TV

"SNL" Tried to Make a Point About White Nationalism—and Failed

Will Ferrell dressed as a Native American for SNL's Thanksgiving episode, and it gets worse.

With Thanksgiving around the corner, 'tis the season for Saturday Night Live to feature skits depicting the potential awkwardness surrounding our family dinners.

During his fifth turn as an SNL host, Will Ferrell was the centerpiece of a skit entitled "First Thanksgiving." He portrayed a grumpy, skeptical man meeting his granddaughter's boyfriend for the first time at their family's Thanksgiving dinner. The only issues with the skit are that his family is supposedly Native American, his granddaughter is Pocahontas, and the visiting boyfriend is John Smith. Melissa Villaseñor, Beck Bennett, Maya Rudolph, and Fred Armisen also star, none of whom are indigenous. Non-Native actors in these roles causes enough concern (and, honestly, is never OK), but even more eyebrow-raising are the additional problems woven in the script.

The skit attempts to flip white supremacy on its head, as Ferrell's character—decked out in a long wig and full traditional Native attire—represents a fervent Republican, full of allusions to President Trump's white nationalist ideals and his policies. When Ferrell suggests everyone around the table share what they're thankful for, he begins: "I'm thankful for our land, and our great and mighty chief. And let's hope he finally builds that wall." When the rest of the family asks where he's been getting information on the "palefaces" invading their land, his response is plain and simple: "Fox" (but a literal fox, get it?) Then he teases Pocahontas for getting her news from "a peacock" (NBC, we presume). Pocahontas defends the European colonizers—or "illegals," as Ferrell's character so distastefully nicknames them—saying, "They're just regular, hard-working people seeking refuge."

The skit doesn't outwardly mock Native people, but in its ill-conceived analogy, it suggests that we're supposed to be on the "Republican" side of this story; white people are positioned as the "immigrants" who are bringing over "diseases and guns." Ferrell's character is supposed to be mocking Trump supporters, but he still makes valid arguments against colonization. As one Twitter user explained, it "accidentally suggested the white nationalist crowd has a point." It's a bad look to say the least.

While this skit was surely well-intended, the execution was very poorly realized. To use the exploitation of Native Americans as a vessel for jokes about right-wing ideals is extremely dangerous and offensive, however accidental. The skit made light of the genocide that decimated Native peoples, not to mention it only brushed over the massive age gap between Pocahontas and John Smith: Rudolph's character points out that Smith is nearly 30 while Pocahontas is 12—close to their real ages at the time—and everyone is just OK with it.

Ferrell attempted to redeem the skit's controversy in the end by breaking the fourth wall to give a disclaimer. "If you're anything like me, you know there's a lot of problems in this crazy, crazy sketch," he said, facing the camera under a spotlight. "I mean, white actors playing Natives? What is this, 2014?" So...you're telling me the writers knew this sketch was problematic and racist, but they just ran with it anyway? Ferrell's brief monologue didn't address the colonialism the jokes referenced, instead offering a cliche about contrasting political opinions between family members and delivering an anticlimactic punchline about bowel movements.

Making a joke of indigenous people on television only encourages other white folks to do the same, and it's deeply disappointing to see these well-regarded comedians participate in it. If SNL is supposed to exemplify peak comedy, then they should've been able to convey their intended messages without cultural appropriation; if anything, this only reaffirms why we desperately need more diversity in media. So, this Thanksgiving, please enjoy spending time with your families—but don't forget that you're stuffing your face and watching football on stolen land.

Jack White almost became a priest.

But then again, did he? The iconic rocker has regularly beguiled the press. "I'd got accepted to a seminary in Wisconsin," he told 60 Minutes Mike Wallace back in 2005 in what seemed like a moment of genuine candor. "At the last second, I thought, 'I'll just go to public school."

