Three Voice Actors Talk Being Black in Anime: 'Things Will Only Get Better'

Anime is a burgeoning industry that continues to become more and more mainstream, but a certain section of the population is still being underserved.

Think of some of your favorite anime from the past. More likely than not, there's an all-white roster of characters onscreen and even likelier that there's an all-white cast of actors voicing them. And too often in the past, when there were characters of color, they were relegated to minor bit roles, or drawn with exaggerated and upsetting features, or not voiced by actors of color.

In recent years, the medium has seemingly undergone a shift of sorts, in how characters of color are portrayed in the original Japanese anime, and who is cast to voice those characters in English translations. Now we're seeing more characters of color in prominent roles, and hearing actors of color play them.

But while some progress is being made, people of color in the anime industry still face a number of issues and challenges. With cooperation from Funimation, Newsweek had a conversation with three actors of color—Zeno Robinson (One-Punch Man), Anairis Quiñones (My Hero Academia) and Lee George (Free!)—about their experiences in anime, the paths that their careers have taken and what they think up-and-coming voice actors of color have to look forward to. This conversation has been edited and condensed for the sake of length and clarity.

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Zeno Robinson (left), Lee George and Anairis Quiñones talk their experiences and the highs and lows of being Black in the anime industry. Funimation/Newsweek

Growing up with anime, when I'd see Black representation, it was usually a lot of caricatures and stereotypes. Mr. Popo of Dragon Ball Z is a good example. Have you seen progress in the medium?

Zeno Robinson: It's kinda hard to say. I think we've seen a lot of progress, and that has come in the form of conversations and awareness. I think Japan as a culture sometimes take inspiration from American culture, and some American cultures are worldwide. I'm sure Japan has heard of Black Live Matter and I'm sure that affects how some view Black people.

And then you have directors like Shinsho Watanabe, who is [behind] your Cowboy Bebop, Samurai Champloo, Carole & Tuesday, who makes it a point to be diverse and reflective in his stories. Carole & Tuesday is about a Black girl for 12 episodes of an anime. That was unheard of for me, growing up in the '90s.

And then you have Mangaka [those who create manga, like Atsushi Ōkubo] who did Soul Eater and Fire Force. He made Kilik specifically because he doesn't see Black people in manga and anime. I think Mangaka are starting to be more inclusive in their original works, which then transfers into animated properties that become popularized.

Do I think it's better? Yes. Is it as good as it should get? Maybe not. But I do think that it's better. If you look at a project like Cyborg 009 and [the character of] Pyuma. He's the first African cyborg and his first depiction is with the big lips, and then you see him change over the course of years, adaptations. It's possible. There's always more they can do, but I do think it's getting better.

Anairis Quiñones: I don't remember, growing up, seeing many Black characters, and I feel like it's definitely changed a lot because, if I'm thinking of just the past few years, we had Carole & Tuesday recently. Wonder Egg Priority had some really great representation going on. Attack on Titan, which I wasn't expecting, has a Black character and he talks about having dark skin in the most diplomatic way. It wasn't offensive in any way. I think considering this medium comes from Japan, where Black people aren't really there in the first place, I think it's impressive we're seeing so many Black characters in the past few years. I think it could get better, but I think we've come a long way despite.

Lee George: It's tough to expect proper representation from a country that doesn't have a large Black presence, and so I think that's why we have, not arbitrarily, but found specific connections with certain characters who weren't necessarily Black or "Black-presenting." We claim [Dragon Ball Z's] Piccolo with all of our heart, you know. He just is. I can't explain because he's green, but he's Black.

I recently just found out about this studio, D'ART Shtajio. I think the next thing that's going to happen is a lot of Black-created Black presence in anime. I think that's going to open the floodgates for proper discussion about character design and not accentuating certain features, and just really honoring what we bring to stories or can bring to stories.

Robinson: I have an interesting story. I was working on Gundam Narrative and my character was of color. The character I was playing was a very caricatured design guy with the big lips and everything. The director I was working with had called the studio and told them that this isn't OK. This isn't OK and they were like, "Oh, really? OK," and they changed the design for the final product. It's just an interesting story of how sometimes it's a cultural miscommunication. And you have studios like D'ART and director LeSean Thomas, who do anime projects that are centered around Black people. I think, like Lee said, that's the direction it's going to go in.

You can't change how the anime is produced, but do you feel you have power in what roles you pick, or how you portray a character in the English dub?

Robinson: I think so. I don't always look for dark-skin characters in anime anymore. Even with Mirko [Quiñones' character in My Hero Academia], I was always campaigning for a person of color to play her. I just think that fits. She has darker skin in the manga, she speaks Spanish. I just think it's appropriate to put someone of color in that position, especially since there are so few people of color in the medium.

