It’s Black History Month. Definitely, something to celebrate. But as my social psych grad daughter says, “Mom, pride month and Black History month should not be celebrated only once a year, but year-round” (I know…smart cookie). I’m trying to shake the feeling of “imposter syndrome” as I wade into this territory. On the one hand, it is not my cultural pain, but on the other, it is. And my part in it as a White woman is something I need to own. This understanding is an essential part of why voiceover diversity is necessary.
Until recently, like so many White people, I wasn’t fully aware of my privilege. Or how my whiteness makes me the “default” in casting in voiceover and elsewhere. And how that has hurt my BIPOC (Black and Indigenous People of Color) fellow artists. So, I intend to step back and humbly make space to hear from some fellow artists, like George Washington III.
I first met George about five years ago at Uncle Roy’s Barbecue, a renowned annual informal get-together among professional voiceover artists in New Jersey. He was singing show tunes and his voice (classically trained) is a heart-touching masterpiece. Since then, we’ve worked on voiceover projects together, had lunch at a conference, and generously agreed to share his views on why diversity in voiceover is essential.
Deciding Which Roles to Accept
Kim: George, there was a strong current toward change through our voice actor community a couple of years ago. We collectively realized that you should not be going out for those roles if the casting spec specifically asks for Black or Indigenous, and that does not describe you.
George: As you’re saying, we already have fewer opportunities, particularly for African American women. And if you feel for your bottom line, your best choice is to make those opportunities even less available. You need to look at yourself and decide what’s important to you.
Kim: I love what you just said. And not to make any excuses, but I think a lot of this is just so many non-BIPOC not realizing, not recognizing the disadvantages and the advantages. And happily, because of growing societal awareness, we see some casting specs changes over the past couple of years.
George: I was recently involved in casting criteria for WOVO and the question came up, “should we have an African-American section?” Well, why wouldn’t we? Sometimes somebody wants to talk to someone who looks like me. This is absolutely a reason to reach out, but they may want to do it in a way that feels authentic. They will do it through someone who looks, sounds, and has lived like the people they’re trying to talk to.
Stereotypes in Voiceover Diversity
Kim: I had a conversation with BIPOC actor Yolanda Girouard on Diversity in Voiceover, which I posted last week. She talked about her feelings and reaction when someone has booked her for a job, and the director says, “Ok, I want you to sound more black.” To which she said, that’s offensive.
George: That happened to me in my very first live direct session. And what that actually means is, can you sound stereotypically black because you’re an African American. But my father raised us to speak clearly. Sometimes the lived experience is that you need to fit into something that seems like a separate culture because different norms go along with it.
But to be asked to sound more Black feels like an insult because it comes off as, “you’re not Black in the way I perceive Black to be.” It creates a fundamental ugly cognitive dissonance. To have lived this experience of being told not to interact with certain people, and you don’t deserve certain things. It insinuates you’re not good enough because you were born Black. And then have somebody else tell you that you’re not Black enough.
Kim: I can relate because sometimes I’m asked to sound more Canadian, and I think I am Canadian. What do you mean? Are they looking for Bob and Doug MacKenzie? Seth Rogan? Sandra Oh? Maybe Catherine O’Hara as Moira from Schitt’s Creek?
Geroge: I understand that it puts people who are directing in some kind of position because they have in their head that this is a style they’re looking for. This is what they want. And, honestly, code-switching is what we do to survive.
What is Code Switching?
Kim: I’ve never heard of that term before this conversation code-switching?
George: It happens when you operate in two different cultural spheres. It’s reflected in my commercial demo. Sometimes people need to hear me talk a certain way, like if we’re selling sneakers and they want to hear slang. And then I have stuff like Vrbo, where I need to speak in a certain way to rent houses.
It puts people casting and directing in an awkward situation. How do you ask for that? It’s not like there’s a gauge. My colleagues, Rosie and Brian Amador have found a clever workaround with an Accent-O-Meter on their website. It goes from 0-6 in the accent level you want to hear from them, and they can get away with it because they’re Spanish American.
Kim: I love that. Kudos to the Amadors on the accent-ometer!
Are We Aware?
George: It’s a matter of survival. How are you going to advance in your career? How are you to succeed in your position in your field? In some places, it’s become more acceptable to be your authentic self, and there’s less of a demand to code-switch when you go to work, but it’s only in the more recent years.
Kim: That’s interesting, because then, how do you identify what your authentic self is? Because you’ve been living your authentic self in both (codes), and you kind of feel authentic in both.
George: Yes, and as you said, having read White Fragility, these are things that most White people never have to think about. It is simply not on their radar.
Kim: And that is what the privilege is, is simply not having to deal with it.
George: Exactly. Never having to consider these things. One of the things in America we often talk about is “the talk” that Black parents have to have. You have to behave a particular way in public because the police aren’t going to give you the benefit of the doubt. My son had the police called on him in North Carolina just because he was running to catch a bus with a bag on his shoulders. Both of my daughters have been called “n*****” in public.
My daughter Naomi was in school, and someone wrote it on her desk. My daughter Grace had it said right to her face just working the drive-thru window at a restaurant. We have to talk to our children about that stuff and how to endure it. This is the lived experience, and most people don’t have to go through it but need to understand it’s a real issue.
Kim: That’s awful. It must be impossibly rough to have to deal with that as the norm. I can’t even begin to imagine that experience, just the fear of that. It’s horrible and more people need to be aware of the basic human security we take for granted. Bringing this back to voiceover and making space for Black and Indigenous people of color to have a more significant share of the stories we tell ourselves. These stories don’t take away from anyone else’s. It just makes the telling more authentic. Let’s talk about the number of jobs. Have the number of jobs on offer and booked increased for the Black population?
George: The jobs available to people of color have increased because the desire for voices of color has increased. It’s an excellent thing that’s happening. There are more castings for it in political voiceover, and there are more castings for diverse voices, and things are changing. However, it makes some people feel under threat. Why? Why does hiring a person of color feel threatening? You’re still the default.
Kim: 100%. I read an interview from Whoopi Goldberg back in the early 90s, and she was talking about her job on Star Trek. She said, “I don’t like to be limited in my opportunities in terms of color or gender, and I’m just going to go for it.” And that is awesome. We need more of that.
Progress in Voiceover Diversity
George: Yeah, when I come across auditions, I don’t see a lot that say “White or Caucasian male,” but I do see them from time to time. Sometimes they’ll ask specifically for an African American, but it’s usually more about gender. I do wonder, though, even if they say it’s open, would they select me, or just any voice of color.
For a huge organization with billions of dollars at its disposal, it’s a nightmare scenario. Our situation is much smaller, but if that’s what’s happening, who will tell it? That being said, there have been more opportunities for people of color. And more castings are explicitly saying, “we want a person of color for this.” So it’s an unequivocal win to finally get that kind of integration and consideration for these roles.
Kim: George, this has been so insightful. Thank you so much for taking the time to talk and to share your insights for this blog post. It’s been invaluable to me, and I hope it’s impactful for others too.