Whether you believe that story or not, the blues-rock polymath, who turns 45 today, has led an undeniably punk life and crafted some of the most sacred rock music in history. Two decades after The White Stripes' self-titled debut, Jack White has remained purposefully slippery with the public. He told publications that he and Meg White, his then-wife and White Stripes-cohort, were the youngest of ten siblings and claimed that his label, Third Man Records, used to be a candy company, among other outlandish claims.

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Update: In a recent clip from ITV's upcoming documentary Harry & Meghan: An African Journey, Meghan Markle expresses the mental and emotional toll of new motherhood in the public eye. "Any woman, especially when they're pregnant, you're really vulnerable, and so that was made really challenging. And then when you have a newborn, you know. And especially as a woman, it's a lot," she said. "So you add this on top of just trying to be a new mom or trying to be a newlywed. It's um…yeah. I guess, also thank you for asking because not many people have asked if I'm okay, but it's a very real thing to be going through behind the scenes."

Soon, #WeLoveYouMeghan began trending on Twitter, an outpouring of respect and admiration for the former actress.

"Colorism, society's preference for lighter skin, is alive and well," wrote Academy Award-winning actress Lupita Nyong'o in an Instagram post.

She shared a picture of her 5-year-old self and promoted the release of her upcoming children's book, Sulwe, which is about a little girl who "has skin the color of midnight. She is darker than everyone in her family. She is darker than anyone in her school. Sulwe just wants to be beautiful and bright, like her mother and sister. Then a magical journey in the night sky opens her eyes and changes everything."

Cultural bias towards lighter skin is embedded in society after centuries of racism and colonial propaganda. Its political ramifications lurk in the disproportionate rates of police brutality in black communities as well as the multibillion dollar cosmetic industry flooded with skin-lightening ingredients, chemical peels, and creams promising to enhance skin's "brightness." But no matter how many studies and surveys highlight the ubiquity of colorism, the "rigid cultural perception that correlates lighter skin tone with beauty and personal success" still exists. That cracked lens has become so commonplace that it's sometimes difficult to recognize, let alone object to.

But in a week of public stances against colorism and its endproduct of racism, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle are calling bulls*it. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex are suing the British tabloid The Mail on Sunday for its "ruthless campaign" against Meghan Markle, the first American and first biracial member of the British royal family. As an actress, Markle was candid about how her racial identity had impacted how people treated her all her life on the basis of her "ethnically ambiguous" skin color. "I wasn't black enough for the black roles and I wasn't white enough for the white ones," she wrote, "leaving me somewhere in the middle as the ethnic chameleon who couldn't book a job."

Now, in a marked departure from the royal family's stoic dismissal of tabloid press, Prince Harry published an emotive personal letter (which, reportedly, was not handled or approved by senior aides of Buckingham Palace). In his frank 570-word letter, he makes it clear why silence is too close to complacency in the face of hate-fueled bullying against Markle: "There is a human cost to this relentless propaganda, specifically when it is knowingly false and malicious, and though we have continued to put on a brave face – as so many of you can relate to – I cannot begin to describe how painful it has been."

He describes the "intrusive" and "unlawful" press coverage that has purposefully targeted Markle to deride and defame her with "lie after lie." In particular, he cites The Mail on Sunday's publication of a personal, handwritten letter Markle wrote to her estranged father. British copyright law states plainly that private correspondence cannot be published without the author's explicit consent, making the tabloid's actions clearly illegal. However, Prince Harry goes on to state, "In addition to their unlawful publication of this private document, they purposely misled you by strategically omitting select paragraphs, specific sentences, and even singular words to mask the lies they had perpetuated for over a year." He concludes, "There comes a point when the only thing to do is to stand up to this behavior, because it destroys people and destroys lives. Put simply, it is bullying, which scares and silences people. We all know this isn't acceptable, at any level. We won't and can't believe in a world where there is no accountability for this."

But when does bad press turn into bullying? And what can be done about it?

As repeated scandals between celebrities and the press show, frenzied and overzealous press still break down high profile women as if it were a sport. "For these select media this is a game," Prince Harry writes, "and one that we have been unwilling to play from the start. I have been a silent witness to her private suffering for too long. To stand back and do nothing would be contrary to everything we believe in."

