The company contends that the use of white actors is irrelevant as the avatars are “hypothetical characters.” Okay, that defense would work if several of Mursion’s own employees, speaking confidentially with BuzzFeed News, hadn’t reported how tough it is to “stomach” the practice.
Two employees said the white actor attempted to “mimic the Black dialect” of the Black characters, and three other employees said during the simulation, one of the actors used the n-word while voicing the avatar. In another scenario, Child Protective Services were called to remove a child from a Black family.
BuzzFeed reports that the “simulation specialist” who used the n-word now trains other voiceover actors.
Mursion’s, CEO Mark Atkinson acknowledged to BuzzFeed that despite efforts to improve diversity and inclusion, as humans, “We make mistakes.” But, he denied knowing anything about the use of the n-word by one of the actors. And doubled down by saying that despite criticism, “It’s necessary for our business that one person plays all the characters in a simulation—otherwise it doesn’t scale,”
Additionally, employees complained about the look of Murison’s avatars, saying their skin tone, hair, and facial features lacked variation as well as the company’s ongoing failure to champion women employees of color.
University of Michigan professor Apryl Williams, an affiliate researcher at NYU’s Center for Critical Race and Digital Studies told BuzzFeed that Mursion’s use of white actors to voice characters of color is simply “blackface.”
Y-Vonne Hutchinson, CEO of diversity and inclusion consultancy ReadySet added: “You can’t separate this from the history of blackface, yellowface, and redface in this country, even if you have the most sensitive actors in the world playing these characters.”
This latest VR simulation is really no different than the ions of animated characters of color voiced by white actors. The whitewashing of animated characters goes as far back as the Jim “Dandy” Crow character, voiced by white actor Cliff Edwards in Disney’s Dumbo to sound stereotypically Black, to characters inThe Simpsons, King of the Hill, and BoJack Horseman.
In 2020, several white voice actors, originally cast to play characters of color left those roles, demanding producers to cast them authentically.
“I was definitely aware that that was an issue and that was a problem. But if you look at animation, the precedence feels a little different,” BoJack Horseman creator Raphael Bob-Waksberg told IndieWire in 2018. One of the Netflix show’s major characters, Diane Nguyen, was voiced by the white actress Alison Brie. “Part of the issue is, when it comes to animation, you convince yourself, ‘Anybody can play anything so it doesn’t matter.’”
Mike Henry, who played the Black character Cleveland on Family Guy and the now-canceled The Cleveland Show, stepped down from his role in 2020, following in the footsteps of dozens of other white actors.
“I love this character, but persons of color should play characters of color,” Henry tweeted at the time. “Therefore, I will be stepping down from the role.”
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