Emma Bentley talks to three actor friends who are sick of the inherent racism they face day after day when going for jobs and often before they even get in the audition room.
If you think you’ve got it bad and just happen to be white, imagine losing out on parts or auditions because you’re not, with zero thought on your acting strengths. Imagine feeling like the minority in the room. Imagine a character in your favourite film having their skin colour changed to what society considers more ‘normal’. These are just some of the shocking revelations brought up when I spoke with three actor friends: Chantelle Amon, Chioma Nwalioba and Kelly Nicholas. As a white person, this learning process is important to me, because as a writer and actor, I sometimes make mistakes. What’s important is that we listen and take stock when people are as generous as Chantelle, Chioma and Kelly when they share their experiences with us. For doing so, I thank them sincerely.
CHIOMA: So, if the brief is like, I’m looking for a girl in her twenties who can play someone free and loving and emotional, I feel like we don’t come in mind. But as soon as they’re like, “I need it to be a black woman,” they’re like, “oh yeah let’s look for the black women out there!” But if there’s no race specified, we’re not [thought of] … cos like … we’re just women as well, you know. I feel like my point is I’m not just a black actor. I am an actor. Full stop.
And that’s just something I’ve noticed lately, that friends of mine are sending me briefs of characters that I don’t fit, but it needed a black woman and so they’re like, “Oh yeah. I know one!”
EMMA: I’ve probably done that to you to be fair.
CHIOMA: Yeah yeah, but being sent the brief for a black girl is also fine, cos I am a black girl and some stories need that and I can’t change how you see me or whatever, but obviously it does suck when you see a brief of a woman in her twenties and if I don’t come into your mind.
CHANTELLE: Or even when they do that kind of casting for a black girl and they are looking for a specific type of black girl… so it even pushes me out the circle. I’ve got my short natural hair, yeah, I can put on a wig here and there, but sometimes if you don’t have a specific hairstyle… [you won’t get in the room]. That’s another thing that’s happened to me on multiple occasions. It’s like I can only play one type of black girl.
CHIOMA: Yeah yeah yeah, that’s my worry as well, like I don’t fit into the typical “Black Girl Role.” Because it’s just not who I am. I just feel like there’s so much I can do and even when I did my last showcase, I just wanted to play characters. I don’t need to be like the black girl in this show.
KELLY: And characters don’t need to be written as black for us to play them.
CHIOMA I mean most characters aren’t. I mean we’ve seen white people play them so we’ve assumed they are white, and they’ve kind of taken a shape. But most characters in most plays, they don’t specify race.
KELLY: When they say girl next door, okay I’ll apply for it. I know I’m not gonna get it. Cos it’s literally a white girl, long hair…
CHIOMA: I had a friend who put a casting out and he said when he wrote, “any race, any ethnicity”, only white people were being submitted. And it wasn’t until he stated specifying race here or there that he started to get people of colour being submitted. I guess my worry is like, what are the agents doing?
CHANTELLE: Yeah a great example of this is that I know that Zendaya, she asked to only be put up for white roles and that’s how she got Spiderman. Cos she got sick and tired of it! Cos she also said I know I’m a fairer skinned woman and I have privileges there, cos it’s like that much closer to being accepted… but not that accepted, if that makes sense.
CHIOMA: Yeah I think with some agents it can be unconscious bias as well, like, they have all these people in their books but they don’t think of someone like me when it says any race, any ethnicity. But they should be thinking about their clients’ acting skills so they can be like, “oh yeah, Chioma has comic timing, let’s put her up for that.” But not cos it needs a black girl who’s funny, but just cos it needed someone with comic timing. That’s just my worry, if they don’t specify race then you’re not thought of.
CHANTELLE: It’s because we have been brought up around the idea that the norm on screen is white, and people don’t push past that and it’s got to a point where if you were to audition,
CHIOMA: Did you hear about Lavender Brown? In the film they cast a black girl and then when they realised she was gonna be Ron’s love interest they cast it as a white girl. So when she had a non-speaking role in the first few movies she was black. And then when she had a speaking role-
KELLY: They changed her, immediately!
CHANTELLE: They messed up Harry Potter so bad.
CHIOMA: My heart man, when that happened to Lavender Brown. My heart!
KELLY: I would say it’s mainly on the casting directors then, they’re the people bringing people into the room, they’re supposed to be making the change. With like BU21 [Stuart Slade’s 2017 play] and all these scripts that make no explanation as to who is [what race] –
CHIOMA: I love that play!
KELLY: Yeah, so why can’t a black woman play one of these roles? Why does it constantly have to be white women being put forward for all these parts that have no racial specification. And it’s down to the theatre companies as well, cos like I recently auditioned for a theatre and there were no black people in the room… there was no black person when I went to the recall.
CHIOMA: I did wanna add though, I saw a post on twitter of this woman who was like, “agents can you stop telling your white actors that the reason that they’re not getting any roles is because everyone wants BAME actors now.”
Kelly and Chantelle laugh heartily.
And I saw that and then lots of white actors underneath it are like, ‘but it’s true though, like 80% of the roles on Spotlight are BAME now’, and in my head I’m like/
KELLY: Ohhhh my God!
CHIOMA: Yeah! And the reason why is cos if you’re white, you’re not used to seeing BAME so then you’re like “Oh my God, BAME are taking over!” if you see like, one or two. And the woman was like, “agencies, stop telling your clients that”, because some agents are there like, ‘yeah, right now in the industry, people want people of colour and you’re white so it’s a hard time to be in this industry’.
And reading the comments was so disheartening because there were so many white actors defending it and being like “it’s true though!” And I’m just like, we’ve got to work twice as hard and you’re still complaining.
CHANTELLE: Just twice, just twice. I’m sorry.
CHIOMA: We’re already trying so hard and for people to be blaming us every time they see a BAME role???
KELLY: Yeah it’s like every other thing has been tailored to your whiteness, this whole system has been built around whiteness.
CHIOMA: It’s really disheartening to see people not understand their privilege.
CHANTELLE: There’s a saying that’s like if you cover your eyes you won’t see it. That idea that if you don’t see it, you don’t know and that’s how people act in this industry. People need to be more like allies as well. Not complaining, “Oh no there’s changes.” No. I don’t feel the change as much as it should be.