Self-Advocacy Tips for Black Voice Actors
By Rudy Gaskins and Joan Baker
July 25, 2022
As a Black voice actor, how do you self-advocate for your dream career when facing systemic racism, white nationalism, and ancestral trauma—all while navigating invisibility to the executives, casting directors, talent agents, and producers who decide who gets to be seen and heard? How do you advocate beyond the characteristic biases that influence decision-makers?
As you ponder these questions, keep in mind that “Black” includes gender, LGBTQ+, age, and accessibility biases in addition to racism.
Voice actors work unseen behind closed doors—and the powerbrokers behave differently behind closed doors. For decades, white voice actors have played the roles of characters representing the BIPOC community. We can assert that there must be zero tolerance for this backroom exclusion. Ultimately, to advocate is to take specific actions on behalf of furthering a cause. Advocating is action that achieves measurable results. Here’s how to self-advocate for your career as a Black voice actor.
Find mentorship and know your worth
Seek out a mentor to help navigate the way forward: a wiser, experienced professional who knows the pitfalls and opportunities ahead. One place to find a mentor is through the Society of Voice Arts and Sciences, a nonprofit organization that supports the voice acting industry through educational and networking events, academic scholarships, and career guidance. Another place to look is in voiceover Facebook groups. Here you can be a fly on the wall as many participants—including newbies and professionals—discuss various aspects of the voiceover business.
Once you identify someone you resonate with, you can address them with a private note. Be authentic and humble in your request. Don’t look for a mentor as if they owe you something. If the answer is no, accept it with grace and respect. Send a thoughtful thank-you note showing your appreciation for their busy schedule and for the time given to your request. If written from the heart, this note will pay dividends—it’s all part of networking.
This is not a place to consider race—unless understanding the racial angle is your goal. Aside from that, help from a mentor is highly valuable from whomever it comes. Once you have a mentor—a boss, director, production manager, or otherwise—being respectful doesn’t mean selling yourself short. You have talent, intelligence, a willingness to work hard, and potential. And, as a Black actor, you have an innate connection to one of the world’s most insidious problems: racism. You have a real-world, lived experience to bring to scripting, to hiring, to wages, and to the choice of what stories to tell.
Accept nothing less than a fair wage. A good starting point for commercial wages are the rate sheets created by actor unions and voice acting communities.
SAG-AFTRA’s commercial voiceover rates are broken down into three categories: Class A commercials air in over 20 cities, Class B air in six to 20 cities, and Class C air in less than six cities.
- Class A Off-Camera: $588.90
Class B Off-Camera (w/New York): $1,059.77
Class B Off-Camera (w/o New York): $839.45
Class C Off-Camera: $480.19
These are base rates to use as a guide. You should also look to the rates guide offered by the Global Voice Acting Academy when deciding how to negotiate.
From Society of Voice Arts and Sciences
Prepare to be an entrepreneur
Recognize that, with the help of an agent at 10% and a manager at 15%, you still have to do 75% of the work. Entrepreneurialism is not unique to the BIPOC community, but the BIPOC community does not enjoy the privilege of a level playing field. Your task is to use that unlevel playing field to hone your balance and strengthen your legs.
Focus on the business as much as the artistry. Actors rarely go to college to become entrepreneurs, yet they soon learn that they’re not only entrepreneurs but sole proprietors. Self-advocacy is vital. The lion’s share of your time, certainly in the first 10 years, should be spent flexing your entrepreneurial muscles. Even top actors work diligently at networking, not to mention engaging a PR team, talent agents, and managers to strategically determine the right day-to-day moves.
Embracing the work of the entrepreneur may come as a disheartening surprise to some. You just finished your degree in acting or several years of private coaching as a voice actor, and now you realize you have to learn a whole new set of skills: collaborating with marketers, brainstorming, strategizing, planning, networking, and continuing to improve the product that is you. Google articles about marketing and branding for sole proprietors. We also recommend articles on the basics of building a brand, as opposed to your specific business. It’s good to get clear on the building blocks before attempting to apply them to a specific craft like acting or voice acting. Spend some time reading a few dozen articles. A great, high-level book that will blow your mind is “Kellogg on Branding in a Hyper-Connected World.” You will find many common threads that can help you create a logical sequence for planning your personal branding strategy. It takes patience to do effective branding with a lasting impact that’s scalable as you grow. (By scalable, we mean a strategy that evolves and grows with your development, experience, and accomplishments.)
Unfortunately, the concept of branding is bandied about to such a degree that many people think it’s the easiest part of building a career. It’s actually the most tedious and must be constantly followed up with brand management. When you’re Black, there are added layers of negative biases blocking you at every step. It’s not just what others throw in your path, but what you think about yourself as a result of living with the constant trauma of racism.
The good news is that you don’t have to reinvent the marketing wheel. Ideally, the business of your acting career would be a serious part of your acting training in school—but that’s not the case. If you’re not out of school yet, use electives to take an intro class in business, branding, or marketing.
No one ever said it would be easy. Dan Pallotta wrote in the Harvard Business Review: “If you’re regularly visited by apparitions of doom and are often overcome with the desire to quit and make your way to a safer, more peaceful haven, know that this just confirms that you’re an entrepreneur. Situation normal.” There’s a common adage in the Black community that goes, “You have to be twice as good as your white counterpart to receive the same opportunity.” Act accordingly.
Own who you are
Know this: If you don’t identify who you are, someone else will do it for you. We’ve all seen casting breakdown descriptions that struggle to identify the type of BIPOC person required for a role. Many actors are stumped when faced with the uncomfortable feeling of knowing that racial bias is impacting how they’re perceived, treated, or judged. The question “Who am I?” may seem like one for the ages, but it’s not as difficult as it sounds. It may take time—but time will pass whether you take on the question or not. Meditation classes and articles on self-discovery can be eye-opening. The first three steps to identifying your unique voice are:
- Listen and observe: Study the way other people talk in casual conversation—that is, without any special technique or acting flourishes. Pay specific attention to the “need” that drives everything they say. The more you practice this exercise, the easier it’ll be to filter scripts through your own point of view.
- Find your “compelling need” in each script: Commercial voiceover scripts usually call for a “real person” read. If you’ve practiced listening and identifying casual conversation enough, you can identify the need in each script that makes it feel real to you.
- Trust yourself: Start paying close attention to your choices in life, your feelings toward others, how you believe you are perceived, what is true about you, and what is not. Imagine yourself as the character in the story of your life. If you had to play you, what might your character analysis look like? It’s an extraordinary, lifelong exercise that will reap benefits in every aspect of your career and your life.
Descriptors like “urban,” “street,” “sassy Black woman,” “ghetto,” “sexy Latina,” and “educated” are ways that you can behave or perform. They do not constitute who you are. Embody the reality that there is no mainstream without you. The notion that you are somehow outside of the mainstream is absurd. Own your standing in the world.
Seek changes above the line
Advocate for more above-the-line decision makers who come from the Black community. “Above the line” refers to the executive producers, producers, showrunners, screenwriters, directors, lead actors, and creative directors who hold a great deal of creative sway. It’s important to note that the absence of Black decision-makers above the line is a level of inequality as well.
Speak out. Identify and challenge inequities. Make clear to your co-workers that you are appreciative and desirous of creating a space where diversity and inclusion thrive. In private and in meetings, communicate that you welcome the DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) conversation as a robust, sustained and consistent part of the group or company culture. Continue to educate yourself on diversity issues and share your learnings with others.
Advocating for yourself means getting to know above-the-line folks—whatever their racial backgrounds and beliefs. Identify opportunities to share your ideas with them for improving DEI. Learning what motivates people is a powerful early step toward changing hearts and minds. The pendulum swings both ways. Learn to appreciate the various races and cultures of the world through the stories that bring them to life. It’s perfectly natural to focus on one culture while recognizing that there is kinship and beauty among all cultures. Even as the BIPOC community seeks to share in the best life has to offer, and to create works in celebration of our own cultures, we too are tasked with doing the delicate work of finding balance in the way we include others.
When asked your opinion, don’t be afraid to share it. Be willing to accept that your opinion may not be felt as passionately by others in the conversation. Don’t be afraid, however. Wrong is wrong, and it takes courageous people to right the wrongs. If you believe a serious infraction has occurred against you or someone else, or someone brings a concern directly to you, there are steps you can take as a matter of course:
- Document the name of each person with whom you discuss the issue, even if it’s a friend.
- Note the date, time, and details of the conversation. If the person reporting is agitated (crying, yelling, frazzled, etc.), then make note of it.
- Rationally determine what action, if any, you want to take. This could mean speaking to a labor attorney, union representative, or HR department representative.
- Document whatever action you do take and the reason for taking the action.
Do not take it personally if your idea isn’t the winning one. Be willing to give yourself fully to the idea that draws consensus. Sharing your point of view and ideas is what counts first and foremost, not convincing people that you’re right.
Don’t wait for a summit or forum to talk about DEI. Everyday conversation is ground zero for discussing DEI. This is where grassroots momentum and authenticity lives. Talk freely with other actors, casting directors, agents, and media executives, sharing your commitment to diversity, and seeking like-minded folks to learn from and partner with.
“Like-minded” may not mean they agree with you—it can mean they are equally interested in solving social problems. These are casual conversations that can be as natural as talking about a favorite movie or book. These conversations don’t have to be treated as overly serious, or something that’s better discussed at the appropriate time. The appropriate time is when they come up. Consider, when a young child asks their parent to explain why something is the way it is. The parent doesn’t say, “We’ll talk about that at the appropriate time.” The point is to take full advantage of the child’s openness to learn while the moment is visceral, teachable, and deeply meaningful.
Don’t dismiss those who do not appreciate the urgency of diversity, or who disagree with the premise. It may not be easy to hear, but there is value in knowing what drives opposing views.
In any case of bias or harassment toward you or someone else, consider a free consultation with a labor lawyer. Be aware that certain accusations shared with a co-worker may be reported to other co-workers or management. Employers have to follow strict laws, so what you share in an official capacity may have to be fully investigated at the highest level.
Truth be told, Black folks are finally, genuinely being appreciated for their extraordinary talent and contribution to the global social fabric. DEI is gradually becoming a way to make the end products far richer on every level. But it’s a double-edged sword. The more Black folks benefit from the opportunity, the more the fringe powerbrokers think enough has been done. The world will know the work is truly done when “diverse” means the exact same thing as “mainstream”—when there’s simply no need to demonstrate, march, remind, and persuade. Make no mistake: For Black people, the prevalence of racism is always with us. While you’re doing everything every other person has to do to succeed in life, you have the added burden of coping with the institutional, societal, and psychological vestiges of enslavement — police violence, poverty, racial hatred, flagrant white nationalism, and social disparities at every level of life.
James Baldwin’s words from “The Fire Next Time” make the point: “You were born where you were born and faced the future that you faced because you were Black and for no other reason. The limits of your ambition were, thus, expected to be set forever. You were born into a society that spelled out with brutal clarity, and in as many ways as possible, that you were a worthless human being. You were not expected to aspire to excellence: you were expected to make peace with mediocrity.”
And, when you aspire to excellence and achieve the admiration of the world, you navigate between being truly appreciated and being an intriguing anomaly. Either way, these are the small steps to a brighter future.
Joan Baker and Rudy Gaskins are the co-founders of the SOVAS (Society of Voice Arts and Sciences) and columnists for Backstage Magazine. In addition, Joan is a working voice actor and author of Secrets of Voiceover Success. Rudy is an Emmy award-winning TV producer and former brand consultant for American Express, NBC Sports, Delta Airlines, and Lexus, where he wrote, produced, and directed commercials and promos. He is currently the CEO & Chairman of SOVAS. Both Joan and Rudy are available for private voiceover coaching and brand consulting. Contact: Joan@sovas.org or Rudy@sovas.org
From First Entertainment Credit Union