Reevaluating Popular Culture: White Actors Voicing People of Color in Animation

July 10, 2020
Kristen Bell who was the voice of Molly in ‘Central Park’

As a nation, we have heard the call for racial justice over the past few months and many individuals and businesses have pledged to be better. If we are going to find a way to improve ourselves, we need to take a close look at harmful representations, language, and stereotypes that have been ingrained in popular culture.  Being better on a national scale begins with an in-depth evaluation of societal institutions in place. Entertainment and the media are one realm that has a huge impact on the perceptions of Americans, and therefore, it is a good place to begin.

A Longstanding History of Racism in Entertainment

Entertainment has had a deep-rooted history with racism, in particular with the norm of white actors voicing black characters. Instances of white actors impersonating black characters have origins dating back to blackface minstrelsy in the early 19th century. Minstrel shows perpetuated terrible stereotypes, depicting African Americans as lazy, buffoonish, and dim-witted.

Although times have certainly changed, and we all now realize the incredible harm that such performances had, many of the ideas originating in these shows have been subtly perpetuated down through generations and continue to infiltrate our popular culture today. Whether this is through the widespread use of stock characters often given to people of color or particular diction used that derogates non-whites, it is harmful and needs to change.

White Voice Actors Playing Non-White Characters in Animation

In animation, today and in the past, there have been many instances where white actors voice black characters. Even though it is clearly good to have greater representations of African American characters included in films and TV shows, if the actors who voice these characters are white, this becomes problematic, because these actors may rely on implicit stereotypes when crafting their tone and idea of who their character is.  After all, they are not basing their portrayal on their personal experiences of what it is like to be African American, Asian American, Latino/a, etc. Certainly, a black actor can relate better to the experience of being an ethnic minority in America and is a better candidate for the role.

Mike Henry who was the voice of Cleveland Brown in ‘Family Guy’
Recasting Efforts So That White Actors No Longer Play People of Color

Recently, many animated shows have been questioned for having white voice actors playing non-white characters. This includes some wildly popular and successful shows such as The Simpsons, The Cleveland Show, Family Guy, Rick and Morty, Bob’s Burgers, Avatar: The Last Airbender, Central Park, and Big Mouth.

Several of these shows have recently announced that they will be recasting their white actors who have given voice to characters of color.  The Simpsons will likely replace the white actors who currently voice Dr. Hibbert, Carl Carlson, and Apu Nahasapeemapetilon. White actress Jenny Slate announced that she will no longer voice Missy in Big Mouth. In addition, Kristen Bell, who currently voices Molly from Central Park, will be stepping down from her role. Lastly, Mike Henry, voicing Cleveland Brown in Family Guy, will be replaced as well.

Jenny Slate who was the voice of Missy in ‘Big Mouth’
A Time to Reflect and Reevaluate

This is a time to reflect and recognize that there are in fact deeply rooted behaviors within our society that hurt individuals on a daily basis. Although they may be subtle, media practices allow racist ideologies to be perpetuated and magnified through the media’s powerful and wide reach. We should challenge what we see and push our popular culture and entertainment industry to change for the better. 

Additional Resources:

This is a Good Time for All of Us to Take an Implicit Bias Test