How Are White Actors Cast For Non-White Roles?
Diversity in Hollywood is as much a hot-button issue as anything else going on right now. In fact, considering all of the calls for change around white voice actors playing characters that are BIPOC, this button might as well be lava.
In hindsight, it seems like such a weird error. Why does Hollywood keep picking white actors to voice roles that aren't white? Sure, Jenny Slate is a great talent with a unique voice, but do you mean to tell me that there isn't a single Black female comedian who couldn't have brought just as much to the role? Even if you consider Jenny Slate the Mozart of doing adorable kid voices then isn't Nicole Byer the Beethoven?
Are Nick Kroll and the other producers of Big Mouth racist for casting Jenny Slate? Is Jenny Slate racist for accepting the role?
I don't know for certain, but I'd argue that no, they're not racist, or at least not overtly. See the thing with systemic racism is just that -- it's systemic. I highly doubt Nick Kroll announced to his writer's room, "Let's create a half-black character to meet the most meager requirements of tokenism, and then we'll cast a white actress to play her" before falling into a fit of diabolical laughter. But there are a certain set of circumstances that lead to this decision happening.
We're going to do a thought experiment. There are plenty of overt and malicious acts of racism in Hollywood, but, for the purposes of this article, we're going to assume that not a single person involved has any racist intentions. And, even with that assumption, I'm going to explain just some of the reasons why white voice actors get cast to play non-white roles anyway.
Systemic Racism Happens At The Bottom
Yesterday an article from The Los Angeles Times came out detailing accusations of a lack of diversity and racism against comedy theaters like Groundlings, Upright Citizens Brigade(UCB), and others from former members. For those not in the know (like myself until I moved to a city) these comedy theaters are close-knit communities, which serve as a training ground for aspiring comedians and then later as pipelines into higher rungs of the entertainment industry like Saturday Night Live. Jenny Slate, for example, is a UCB alum. Nick Kroll is also a UCB alum.
How it works is simple. These actors and comedians cut their teeth on a small stage and gain a reputation for being talented or capable of doing large quantities of blow (whatever Lorne Michaels values most) and then when SNL is looking to add to their cast, Lorne sends a producer out to one of these theaters or he invites one of the promising actors in for an audition. Almost the entire cast of SNL has trained at one of these comedy theaters.
So what happens is you get a chain reaction. If the talent pool at these theaters is mostly white, then the talent Lorne has to select from will be mostly white, and if the talent on SNL is mostly white, then the future comedy stars of America who Nick Kroll wants to cast on his show to boost ratings will also be white. In 2014, Sasheer Zamata became the first black female cast member on SNL since Maya Rudolph left in 2007. In fact, in SNL's entire run there have only been seven Black female cast members.
It's why diversity at these theaters is so crucial, but also why it's so difficult. Kelly Park, a former Black administrator at the Groundlings school, described walking into the theater lobby and seeing 30 framed photos of all white faces, saying, "Imagine being a young Black person walking into this place. The wall showed you that you can't be that." There's a reason that L.A. County, for example, is 49% Latino, 15% Asian, 9% Black, and 2% American Indian, Native Alaskan, or Native Hawaiian, but the theaters are still predominately white.
Again, for the purposes of this article, we're assuming that not a single person involved is overtly racist to any potential BIPOC students who want to learn comedy (although we know that's not actually the truth).
But we're going to assume it, because my next point explains why the theaters lack such diversity in the first place and also explains why, even when the Nick Krolls of the world are given a decent enough sized talent pool of BIPOC actors to choose from, they might opt for the white actor anyway.
Systemic Racism Happens At The Top
So much of comedy is about shared experience. Fart jokes, for example, are almost universally understood because almost everyone has partaken in the experience of farting. (I apologize to any readers without buttholes for your exclusion.) We can all laugh and commiserate with the embarrassment of letting one slip out during a school dance right before you were about to ask your crush to prom.
But unfortunately, how you are treated based on your race, especially within this country, is not a universal experience. Race is just one thing that might cause someone to have different comedic sensibilities from someone else and does not describe the totality of one's comedic sensibilities, but it's enough of a factor that this discrepancy is pointed to as a reason for a lack of diversity in writers rooms all of the time.
Big Mouth is a show created by four white people featuring mostly white characters who grow up in suburban middle-class families. It could very well be that when the role of "Missy" came up, they decided, subconsciously or otherwise, that Jenny Slate would be a good fit because she would "get them" and they would "get her" and maybe that could help facilitate Jenny riffing better lines. Or it could have nothing to do with race and the casting director just put a bunch of headshots on a wheel and spun it.
But across the board race does play a role in Hollywood. Let's go back to Lorne Michaels. Everything we see on Saturday Night Live is geared towards his sensibilities which were informed by his life experiences (a white guy growing up in Canada). Again, it's not that he's overtly racist. Lorne Michaels has fostered tremendous BIPOC talent. But if you're a Black woman with a take that directly relates to your own experience, then you're going to have a tougher time getting that joke on the show. Meanwhile, someone with a life experience similar to Lorne Michaels is going to have an advantage, simply by having more shared experiences.
You then take that principle and apply it back to the Groundlings, whose members of their main company are voted in by other main company members, and you can see why this cycle has perpetuated forever. It's the same reason The Bachelor for so long kept picking white Bachelors. The talent pool they were picking from comprised of mostly white people who were tailored to appeal to white people.
But that's a lot to think about when trying to decide who has the best adorable voice.
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Top Image: Netflix