By: Jemimah Nabugasha
View all Jemimah Nabugasha's works
Teenagers share thoughts on whether they think it is racist for white actors and actresses to voice characters of color.
Did you know that the highly criticized and now removed Indian “Simpsons” character, Apu Nahasapeemapetilon, was voiced by the white American actor, Hank Azaria? Or, did you know that the 2016 “Jungle Book” film was set in India, but casted only one Indian actor in it?
Is there a problem with the characters we create? Do we know and understand the problem with the characters we create? How do these characters turn into stereotypes? Let’s explore this could-be problem that doesn’t receive much attention through the sub-topic of characters of color being voiced by white actors.
The issue of white actors and actresses voicing Black characters doesn’t get as much recognition as it should, meaning no one really addresses it. Is this a problem? Yes, this is most definitely a problem because we are in a time where people are fighting to stop racism in our societies, which means that we need to really understand where it stands.
Since the future rests on the shoulders of the young generations, we need to learn and understand how they feel about subjects like these if we need to change and improve.
Below are interviews with four teenagers; three are in high school and one is in the senior year of middle school. The interview questions were chosen from Sheikh Amir Rahman’s Quora post: “Is it racist for white voice actors to play black characters?” I found these interview questions fascinating and they carried great importance. It was even more fascinating to find these questions on a discussion post where many could just write down anything but instead kept it on a serious note. In these interviews, you will see these teenagers’ perspectives on this vital topic.
“It’s a microaggression and just another example of institutionalized racism.” –Abby
First, I needed to know the teenagers’ thinking before going deeper.
Is it racist for white actors/actresses to voice Black characters?
“Yes and no, but more on the yes side than no,” says Em, a sophomore at Brooklyn Latin School. “It kind of goes hand in hand with cultural appropriation. But if you’re asked to do it for a movie, it is not really racist, so it depends on the context.”
Abby, a 15-year-old sophomore, agrees. “Yes, it’s a microaggression and just another example of institutionalized racism.”
According to Dr. Derald Wing Sue, “Microaggressions are the everyday slights, indignities, insults, put-downs, and invalidations that people of color experience in their day-to-day interactions with well-intentioned individuals who are unaware that they are engaging in an offensive or demeaning form of behavior.”
This shows us that white actors voicing characters of color is a form of racism. Most people don’t know that it can be considered racist, since a microaggression is an unintentional act of discrimination against a specific group of people.
“In attempts to further representation, we can see how making a black-skinned character be represented by a non-Black actor is not only absurd but racist,” Abby says. “For instance, some characters use AAVE (African American Vernacular Language) or a ‘blaccent,’ and for a white actor to create that accent and use that language is inappropriate, racist, and vulgar.”
Honestly, if the language, accent, and tone of voice are what the creators want, does it matter what ethnicity the actor is?
“Honestly, let’s say the cartoon is Black– I personally think that the actor should be Black because if we are talking accents, some Black people usually do have accents so it wouldn’t be fair for Black people if a white actor was the one representing them,” Ray, a freshman at Trevor Day School, says. “It would not represent Black people in the right way, or in the way they should be represented.”
To eradicate the importance of ethnicity even in characters is erasure, Abby says.
“‘Can’t see color’ is an unhelpful trope because, as I said, a Black character has a certain accent or inflection that’s only acceptable for a Black person to voice. As I stated above, AAVE is only okay to be used by Black people, and therefore, Black characters, no matter the ‘blaccent,’ should be voiced by Black actors and actresses.”
People usually say that if you can’t see the color of the person, it doesn’t matter, but it does because it is a form of racial denial.
Are the creators denying ethnic minorities the opportunity to represent themselves, if they keep casting the wrong people (wrong race/ethnicity)?
Abby says yes, they are denying ethnic minorities representation. “Human characters and characters that are known for their race should be played by the most qualified person that fits that character’s ethnicity and personality.”
Chris, a 13-year-old at Community Action School, agrees. “Yes, because the ethnicity is being represented by someone who isn’t of that ethnicity.” Ethnicities should be able to represent themselves. Chris also adds that one would want the original “type.”
To what extent should the characters’ voices be accurate to their characters? As in, do you think the voice actors should be so accurate with the characters’ voices?
