There are a lot of little things happening right now that may seem small or insignificant compared to the larger work that needs to be done to remove obstacles to Black Americans ability to grow and prosper in this country, but they’re not unimportant.
I’m talking about things like knocking down confederate monuments because why are we celebrating slave owners and other deplorable humans in this country? Or, the Quaker Oats Company’s – owned by Pepsi – decision to change product names for its Aunt Jemima syrup and Uncle Ben’s rice. Or, popular country group The Dixie Chicks renaming themselves The Chicks to eliminate the reference to a pre-Civil War South.
On their own, it’s easy to look at these things and think, hmmm. I hope that’s not all you’re planning to do in the fight for human rights for Black Americans. Removing statues that birds shit on, that most people walk by and ignore, isn’t exactly going to champion the collective narrative that Black lives matter. It’s cute and all, but it’s not going to make substantive inroads into the work needed to dismantle systemic racism in this country on myriad fronts.
Could we have some new legislation too, please? Legislation specifically created to change the antiquated slave overseer behavioral playbook that White American police officers seem to operate from. Laws that will protect Black American citizens from being brutalized and murdered by the very people their tax dollars pay for protection and service — for no good reason at all.
However, when viewed collectively, these little things are important. It’s all about your perspective, right? Yes, these actions are waaay overdue, and it’s taken too many Black lives to prompt the kind of reaction that we’re seeing now in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. But change is change, and change is good. It’s uncomfortable, it’s exhausting, but it’s definitely good – as long as we sustain it, we mean it, and we don’t go back.
Take Jenny Slate and Kristen Bell, for instance. Both of these white actresses recently resigned from their positions voicing bi-racial animated characters, and expressed their desire to have the roles recast with black actors. When someone passes up money for principle? That’s actually not a small thing. It’s big because it means something.
Both of these actresses not only stepped aside to make way for Black actors, their shows’ production companies/creators have pledged to do better as well, and that’s even bigger because that affects business going forward. That means more jobs for us in more aspects of entertainment like directing and screenwriting, it means more representation and more thoughtful and nuanced storytelling. That makes sense. Black people should logically be represented everywhere in the creative process since we pay money to see final products in which we are often portrayed.
At one time having white actors fill all character roles was acceptable. That’s all there was because the world wasn’t as diverse and inclusive as it is now. Diversity was not a thing that anyone cared about. But things are different now, and there is no shortage of great multicultural talent. Therefore, there is no need for, say, a white woman to voice a bi-racial cartoon character.
Some may say, well, Black actors have taken on White roles, too. Yes. But traditionally White actors have been given the freedom to play any character they want. Black and other multicultural actors have not had that same freedom. The issue is scale.
How often do Black actors take on White roles? Not very often. Now consider how often White actors have taken roles made for non-White characters. And it’s not just Black roles that go to White actors, it’s Hispanic, Asian, straight White actors play gay roles, etc. Again, it’s about scale, and did you even try to cast appropriately? Also, why did your mind as the casting agent or director go automatically to a White actor and get stuck there? What is your motivation/bias?
Ultimately talent should always be the deciding factor. But no reasonable person can say that it’s impossible or even particularly difficult to find extremely talented Black and multicultural actors these days. That’s just a lie.
Slate and Bell made a very strong foray into an aspect of race relations in entertainment that we needed to see. Now it’s on the powers that be in the industry to take note of their actions and change how they source and cast talent and strategically create content going forward.
At the end of the day, the portrayal of Black bodies in American needs an upgrade, whether it’s a syrup bottle, a fictional cartoon character, or an ideal memorialized in concrete. I’m grateful these small changes are happening, overdue or not, because what we see about a topic, a product or a people can change how we feel, what we say and ultimately how we behave.