“Black Should Sound Black”: The inherently racist politics of anime dubbing

By: Bracy December 23, 20200 Comments
Miriko pointing at herself

Content Warning: Discussion of racism (system and concern trolling).

In June, Getting Animated announced via Twitter that Anairis Quiñones would be the voice of Mirko, a tough-talking rabbit superhero in My Hero Academia. Fans of the anime and manga outpoured their support, glad to see more Black talent being recognized in anime, an industry with a dire need for diversity. However, as per the laws of the internet, the Twitter thread was soon bombarded by contrarians. One tweet stood out to me because of how it parroted the faux-egalitarian platitudes I, and many others, have come to recognize as disingenuous concern-trolling:

“Why care about the race of the voice actor? I don’t care about representation. I only care that the best VA gets the role regardless of race. Why does everybody have to bring race into everything?”

Close-up of Michiko wearing sunglasses and looking intimidating

To once again prove that we are living in a simulation, this Twitter thread came a mere month before Jenny Slate announced that she’d be stepping down from her role as Missy in Big Mouth and other white voice actors began to examine their roles playing characters of color.

There are a lot of assumptions packed into the belief that the best voice actor always gets the role. The statement alone implies that we live in a true meritocracy, which is false.  FUNimation, easily the biggest producer of English anime dubs, routinely casts from an extremely small and extremely white pool of voice actors. The idea of “casting the right person for the role” is precluded by insidious biases and practices such as lazy casting, where voice directors will rely on a few go-to voice actors they prefer to work with in lieu of seeking out a wider pool of talent.

This is very much in the same vein as Rupert Sanders calling Scarlet Johanson “the queen of cyberpunk” when casting her as Major Motoko Kusanagi in the live-action Ghost in the Shell. Rinko Kikuchi, for example, would have made an awesome Major – she’s Japanese and, with her stellar performance in Pacific Rim, has proven her ability to embody that cyberpunk aesthetic. However, because Scarlet Johanson has had more roles made available to her, she rests on the forefront of directors’ minds.

side-by-side photos of the Major and Rinko Kikuchi
Picture: RInko Kikuchi, a much better casting choice.

In addition to so-called “color-blind racism”, some responses to Quiñones’ casting revealed the deep-seated white supremacy that exists in American society. Some people objected that Mirko should not be voiced by a black woman because Mirko herself is not black, but a gyaru.

Even if we were to assume that anime dubbing is a  meritocracy and the best voice actor always gets the role, these arguments break down quickly. Could that best voice actor not be a person of color? Are the same people decrying this also furious about the legions of characters of color who are voiced by white people? Absolutely not. The inherent racism of American society leads people to perform mental gymnastics to preserve the power of those who already wield it and suppress the oppositions made by the marginalized.

In MelinaPendulum’s video essay, Why I don’t (usually) watch DUBBED Anime, she accurately highlights some issues with dubs, such as context being lost in translation, or even intentionally written out due to the pervasive need to westernize the original text. In the 90s, characters in shows were given Western (aka white) namesUsagi became Serena, Musashi and Kojiro became Jesse and James, and so on. Although names like Serena, Jesse, and James can be held by any race of people, because whiteness is the assumed default in society, these would be more readily recognizable as white names.

Jesse, James, and Meowth from Pokemon

This fed into a generation of Western audiences’ inability to read these characters as anything but white, and this filtration could be a huge factor in the fact that many people will look at canonically Japanese characters and read them as white. This compounds how anime’s reliance on big eyes, which are used to better convey character emotions, has been misconstrued to mean these characters are white.

Whiteness being the default lens through which we perceive the world has led to the othering of anyone not immediately recognizable as white. This gives white people the ability to “transcend race” because even within discussions of race they remain hidden. This is why many are unmoved by a white person voicing a character of color but roused to anger when a perceived non-Black anime character is to be voiced by a Black Latina woman.

This is the same mentality that makes some people think ‘Black should sound Black,’ but then routinely deny that blaccent and African-American Vernacular (AAVE) exist, or that they can be co-opted by non-Black folk because ‘they grew up around Black people’ and ‘that’s just how they talk.’ This othering of Black speech no doubt has to do with why the voice actors I spoke to all mentioned that they frequently get callbacks for monster noises, but not other roles. In World of Warcraft, only trolls and other lesser beings speak in Black dialects such as Jamaican.

Close-up of Carole walking down a neighborhood street

Nobody is trying to impose segregation that dictates nobody should voice outside of their race ever, but we need to recognize the nuances involved in casting processes. When people are upset that Carole of Carole & Tuesday and Michiko of Michiko and Hatchin are played by white or white-passing women, it’s because the playing field isn’t equal. Because of typecasting, it shrinks the already-rare opportunities for anime voice actors of color to add credits to their resumes, which would make them more bankable for roles in the future. Voice actors of color seem so rare that Black folk can’t help but rejoice whenever we stumble on the few holding down the fort.

One voice actor, who preferred to stay anonymous to avoid harassment, said, “A dash here and there of diversity is nice, but diversity doesn’t necessarily mean equity.” There is also a marked messiness when you consider that Ariana Miyamoto, a half-black Japanese woman who drew controversy when she won the Miss Japan beauty pageant in 2015, has spoken openly about the incessant bullying she received for being brown in Japan. Carole’s potential as an avatar of resilience for Black people in racist societies is diluted by the fact that she is voiced by a white person. 

Michiko and Hatchin is set in fictional Brazil, a country with a  sordid history of colorism. This can be seen in Modesto Brocos’s infamous A Redenção de Cam (Ham’s Redemption) painting in which a black grandmother is literally praising God that her grandson is white, extolling the blanqueamiento (whitening) of dark-skinned peoples in colonized countries. While Michiko is brown, her English voice actor, Monica Rial, is white and of European Spanish descent. It’s disheartening to think that, were she real, Michiko would have much less social power than the woman who voiced her just because of the colors of their skin.

Michiko on her bike with Hatchin clinging to her back

The lack of visible BIPOC in anime production and localization helps racism against dark-skinned cosplayers of color to thrive. When racist anime fans deflect their intentional racism by championing that anime characters are Japanese, they disguise the systemic othering Black people face in these fandom spaces. Representation in the industry tells fans of color, especially dark-skinned fans that they do in fact have a place in fandom which helps combat the harassment we face.

I was prompted to write this essay upon learning that SMITE would be adding its first black female character: Yemoja, a Yoruba deity. As a Nigerian nerd, this sent me through the roof with joy, even more so when I learned she would be voiced by Sapphire, a Nigerian-American voice actor, singer, and utaite. It reminded me of how I’d been overjoyed when I found out that Danielle McRae was the OG voice of Karma. In my joy, I paused briefly to realize that, considering the years of damage caused by Nigeria being colonized by the British, her being voiced a white person would have been an act of violence. People who are overrepresented in media don’t understand what it’s like to feel that they don’t belong in a space. Anime challenges expectations and imagines futures, pasts, and presents; if a medium like this cannot find space for Black people, what does that say about how we are valued?

We Need Your Help!

We’re dedicated to paying our contributors and staff members fairly for their work—but we can’t do it alone.

You can become a patron for as little as $1 a month, and every single penny goes to the people and services that keep Anime Feminist running. Please help us pay more people to make great content!

%d bloggers like this: