There are many reasons why diversity in voiceover is important in media and entertainment. Diversity promotes acceptance, decreases discrimination, promotes better understanding, and enhances perspective. As Denzel Washington said, it’s not about color. It’s about culture. That includes casting decisions in voiceover.
Not too long ago, it was not uncommon for White voiceover artists to play Black roles behind a mic, parts they would not be able to play on stage or screen. People assumed because you couldn’t see the skin color of the voice, it was ok. Recent ripples of awareness through the industry exposed the unfairness of this practice, and White voiceover actors now generally step aside when casting calls ask for BIPOC (Black and Indigenous people of color) actors.
Awareness Begins with a Conversation
Despite being about 13.6% of the US population, the representation of Blacks in films and TV is about 6%. In voiceover, let’s assume it’s much less. (As a long-standing voiceover artist who receives hundreds of auditions a day, it certainly feels like that). So there is room for better representation. Part of the problem is Whites not understanding or being aware of their own privilege. So I wanted to reach out to a few BIPOC voiceover artist colleagues and friends and ask them to share their experiences and opinions about diversity in voiceover. To have a conversation. To help me (and maybe you) better understand some of their perspective and culture. And their feelings about representation in voiceover. These are excerpts from my conversation with voiceover actor Yolanda Girouard.
Yolanda Girouard Speaks on Importance of Diversity
Kim: So what are some ways you’ve felt discrimination as a member of the BIPOC community concerning voiceover, Yolee?
Yolanda: Across the board – my name. Name discrimination. Before we had a more significant Hispanic population move here, people would think, ‘okay, she’s a Black woman,’ and I still wouldn’t get any jobs. Now, it’s either ‘she’s Black; she’s Hispanic, and then her last name is French – if she’s all those things, I’m not interested.
*Name discrimination is the deceptively simple act of forming a bias or assumption about someone. It occurs before any contact, based on their name with potential gender or race affiliation.
Kim: So just your actual name has been a barrier? That’s rough.
Yolanda: Yup. Then there are on-screen situations in live-direct sessions. I’ve had people get on screen, and they’re surprised because perhaps my face doesn’t match my voice. They hear my demo, and we’ll talk over email, but they’ll get saucer eyes when I get on screen with them. It’s the ‘I thought I was talking to somebody else, not this kind of person’ look.
Kim: Oh, Ouch.
Yolanda: And another hurtful situation is when I get an email from a client who’s specifically looking for a BIPOC person, and they say, “we’re looking for somebody who talks like this.” I don’t think they understand how it’s just so disrespectful and racist. Everybody talks differently, but to them, I wasn’t Black enough – I didn’t speak Black enough. I’ve heard words like, “don’t try to enunciate too much” or ‘don’t over-enunciate,’ and I’ve faced these from the beginning. I’ve seen who they look for when they cast the African American female, and I’ve seen who gets the job. The ones hired do a fantastic job – but I don’t talk like that. My Mom was an English teacher, and that’s not how I was raised.
Avoiding Assumptions About Diversity in Voiceover
Kim: So there’s a judgment about what Black is and what it isn’t from a non-Black person? Wow. That’s quite an assumption and one that is actually a racial slur.
Yolanda: You can find it anywhere in the voiceover field. But now, with the way they’re writing the jobs, or, you know, looking for African Americans, they’ll say precisely what they’re casting for. Once you’re in the running, the words they use to describe what they ultimately want begin to change. I wasn’t raised to speak that way. I come from a family of teachers, and this is how we talk. We enunciate. So when people come out and say, we’re looking for this, I just move on and tell them, “you don’t even understand what you’re saying.”
Kim: They have a narrow view. So what would you like those people, the casting people, to know? How would you want them to think differently about this?
Yolanda: They need to find an example. Show a video or scratch of what you’re trying to create. It’s much more respectful than just writing something. Then I know what you’re looking for. I think that casting people move so fast. We know they’re trying to get stuff done, but you need to be extremely sensitive and educated if you’re putting out something about BIPOC. When you’re looking for that African American male or female, what are you looking for? We don’t want to hear “you need to sound white” or “don’t over-enunciate.” I have seen those words. I’ve seen all kinds of things, and I won’t even waste my time. It’s a mess, and it’s just mean and offensive.
Responding With Kindness
Kim: It’s offensive and sad when people behave in a racist way, and they don’t even recognize that it is, as you said, I mean.
Yolanda: And that’s the problem with racism. As a kid, there were very few non-White kids in my school, and I remember them saying things that were mean because that’s how their parents and generations before them talked. If the people around you always look like you, you don’t know what to keep out of your mouth when you are with people of color. So then you get people in a live direct session who’ll say hurtful things. I have a friend in the field who was in a live session and was told, “You need to sound more black.” And she said, “Tell me what that means.” There was complete silence. For minutes. Because they couldn’t define it. Right? What does it mean?
Diversity in Voiceover Communication Differences
Kim: Ugh. That’s short-sighted. Looking at some current cultural role models, from the Obamas to James Earl Jones to Wanda Sykes, Morgan Freeman, Viola Davis, people have different ways of communicating. There are as many different ways of expressing yourself as there are ethnicities. I’m just trying to wrap my head around this. I wonder if they have an idea of the target demographic they are appealing to and want you to sound like that demographic?
Yolanda: That’s a good point. But sometimes it depends on what the job will be on the other side. I got something when I first started, from a company similar to that syrup, Aunt Jemima. So I, along with some other people, got an invitation. And they went down the line and just specifically wrote, “this is what we want you to say, this is what we want you to sound like.” Do they even realize how far we’ve come, and they want somebody to talk like that for a commercial?
Kim: And with that particular brand, which has been so hurtful to the Black community.
Yolanda: They didn’t get it. Whole team, professional people, names, and everything. And I thought I cannot believe you have one person of color on your team that’s helping you understand what you’re putting out here and what you’re asking.
Looking at the Whole Picture
Kim: I wonder if that’s what needs to happen, rather than just say we want to see or hear BIPOC actors in our messaging. Suppose the companies hire more black and indigenous writers and creatives to speak authentically to specific population segments. So the representation shouldn’t just be the icing on the cake, but the whole cake. Am I on to something there?
Yolanda: I think so. Imagine I’m a White person, and I’ve never had a lot of people of color around me. Why not give people of color a try? Hire and talk to them, say here’s what we’re doing, and here’s who we’re looking to hire. And hire them, but you’re going to have some tough talks. Have the challenging discussion before the script goes out. At least this way, as a person of color, you can say, “this may or may not be for me, but look how respectful this is.” This way, we know where they’re coming from, and you feel that this is somebody who’s sensitive and understands.
Improving Diversity in Voiceover
Kim: I wonder if they will also get better performances from the community with more sensitive and thoughtful casting specs. No one will be offended or need to get over that emotional hill before they settle down to prepare the work of creating an excellent audition.
Yolanda: That would help, but there’s a place where we have to say, no matter how bad things are, just keep going. You don’t stop. And you pass that on. That is always in the back of my mind.
Kim: Such a place of power to come from. Thanks so much for sharing, Yolanda.