As a white, heterosexual male growing up in Southwest Michigan, it was easy for me to take for granted how easily I could blend into my surroundings. There was nothing about me that stood out or separated me from the crowd. Being an introvert (and an extremely shy child), that was just fine with me.
As I made my way through grade school, it never really occurred to me just how few people of color or other minority groups I interacted with on a regular basis. My family was white, my church was white, my friend group was white—my world was white. To my shame, even the few friends of color I had in high school were viewed through a lens of whiteness and how well they seemed to integrate themselves into the overwhelmingly white context. I certainly wouldn’t have had the vocabulary or the self-awareness to express that back then, and, given my background, I don’t see how I would’ve perceived things any other way.
It wasn’t until I moved to Lesotho, Africa and stepped into the role of the racial minority that I began to have an inkling of just how privileged I was (and still am). From an outward perspective, I was now the odd man out. There would be no more blending in or going unnoticed in a crowd. Suddenly, every eye was drawn to me when I walked into a room—and the whole American social taboo of staring doesn’t translate to Lesotho, so those gazes had no problem staying fixed on me. Living in a low-resourced country, the color of my skin also communicated one significant message to many of the nationals: wealth. Folks around town will weave their way through masses of bystanders, bypassing countless other local people, and come straight to me to ask for money, jobs, or food. We have been volunteers at a non-profit for the past seven years, so my family relies on the generous gifts and donations of our (mostly US-based) partners to meet our financial needs. From a western perspective, we don’t have a lot—whatever that actually means—but, in reality, we do still have exponentially more than most of the nationals in Lesotho. It’s an extremely sobering realization, but one that still doesn’t make it feel any better to know that most people here are only interested in me insofar as they can get something tangible out of the relationship.
A quick caveat before I proceed: I know perfectly well that this isn’t how everyone in Lesotho operates. I’m not trying to be dramatically pessimistic; I’ve simply had enough personal encounters of this nature—some that even threatened violence—that this is an actual reality I have to navigate regularly. More importantly, I am NOT attempting to insinuate that my experiences of being a minority in Lesotho in any way, shape, or form compares to the experiences of other racial minority groups the world over. Historically, there is no denying the white population has taken advantage of people of color in countless, ugly ways. My experiences do not give me license to claim an understanding of the persecution, oppression, and downright hatred that communities of color and other minority groups have faced and still face today. Any white person who argues otherwise probably also denies the reality of white privilege in general. As I said before, my experience of living as a minority has simply provided me the opportunity to understand what it’s like to stand out. My hope is that even this miniscule glimpse into the world of other minority groups has created in me a capacity for greater depths of compassion, empathy, and desire to strive for change. Now, back to my original point.
I have dwelled on these concepts a lot throughout the duration of my time in southern Africa. They were most recently brought back to the forefront of my mind when my wife, daughter, and I took a family trip to Bloemfontein, South Africa for a couple of days to get away, have fun, and relax together. It was the first overnight trip we were taking with our daughter since we adopted her 16 months ago, and only her second time leaving Lesotho, so we were pretty excited.
Because South Africa has a significantly higher white population than Lesotho—virtually all the white people in Lesotho are foreigners—we’re usually able to escape the staring we’ve become accustomed to in Lesotho. It’s not one of the reasons we travel to South Africa, by any means, but it is something we notice. This time, however, we observed an unusual amount of glances and double takes from both white folks and people of color alike. It didn’t take us long to understand that, as a white couple with a black child, we stood out in a new way. We recognized that much of the staring we receive in Lesotho now is probably for the same reason, though we didn’t realize it because we are so used to lingering gazes there. Suddenly, a place in which we’ve become habituated to blending in (at least until we open our mouths and our accents give us away), we stand out just as readily as we do in Lesotho. My biggest revelation was the fact that we would now likely stand out no matter where we go in the world. In my mind, this is neither good nor bad; it’s simply a fact that hadn’t occurred to me previously.
With all of these thoughts about blending in running through my mind, it strikes me how interesting it is that voiceover is an industry in which success relies on the direct opposite. In my short year of exploring the wide world of VO, one of the lessons that has stuck out to me is the need for me to stick out.
Blending in is not an advantage in this line of work. In every audition you need to find the performance angle that will separate you from the countless other candidates. Your marketing needs to define you in a way that exemplifies your unique talents. Your brand needs to be iconic enough to hold fast in prospective clients’ memories. You need to make a lasting impression, and you can’t do that if your voice and presentation are identical to hundreds of other voice artists. A key to voiceover success is standing out.
As I reflect on this, I realize this is an area I need to grow in if I want to seriously pursue a career in voiceover. Remaining in my comfort zone of fading into the background will not serve me in this industry, rather it will be a hindrance. It’s easy to see how and why I stand out in Lesotho as a white guy. Discovering the ways in which my voice is unique and how I can offer a service that is set apart, however, is more challenging. Not only do I need to have a firm understanding of myself and my own gifts, I also need to be aware of what’s available in the current market and if there are gaps I can fill. It requires deeper levels of understanding of both self and others. Just as I have had to learn what my “set-apartness” means in the context of living in Lesotho and now as a clearly multi-racial family, so too must I uncover the nuances of what makes me stand out as a voiceover artist.
What experiences do you have with blending in or standing out? Are those experiences positive, or are they wrapped up in struggle or hurt? I recognize that this can be a sensitive or intimate topic for many people. I’d love to cultivate a safe space for discussion here, but if that’s uncomfortable for you, feel free to send me a private e-mail. Let me know how what I’ve shared lands with you—whether it be encouraging or a critique. I’d sincerely love to know what you have to say about this subject.
Until next time, friends, keep telling stories.
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