I play Superalloy Blackluster in One-Punch Man. He was one of my first few anime roles so I definitely took it, but his character design definitely sucks. I have to make it a point to not give him a "mammy" voice or a caricature voice. I want to make it a point with Season 2, moving forward, I'm going to make this guy sound as proper as possible and make him sound as less of a caricature as I can—to outbalance this character design he has. Or I'm going to make him as Black as I can. [Laughs.] I just think people need to see all of that. People need to see [both sides].

Like Lee said, people attach themselves to characters who look like us or exhibit traits. Mugen [from Samurai Champloo] may not necessarily be Black, but to us he is. I think having a fully chested Black person in an anime is something I wanted to lean into. So I'm always mindful of that.

Quiñones: For me, the first few roles I got were Black roles, I'll say. First we started with Harriet in RWBY, and then Nessa in Pokémon and Mirko in My Hero, and I'm still incredibly honored to play them because it's just so crazy that we can actually get someone who is Black to voice these characters. I feel like that's kind of still a recent development where we, the actor, match the character and we've been seeing it more now, which is great.

I grew up watching Michiko & Hatchin, and I thought that was the coolest anime, especially seeing an Afro-Latina main. And when the dub got announced, I was so excited and then kind of disappointed because we hardly had Black people in that cast. The Black people that were cast played minor characters and that was a little upsetting to me, because I would have loved to see them there. Like, what happened?

But now we have mainstream anime like My Hero and Pokémon that have representation—that is amazing and I'm honored to portray those characters. For me, I still want to be true to myself, so when I booked those characters I never put on any kind of caricature or anything. I was just me, you know, just doing what feels natural to me, what feels natural to the character and that was enough and I like that that was enough. I didn't have to sound like I was from the city or anything like that. I didn't have to sound "super-Black."

George: It's weird because [anime's] supposedly a medium where the characters aren't [any particular race], so assigning a sound to an entity unto itself is kinda weird. Anime brings up the conversation of code-switching in the workplace. Because anime has been in its routine for so long, you expect a certain sound from anime characters—at least if you've been watching for the last 20 years.

When the majority has a monopoly on a brand for so long, their characteristics become standardized in that medium. So I think, for an avid anime fan, watching what's happening now is that their idea of anime is being challenged with more diverse voices.

It's tough, because I've talked to some Black voice actors who use their natural, homegrown cadences and voice, and haven't received the best reception. Not necessarily because people are racist, but because it's hard to discern good acting from a voice you don't expect. So we're in this point of transition where we've got to bring us in full force and saturate the medium, and not just Black voices, but all sides of the spectrum, until all American voices sound normal in anime.

Quiñones: I want to add to that a little bit. Us three here, it shouldn't even be like this, but we're a bit more privileged because we are able to sound white-American, and thus we will do better in this industry than somebody who can't do that, or struggles with getting that sound. It's unfortunate because how do you expect, you know, to have a growing pool of Black talent if you can't even accept that there's different Black sounds? Not everyone needs to sound exactly the same. We shouldn't necessarily be working just because we can sound white, you know?

Robinson: I agree. Growing up, I was told to talk white all the time. It's a very polarizing thing because that's the sound that has dominated the industry and how difficult it was for me, who talks white, to break into that industry because I was like, "Well, if I [sound white] then there's no reason why I can't play in this realm."

If my whole life I sounded like the standard white, I should be able to use it to get the same benefits that the standard does.

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Anairis Quiñone is the English voice actor for Mirko in 'My Hero Academia.' Funimation

Have there been roles that you tried out for and said, "I'm not doing this," because the character was a misrepresentation?

Quiñones: Not so far for me. I'm still way more fresh than these two. I've not really had years of industry experience or anything, but I do remember once when I was working on an indie project, they were really pushing me to sound Black, which I naturally don't sound like, and I remember being so annoyed by that. So ever since then I was like, "I'm not gonna force something that I can't make come out of me." I can do the Latina sound that's fine, I was raised in a Latina household. I could do that. If I ever have a role where I feel it would benefit from somebody who is more "Black" than me, I don't want to take roles away from people, or take avenues of representation when it could have been their shot.

Robinson: I've seen an audition or two for a Black character that I was like,"I'm not doing that." [Laughs.] It was such a caricature and also it wasn't a proper representation, or I had no personal connections to this character. I often turn down things, or often don't submit on things that are asking for "an American," even though that does include people of color. I've started not going for that. I had a Black-Irish audition once, and I was like, "No, there's probably some guy out there who is going to do that way better than I could."

