as I said things like "I want to be a stand-up. I want to be on SNL. I want to be in movies," and put that out into the universe, that's when things started clicking for me. If you don't know what you want out of your career, no one else will either.

How have you been using your platform in comedy to address the intolerances of the Black community?

I use my voice to speak my truth, which includes what I go through as a Black woman in America, and what excites, angers, and/or confuses me and sometimes that's a perspective that some people in my audience have never heard. Hopefully, that can open people up to learning more about what my community is going through and listen to what we've been saying and continue to say.

While we're in the midst of the Black Lives Matter movement, how have you seen comedy shift the conversation to racial injustices?

I haven't seen any comedy in months, so I don't know. Maybe live comedy is dead? Hard to say. (Laughs) No just kidding, it'll come back. I have to believe that or I'll lose it. I imagine a lot of comedy will shift when we're able to see it, but everything that's on TV right now is stuff that was shot before the pandemic and before this intense summer of [Black Lives Matter] protests. So like with Woke, people are saying it's a "timely" show because we're in a moment where people are talking about police brutality and race in America, but this show was written last year, based off of ideas that were thought of years before that, based off of a history of unrest that's been going on in this country for decades.

None of what is addressed in the show is new. I think what's new is that there's a broader audience that's more open to having these conversations than before and hopefully they'll absorb the messages and continue these conversations with their circles and communities.


"With Woke, people are saying it's a 'timely' show because we're in a moment where people are talking about police brutality and race in America, but this show was written last year, based off of ideas that were thought of years before that, based off of a history of unrest that's been going on in this country for decades."

What is next for you? Any upcoming projects that we should be on the lookout for to support?

I'm in a film called Spree, available on VOD. I have a weekly podcast with my bestie Nicole Byer, called Best Friends. I star in a movie called The Weekend that is now available on Hulu and Amazon Prime. I'll probably go back to doing stand up in the year 3000 when things are back to normal.

You can stream all-new episodes of Woke on Hulu right now and for more Sasheer, follow her on Instagram!

Featured image by Kathy Hutchins / Shutterstock.com

ACLU By ACLUSponsored

Over the past four years, we grew accustomed to a regular barrage of blatant, segregationist-style racism from the White House. Donald Trump tweeted that “the Squad," four Democratic Congresswomen who are Black, Latinx, and South Asian, should “go back" to the “corrupt" countries they came from; that same year, he called Elizabeth Warren “Pocahontas," mocking her belief that she might be descended from Native American ancestors.

But as outrageous as the racist comments Trump regularly spewed were, the racially unjust governmental actions his administration took and, in the case of COVID-19, didn't take, impacted millions more — especially Black and Brown people.

To begin to heal and move toward real racial justice, we must address not only the harms of the past four years, but also the harms tracing back to this country's origins. Racism has played an active role in the creation of our systems of education, health care, ownership, and employment, and virtually every other facet of life since this nation's founding.

Our history has shown us that it's not enough to take racist policies off the books if we are going to achieve true justice. Those past policies have structured our society and created deeply-rooted patterns and practices that can only be disrupted and reformed with new policies of similar strength and efficacy. In short, a systemic problem requires a systemic solution. To combat systemic racism, we must pursue systemic equality.

What is Systemic Racism?

A system is a collection of elements that are organized for a common purpose. Racism in America is a system that combines economic, political, and social components. That system specifically disempowers and disenfranchises Black people, while maintaining and expanding implicit and explicit advantages for white people, leading to better opportunities in jobs, education, and housing, and discrimination in the criminal legal system. For example, the country's voting systems empower white voters at the expense of voters of color, resulting in an unequal system of governance in which those communities have little voice and representation, even in policies that directly impact them.

Systemic Equality is a Systemic Solution

In the years ahead, the ACLU will pursue administrative and legislative campaigns targeting the Biden-Harris administration and Congress. We will leverage legal advocacy to dismantle systemic barriers, and will work with our affiliates to change policies nearer to the communities most harmed by these legacies. The goal is to build a nation where every person can achieve their highest potential, unhampered by structural and institutional racism.

To begin, in 2021, we believe the Biden administration and Congress should take the following crucial steps to advance systemic equality:

Voting Rights

The administration must issue an executive order creating a Justice Department lead staff position on voting rights violations in every U.S. Attorney office. We are seeing a flood of unlawful restrictions on voting across the country, and at every level of state and local government. This nationwide problem requires nationwide investigatory and enforcement resources. Even if it requires new training and approval protocols, a new voting rights enforcement program with the participation of all 93 U.S. Attorney offices is the best way to help ensure nationwide enforcement of voting rights laws.

These assistant U.S. attorneys should begin by ensuring that every American in the custody of the Bureau of Prisons who is eligible to vote can vote, and monitor the Census and redistricting process to fight the dilution of voting power in communities of color.

