Is Saturday Night Live as progressive as we think?

Rapper, actress and television personality Awkwafina hosted Saturday Night Live this past weekend, becoming the second Asian woman to host the show along with actress Lucy Liu, who first hosted in 2000.  

Awkwafina, born Nora Lum, began her career as a hip-hop artist in 2011. She gained public praise this year for her acting roles in blockbuster films like Ocean’s 8 and Crazy Rich Asians.

She started the night with a touching statement in her opening monologue, thanking her “idol” Lucy Liu.

“Standing here tonight is a dream I never thought would come true,” said Awkwafina.

Her debut on the SNL stage makes her the fifth Asian person in total to be a guest on the show.

First Lucy Liu and later Jackie Chan in 2000, followed by comedians Aziz Ansari and Kumail Nanjiani, both in 2017.

Even though Awkwafina hosting has developed into a huge milestone amongst Asian Americans in Hollywood, it brings a realization that Saturday Night Live lacks Asian representation not only in its guests but also its cast members.

Of course, nobody can deny that the sketch comedy staple has been a phenomenon. With the show running on television for over four decades and employing more than 130 cast members, SNL has launched the careers of popular comedians like Eddie Murphy, Martin Short, Will Ferrell, Maya Rudolph and Amy Poehler. But out of the scores of cast members, none of them are Asian.

Asian American comedian Margaret Cho tweeted about the lack of Asian representation on the show back in 2015. “SNL has never had an Asian America host/cast member/musical guest in 41 years,” she wrote.  

In May 2016, IndieWire released a report stating that more than 90.68 per cent of Saturday Night Live hosts were white: 749 out of a total of 826. Two years later, these numbers have roughly remained the same, showing little progress.

SNL has never shied away from speaking up about racial issues and has always made efforts to shed light on politics issues — something they’ve done even more since Donald Trump’s presidency in 2016. Writers have voiced their opinions by producing skits that display more liberal-leaning beliefs and express the disputes of race in America.

For example, “Black Jeopardy,” a recurring skit that uses black stereotypes on a show that is typically portrayed as culturally white, and the famous 1984 skit entitled “White Like Me” where Eddie Murphy uses makeup to portray himself as white to experience America as a white man, have both touched on the topic of race.

And while recognition of minorities and race exists in the show’s performances and a few of their cast members and hosts, representation of individuals in the Asian American community has been lacking.  

It’s said that Saturday Night Live chooses their host per week based on popularity, but there have been several esteemed Asian American comedians and actors in Hollywood who have never appeared on the show. Prominent figures who have never been involved with SNL include actor and comedian Ken Jeong, who’s best known for the television series “Community” and the film series The Hangover, and Mindy Kaling, an actress, comedian and writer who was on “The Office” and “The Mindy Project,” and more recently starred in A Wrinkle in Time and Ocean’s 8, alongside Awkwafina.

All of them, despite being widely popular in the comedic world, have never hosted Saturday Night Live, arguably the most famous sketch comedy show on television.