I don't encounter a lot of Black characters in anime that I would say, "I'm not going to do that." I thought very hard in coming back to play Superalloy Blackluster, though, because this design is something else. I thought that since I'm already playing him I can just do what I can with it. I think at the end of the day, if you don't do it, someone else will. Unless someone sits down with a producer and has the character changed, someone is going to [do the job]. If I can do something about it while I have the reins on the character, I might as well.

George: I don't think I've been in that particular situation, but on the other side of the coin, I've been brought in for theater auditions, for roles I shouldn't play, for the sake of inclusion. At least for the audition pool—for theaters to not feel like they're being exclusive.

A role for the time period [in question], a person like me wouldn't be in the house. You brought me in and instead of everyone behind the desk with their books up, ready to take notes, they put their books down and just watch, and I'm like, "Okay, this isn't legit." You can do your thing and they'll say, "That was very lovely, you can go."

Robinson: This isn't big in voiceover, but for that situation it's, "Oh, you don't really want to look at my talent. I'm an optic to you. I'm a diversity quota to you." And even in the industry it's easy to feel, "Am I getting this because I'm Black, or because you think I'm a good actor? Am I filling a diversity quota, or were you impressed with my audition?"

Quiñones: I think it's filling the diversity quota, but also, in order to even be considered we also have to be incredibly talented. There's no such thing as having someone super-new, super-green, still has a lot to learn, that is also Black in this industry. There's more such thing as somebody who has been at this for years, has lots of experience and then also happens to be booking roles.You have to be super-good at this in order to succeed as a Black person. I'm talking generally, but I'm gonna single out Black people because I feel the Black communities suffer from that especially.

Robinson: Even now I feel that way. I have to be amazing, on the mark in every move, or else I won't work again. If I'm not perfect, mind-blowingly amazing, it's another reason for someone like me shouldn't be hired, and that's a horrible anxiety. I don't know if anyone else feels that, but I know I feel that way as a Black performer. And I'm sure other Black performers feel that way in the industry, or have felt that way before last year. It's a terrible anxiety to deal with.

Do you all share that anxiety? Can you talk more about it?

George: I think that is a universal experience being a person of color, to be better than average to prove your worth in an occupational or social situation. I know growing up, if I were to go out with a white friend, my mom would have me dress a little bit better than them. My mom would tell me to be on my p's and q's a little bit more than them. That additional amount of effort makes up for the fact that we are seen a certain way. And so I think professionally it's the same way. You have to be kind of better or work harder because there is so much riding on your success. Not just for you, but for everyone. At least that's how it feels.

Quiñones: As I started this career, I already observed that there weren't a lot of us in the industry, especially in anime. And we had your Cree Summers and Phil LaMarrs, but you didn't really see anyone else around, and I was always very aware of that.

I had to talk to my mentor about it, who shared with me, "Hey, just do whatever you got to do," and gave advice on that. I just kind of convinced myself that if I work really, really hard, they can't ignore me, right? Because I am afraid of just being around because they need a diversity option. Especially with my first three big roles being Black characters, I definitely feel that way.

I just feel like I entered this industry maybe as the diversity card. I don't know how true it is. Definitely felt like that at first, and I remember after Mirko, I was very afraid because I thought, "What if I don't book anything after this? What's gonna be next? There's no other Black major characters, what am I going to voice?" There was very terrible anxiety. I'm grateful that it has proven itself wrong, but it's still something.

Robinson: My first anime roles were all Black characters with the exception of one. I would ask Funimation for specific projects that I knew they were going to get because I knew I wouldn't see them if I didn't actually ask. That's also scary and a weird mental thing. "If I didn't ask, was I going to get this opportunity like my peers?"

I wasn't playing major characters outside of my race until Hawks [from My Hero Academia] and that's work from a state that I don't even live in. It just opened the door for that opportunity for me that was never offered here, in the city [of Los Angeles] that I've been trying to get work in for years.

It's very interesting that those patterns of the industry can really affect you mentally as a person of color. I gave up for awhile. It wasn't worth it. I auditioned for characters of color and lost to actors of not-color and I was like, "Screw this." [Laughs.] "I'm not getting the roles for characters you already typecast me as? I'm not doing it."

A friend had to sit me down and tell me, "You love this, right? You gotta keep going." He talked me out of it. I wasn't going to do it anymore.

You guys mentioned mentors and friends. Is there a brotherhood or sisterhood of people of color that forms in the industry?

George: There's a really cool thing about Black people. At least that I've found. We're anywhere we go. My experiences being in [Southern Methodist University], a predominantly white school, and whenever I would pass another Black person, there was just a little nod. That's all it was. At one point a friend of mine was like, "Why do you do that? Whenever you see another Black person, you acknowledge them."

