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White Actors Stepping Down from BIPOC Roles is Just One More Example of Performative Activism

The opinions expressed in this article are the writer’s own and do not reflect the views of Her Campus.

As the Black Lives Matter movement continues to gain traction across the country, more public figures, corporations, and everyday people have made moves to showcase their solidarity. Of course, those with larger platforms tend to have a wider range of influence. This is spectacular news for those of us dedicating our time to the cause. Assistance in any way is massively helpful, but I urge you and everyone else to continue thinking critically about the kind of support that is being offered, and why.

On June 24, actress and comedian Jenny Slate took to Instagram to disclose her decision to step down from her role as half-black Missy on the animated television show, Big Mouth. “Ending my portrayal of ‘Missy’ is one step in a life-long process of uncovering the racism in my actions,” Slate stated.

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by Jenny Slate (@jennyslate) on

 

Central Park’s Kristen Bell also made a post denoting her choice to relinquish the role of mixed-race Molly on the animated musical show. Bell wrote that she now realizes her mistake, stating, ”Casting a mixed race character with a white actress undermines the specificity of the mixed race and Black American experience.”

 

 
 
 
 

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

A post shared by kristen bell (@kristenanniebell) on

 

Only a couple days later, on June 26, Fox Entertainment producers spoke with Buzzfeed and stated that they would no longer have white actors voice non-white characters on the extremely popular show The Simpsons. Mike Henry of Fox’s Family Guy also said in a tweet that he was going to quit providing the voice for Cleveland, a black man.

 

 

These statements appear to be the general shared consensus, with all expressing righteous concern over limiting what little opportunities minorities have in the entertainment industry. 

Of course on the surface, this is a victory. Racism is a blatant presence in Hollywood, and as a result, there is a plain lack of inclusion. Just last month on June 12, the labor union known as Writers Guild of America West published an open letter to Hollywood, describing within it the long history of BIPOC mistreatment in the entertainment industry and demanding that there be real change, and more conscious inclusion for Black and other POC writers.

Clearly, this is an incredibly harmful, ongoing issue within the popular industry, as representation is so important to young and old minorities alike. Representation in media, culture, and the mainstream has an important impact on how minorities view themselves, and how they’re viewed by people external to their own communities. Black, Indigenous and people of color (BIPOC) are constantly struggling to find or create meaningful spaces for themselves in this notoriously whitewashed area. To have white actors, performers and creators recognize that they have been taking up spaces that are not meant for them, while also taking accountability, is a cause for celebration.

However, this abrupt surge of solidarity didn’t entirely sit well with me. That is to say, I wondered why Jenny Slate was suddenly so conscientious and remorseful over her privilege in overlooking the fact that the character Missy is half Black. I wondered why Kristen Bell even accepted the role of Molly in first place when she likely would have had many others to choose from. I wondered why it took a whole twenty years for Cleveland Brown’s white voice actor to actively address the implications of taking on the role of a Black man. 

The answer is simple: performative activism.

Performative activism is a negative phrase. The concept refers to activism that is done in order to garner clout or favor, rather than showing actual devotion to the cause – like making a social media post featuring a fundraiser for Black organizations, but neglecting to donate yourself when it's well within your ability to do so.

In this case, actors and producers had been silent and complacent before the recent resurgence of media attention and civilian action in regards to BLM. The real kicker is that racism in the entertainment industry is not a new concept. Though it became more of a pressing, mainstream matter within the last few years, many BIPOC in Hollywood like Lee Byung-Hun, Dev Patel and Thandie Newton have been discussing the issue for quite some time now. It’s highly unlikely that people who’ve taken BIPOC roles were unaware of the lack of representation and visibility they were and are contributing to.

After all, The Simpsons has been running for thirty-one years, which is plenty of time for the producers to consider casting real minorities for their stereotyped characters. Mike Henry had twenty years to contemplate the fact that a Black actor would benefit from the opportunity to voice a black character on Family Guy. Worse is the fact that Slate and Bell’s roles were created much more recently; with the dawn of social media the voices of more minority actors have been heard, openly vocalizing their frustrations over racism and lack of opportunity in the field. Simply put, the two actresses should already know better.

Letting go of roles that they should have never had in the first place is a strong example of performative activism. If BLM had not become increasingly more prevalent in this last year, I wouldn't be surprised if Slate or Bell or any other white actors had simply kept their silence and continued to misrepresent their roles. I would even go as far as to say that their supposed display of allyship may be mostly for show, as it's the least amount of effort in terms of showing support. It’s not the most comfortable thought, but the fact remains that it’s now more socially acceptable for celebrities and corporations to publicly endorse BLM. If they don't show support, they’re likely to suffer backlash, and the last thing anyone in the entertainment industry wants is bad press.

Related: 22 Ways to Support the Black Lives Matter Movement if You Can't Donate Money

It isn't my intention to distort the importance of presenting more opportunities for people of color.

It’s good that these individuals are considering the plight of minorities around them. They're taking a step in the right direction by removing themselves from those roles. However, in cases like this, the more intentional action, the better. 

If celebrities, actors and entertainers – and everyone else in the show biz – truly want to become allies or they want to prove themselves as such, they need to dig deeper. They need to think harder about what allyship really means, especially as individuals with sizable reach and influence. It would help to do more than just give up a voice acting role that they didn’t need in the first place. Whether that be by being more vocal proponents of BIPOC, creating more roles and jobs, or simply hiring more BIPOC, there are plenty of ways in which people like Henry, Bell and Slate have the capacity and privilege to move past ostensible performance in regards to BLM, and help those around them who are truly disadvantaged.

Davina Garcia

UC Riverside '21

I am a senior at UC Riverside, earning my B.A. in English. Just here to share my perspective. Follow me on Instagram: @davinagarcia_
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