We are also calling on Congress to pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act to finally create a fair and equal national voting system, the cause for which John Lewis devoted his life.

Student Debt

Black borrowers pay more than other students for the same degrees, and graduate with an average of $7,400 more in debt than their white peers. In the years following graduation, the debt gap more than triples. Nearly half of Black borrowers will default within 12 years. In other words, for Black Americans, the American dream costs more. Last week, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer and Sen. Elizabeth Warren, along with House Reps. Ayanna Pressley, Maxine Waters, and others, called on President Biden to cancel up to $50,000 in federal student loan debt per borrower.

We couldn't agree more. By forgiving $50,000 of student debt, President Biden can unleash pent up economic potential in Black communities, while relieving them of a burden that forestalls so many hopes and dreams. Black women in particular will benefit from this executive action, as they are proportionately the most indebted group of all Americans.

Postal Banking

In both low and high income majority-Black communities, traditional bank branches are 50 percent more likely to close than in white communities. The result is that nearly 50 percent of Black Americans are unbanked or underbanked, and many pay more than $2,000 in fees associated with subprime financial institutions. Over their lifetime, those fees can add up to as much as two years of annual income for the average Black family.

The U.S. Postal Service can and should meet this crisis by providing competitive, low-cost financial services to help advance economic equality. We call on President Biden to appoint new members to the Postal Board of Governors so that the Post Office can do the work of providing essential services to every American.

Fair Housing

Across the country, millions of people are living in communities of concentrated poverty, including 26 percent of all Black children. The Biden administration should again implement the 2015 Affirmatively Furthering Fair Housing rule, which required localities that receive federal funds for housing to investigate and address barriers to fair housing and patterns or practices that promote bias. In 1980, the average Black person lived in a neighborhood that was 62 percent Black and 31 percent white. By 2010, the average Black person's neighborhood was 48 percent Black and 34 percent white. Reinstating the Obama-era Fair Housing Rule will combat this ongoing segregation and set us on a path to true integration.

Congress should also pass the American Housing and Economic Mobility Act, or a similar measure, to finally redress the legacy of redlining and break down the walls of segregation once and for all.

Broadband Access

To realize broadband's potential to benefit our democracy and connect us to one another, all people in the United States must have equal access and broadband must be made affordable for the most vulnerable. Yet today, 15 percent of American households with school-age children do not have subscriptions to any form of broadband, including one-quarter of Black households (an additional 23 percent of African Americans are “smartphone-only" internet users, meaning they lack traditional home broadband service but do own a smartphone, which is insufficient to attend class, do homework, or apply for a job). The Biden administration, Federal Communications Commission, and Congress must develop and implement plans to increase funding for broadband to expand universal access.

Enhanced, Refundable Child Tax Credits

The United States faces a crisis of child poverty. Seventeen percent of all American children are impoverished — a rate higher than not just peer nations like Canada and the U.K., but Mexico and Russia as well. Currently, more than 50 percent of Black and Latinx children in the U.S. do not qualify for the full benefit, compared to 23 percent of white children, and nearly one in five Black children do not receive any credit at all.

To combat this crisis, President Biden and Congress should enhance the child tax credit and make it fully refundable. If we enhance the child tax credit, we can cut child poverty by 40 percent and instantly lift over 50 percent of Black children out of poverty.


We cannot repair harms that we have not fully diagnosed. We must commit to a thorough examination of the impact of the legacy of chattel slavery on racial inequality today. In 2021, Congress must pass H.R. 40, which would establish a commission to study reparations and make recommendations for Black Americans.

The Long View

For the past century, the ACLU has fought for racial justice in legislatures and in courts, including through several landmark Supreme Court cases. While the court has not always ruled in favor of racial justice, incremental wins throughout history have helped to chip away at different forms of racism such as school segregation ( Brown v. Board), racial bias in the criminal legal system (Powell v. Alabama, i.e. the Scottsboro Boys), and marriage inequality (Loving v. Virginia). While these landmark victories initiated necessary reforms, they were only a starting point.

Systemic racism continues to pervade the lives of Black people through voter suppression, lack of financial services, housing discrimination, and other areas. More than anything, doing this work has taught the ACLU that we must fight on every front in order to overcome our country's legacies of racism. That is what our Systemic Equality agenda is all about.

In the weeks ahead, we will both expand on our views of why these campaigns are crucial to systemic equality and signal the path this country must take. We will also dive into our work to build organizing, advocacy, and legal power in the South — a region with a unique history of racial oppression and violence alongside a rich history of antiracist organizing and advocacy. We are committed to four principles throughout this campaign: reconciliation, access, prosperity, and empowerment. We hope that our actions can meet our ambition to, as Dr. King said, lead this nation to live out the true meaning of its creed.

What you can do:
Take the pledge: Systemic Equality Agenda
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