To conclude, he invokes the powerful memory of his mother, Princess Diana, whose volatile relationship with the press ended with her fatal car accident while being chased by the paparazzi: "Though this action may not be the safe one, it is the right one. Because my deepest fear is history repeating itself. I've seen what happens when someone I love is commoditized to the point that they are no longer treated or seen as a real person. I lost my mother and now I watch my wife falling victim to the same powerful forces."

The media's (brief) period of shame over dehumanizing the mother of two left an indelible mark on our modern cultural consciousness, but we continue to struggle to identify the line between gossip and bullying. In The Mail on Sunday's repertoire of unprofessional, mean-spirited, and illegal reporting tactics, they've used racially charged and sexist language describing the Los Angeles native as "almost straight out of Compton" and "from the cotton fields to royalty."

"This is not bias. This is racism," says Sunil Bhatia, a professor of human development at Connecticut College. She's referring to the internalized racism that affects social hierarchies and how we as a society envisions people in power: Lighter skin is correlated with success, and thus lighter-skinned people are raised to power. In speaking about Meghan Markle in particular, Vogue's editor Edward Enninful says, "Was the criticism racist? Some of it, yeah." Enninful worked with Markle when she guest-edited the magazine's "Forces For Change" edition, which received a shockwave of backlash that called Markle "uppity" and even "anti-white" for focusing on diversity. Enninful says, "Actually it was more than racism. I thought it was personal – attacking someone you don't know, attacking her."

It's true that the press' attacks against Markle haven't been merely racist—they've been classist and sexist, too. From listing the crime statistics of her mother's neighborhood and recounting her mother's financial history to using Markle's departures from royal protocol as evidence that she has a "difficult" and diva-like personality. When Prince Harry and Markle's first post-engagement interview was streamed on Periscope, comments ranged from "Jungle fever," "gold digger," and "biracial commoner" to "whitest black girl" and "unsuitable." In 2016, the royal family even broke their usual silence and issued a public statement on the Markle-hatred, observing that "a line [had been] crossed. [Prince Harry's] girlfriend, Meghan Markle, has been subject to a wave of abuse and harassment. Some of this has been very public - the smear on the front page of a national newspaper; the racial undertones of comment pieces; and the outright sexism and racism of social media trolls and web article comments."

Would Meghan Markle receive such treatment if she weren't half-black? If she were from the U.K.? If she weren't an outspoken feminist? If she weren't a former actress, or divorced? Fickle comparisons and contrived reportings of "feuds" between Kate Middleton and Markle suggest that's the case. Predatory press coverage has shown clear bias towards Middleton, who "was born in the UK and has a certain respect for the country," while Markle has been generally referred to as a "disrespectful" outsider who doesn't know her place.

Overall, criticism of Markle, both in the press and on social media, has been a stark indicator that racism, like all forms of colorism, "is alive and well," as Nyong'o wrote in her Instagram post. Nyong'o also noted that colorism is far from just a western problem, writing, "Throughout the world, even in Kenya, even today, there is a popular sentiment that lighter is brighter." She wrote her children's book because she never saw images of girls who looked like her as a child: "As a little girl reading, I had all of these windows into the lives of people who looked nothing like me, chances to look into their worlds, but I didn't have any mirrors. While windows help us develop empathy and an understanding of the wider world, mirrors help us develop our sense of self, and our understanding of our own world. They ground us in our body and our experiences."

In 2016, years before she met Prince Harry and became Duchess of Sussex, Markle wrote a similar sentiment in an Elle essay about her racial identity. "Just as black and white, when mixed, make grey, in many ways that's what it did to my self-identity: it created a murky area of who I was, a haze around how people connected with me," she wrote. "I was grey. And who wants to be this indifferent colour, devoid of depth and stuck in the middle? I certainly didn't. So you make a choice: continue living your life feeling muddled in this abyss of self-misunderstanding, or you find your identity independent of it."