“Not so accurate because if you tried to imitate the character’s accent, people with that accent may probably take it as offensive and think that you’re trying to make fun of them,” Em says.
“If they are voice acting, then it shouldn’t be so accurate,” Chris says. “They shouldn’t imitate it fully because it may seem racist. I mean, we all have accents, but it may seem a bit stereotypical.”
“Moana” has mostly ethnic Polynesian actors, but three actors in the main cast use American accents. The supporting Polynesian actors used their natural and geographically more realistic Maori accents. Do you think the entire cast should have had Oceanic accents?
“If the actors voicing characters had these accents, then yes, the accents should be used. But the accent should not be there if the actor has to fabricate it,” Abby says “Representation and inclusiveness are important, but if you try to be ‘too inclusive’ it can end up doing more harm than good.”
“No, I think they got it right,” Em says. “If they are Polynesian, they should use their Polynesian accents. If they are American, they should use their American accents.”
Under the context that Em was referring to, accents shouldn’t be forced. So for example, if there is any need for a “blaccent”’ it should be voiced by a black actor or actress.
“The Lion King” is set in East Africa, likely Kenya or Uganda. The remake cast mostly consisted of Black Americans, only one was ethnically East African. That was German-Ugandan Florence Kasumba as Shenzi the Hyena. (She probably used her Ugandan accent.) Most of the cast didn’t bother doing an East African accent. Chiwetel Ejiofor did a posh accent for Scar just like Jeremy Irons had done beforehand in the animation, and it didn’t really make a difference for some people. Scar sounded like Scar even if the actor was different. The accent and tone of voice were similar enough for me not to care. Should “The Lion King’s” entire cast use African accents only, as “Black Panther” did? Or does accent not matter, but ethnicity does?
“Yes because that’s where it originates, it kind of has roots in Africa,” Chris says. “The actors should have used East African accents since it is based in East Africa. Fifty-fifty, there are times when ethnicity matters more, like if a white person says something that would be disrespectful if they say it, than when a Black person says it themselves. So if ‘The Lion King’ originates in East Africa, the accent should have been East-African like ‘Black Panther.’”
“Again, no accents should be forced,” Abby says. “The actors playing the characters should use their voice or the voice indicated for their character. Correlating ethnicities are important for representation while accents are more of a director’s executive choice.”
With this, we infer that accents shouldn’t be forced but, if there are accents indicated for the character, there should be someone with that accent who will not have to fake it.
The 2016 “Jungle Book” film cast only one notable Asian voice actor despite being set in India (Anglo-Indian Ben Kingsley as Bagheera.) Should Jungle Book have at least tried to cast Asians of Indian, Pakistani, Bangladeshi, and only Brown Asian origins to portray the animals? Or does it not matter since none were voiced to sound Asian at all?
“Well since they cast the movie in India, they should have used Indians for the movie or at least Asians,” Em says. “If they are using their own accents, it is fine but if they are trying to imitate an Asian accent, then it can be seen as offensive towards Asians.”
“I think ethnicity and race aren’t that crucial to stay alert to when casting animals/non-human characters,” Abby says. “Kids don’t look up to human and animal cartoons the same. The animals don’t undergo such racism and microaggressions as the Black characters might have. Having your favorite panther played by a white person doesn’t really create a problem in representation like having your favorite Black cartoon be voiced by a white person.”
In the last couple of questions, we see a couple of points that carry a great significance and consequently suggest as to whether white actors voicing characters of color can turn out to be racist or not. These questions are similar but contain different contexts which then bring us to a conclusion of the necessities for white vocalizing color.
The culture behind the film, where the film is set, the need to use accents (which should never be forced) and ethnicities for the film are very important, and can determine why it may seem racist to different people. This certainly goes both ways, whether it is white vocalizing Black or Black vocalizing white. Abby’s point makes sense and brings everything together. Animal cartoons don’t undergo the discrimination and stereotypes that characters of color go through, so this issue is more about the characters than animals.
Another important notion we should never forget is the need for these characters. It should be to celebrate all the different people in our societies, not create a “stereotype that exists to provoke a laugh.”
*People’s names are not shown due to their request to stay anonymous.