There's this affinity, this rapport. Regardless of what goes down, we have to be like this, you know? This is my first time seeing Zeno in person and not on Twitter. I know if I'd message him yesterday and I was like, "Hey dude, I'm feeling this thing about being Black and anime," he would respond and he would respond very sincerely. Anairis and I have been chatting for a long time on our Discord chat with her and a group of POC friends, and I've been surprised about the quickness that this type of unity has come about.

Quiñones: There's definitely a kind of trust in this sisterhood, this community and a willingness to help you. The voice-acting communities are really such a lovely community that is so helpful, but when you get into the Black side of it, it's something different.

Robinson: I totally agree. It's something about having that community, because for the longest time I felt insane with all the anxiety and speaking about it, "Maybe I'm just crazy, maybe I'm just not good enough."

I had a talk with another actor, Bill Butts, and he's done so much to push diversity out here. I had a conversation with him and he was saying the same thing was happening to him and I was like, "I'm not crazy!" That is the cornerstone. I started talking to other actors of color who were going through the same thing. There's such a camaraderie and community.

I think Black people bond together, especially in times of stress, because we go through similar things and grow up similarly and feel similarly. There's this natural connection that you feel with people of color and the community around you. It's been lovely. It's the head nod thing, but socially. You're the only other Black guy in the class, he's my boy. I love my peers.

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Zeno Robinson plays Hawks in 'My Hero Academia.' Funimation

You've all mentioned pushes for diversity in the industry, but what are you seeing and experiencing?

Robinson: I know that there are a lot of actors in the community that have taken it upon themselves to have these conversations with casting directors out here, to talk about diversity and support how the community feels, which is very important—to tell the people who are offering to speak on diversity or listening to it, to tell them how the community feels about the job that they are doing.

There are actors like Bill Butts who take it upon themselves to sit down and have these conversations because they should be had. Even those who go to Twitter to have these conversations—it may be difficult because people believe the job should be done in different ways, but these are incredible conversations to have nonetheless, because that's what helps diversity get pushed. Even in anime, I'm seeing more and more, especially on the audition side. I'm seeing wording: "Read for what you want, not for what race, ethnicity unless specifically specified," and I feel that specification is also important.

Quiñones: I feel like now that we're having more of the conversation and now that we have more people advocating for us, there's a lot more accountability. I feel like now it's harder to cast Mirko if you didn't have somebody Black voicing her. The community would be up in arms.

George: It's tough because a lot of these conversations, as Black people, you feel like you have to really be articulate with your words because you don't want to be "uncastable." You don't want to rub people the wrong way, or someone could misinterpret. The pitfall that is that we've seen in the past when there are pushes for people of color, that we'll get a handful of us in and we will be the picks for Black roles. What I think has to happen is that there has to be as much diversity in the Black pool as there is in the white pool to that next pool. We talked about Cree Summer and Phil LaMarr—there has to be more than just the go-to picks. Diversity is good.

Quiñones: Another thing that has been showing more of a push for diversity is having more Black directors and writers. I know over at [production studio] Sentai Filmworks we have Shannon Reed, he's still the director on Haikyu!, and he's been doing great work bringing in Black people as needed, and that's really cool.

Over in [production studio] Bang Zoom! we have Jalen Kassel. You have these people, these directors who inherently know what the Black experience is and they're going to make sure that they bring in the Black actors, bring in BIPOC in general.

For kids who want to get into the industry, what advice do you have for them?

Quiñones: The only thing I can say is, kids of color who are especially interested in this industry, I've been where you have been. I've been looking at cast lists and thinking, "Oh, where am I going to see myself?" and I can at least say that if I saw Zeno and Lee and all the other Black actors killing it in the industry right now, if I saw them working now, I would be elated. I think the industry is changing for the better, and it will continue to change for the better, as long as we have us and the new generation, because there's absolutely a new generation that will come after us. If you're interested in voice acting, don't be deterred because things will only get better.

Robinson: Hopefully, if I did my job correctly, any future actor of color won't have to go through the same things I go through, because we would have conversations that needed to be had. Power shifts will change and hopefully the future will be a more inclusive one, where someone of color doesn't have to think, "I won't get this because I'm a person of color."

Don't be deterred. If you love this thing, don't let anyone tell you what you can and can't do, especially with something you love and your career. If I can be an example of how awesome it is, you won't have to wait years for it to happen for you. Go for it. I needed to see Phil LaMarr to know it was possible for me to be a superhero. And there's something Dwayne McDuffie, who created Static Shock, always says: "People love to see themselves reflected in what they love" and that's why I think it's incredibly important that anybody of color sees themselves in these projects.