Tuesday, October 18, 2011

Children's TV and Race

As the parent of two small children, I’ve become somewhat of a connoisseur of children’s television programming. While I’d like to be one of those parents that could say, “my children just paint and dance, they’re not interested in TV,” I’m not (and it does really seem like I should be one of those parents). Sometimes, recourse to television becomes a necessary evil--say, like when you’re trying to do something as complex as wash dishes.

I’m well aware that television continues to be an important agent of enculturation in American culture that communicates important symbols to children. So, I do try to monitor the content of what my kids are watching so that it’s consistent with the values I’m trying to impart. I’ve got a lot of things I’m trying to do in raising of my kids, but specifically, I’d like to contribute to the breakdown of racist thought and action that still structures much of the American experience. While many advances toward racial equality have been made in recent decades, we still live in a society in which race is a major dimension of social division and stratification.

Growing Up White in a Racist Society
I’m not proud of it, but I feel particularly responsible here because I did internalize racist sentiment growing up--I’ve been part of the problem. My own parents didn’t particularly talk about race, but I was brought up in a system of white privilege from which I did benefit. I grew up in a world where white (me) was normal and most anyone or anything non-white was marked for increased attention and anxiety as potentially disruptive and dangerous.

I only have a scatter of memories in which my parents even talked about race (one of the benefits of privilege). However, I can clearly recall talking to my mother about black political candidates, such as Jesse Jackson, whose speech showed clear affinities to African American English. Like so many, my mother felt that such language showed a kind of cultural deficiency and that she wouldn’t want one of “those kind” of candidates to win an election. I can also remember my father commenting that he would likely have reservations if I were to begin dating a black woman because there would be too many “cultural differences” for such a relationship to work out. As the time, in typical teenager fashion, I argued back against my parents’ regressive views, but those views still shaped the context of my upbringing.

I was also part of peer groups in which racist talk structured a lot of social interaction. Despite growing up in the American Southwest, where many folks of Hispanic heritage lived, the vast majority of my friends were white. As a teenager, I also more actively participated in racism by telling racist jokes and perpetuating racist terms. As an adult and largely because of my background in anthropology, I’ve tried to understand how racism has shaped my perspective and worked to break it down. In other words, I’m rightly ashamed and would like to atone for my participation in any kind of racism. I’d like my own sons to never get to that point. Even today, I sometimes experience racist gut reactions when confronted with certain situations. I do recognize the backwardness and basic wrongness of such reactions, but I think being honest about persistent societal and personal racism is the only way to completely deal with it.

Children’s TV and Race
Now back to children’s television programming. American children occupy imagined worlds bolstered by TV, movies, books and toys (I know I did). While many of these worlds are clearly fantastical, for them to make sense requires that they still are understood through the lens of the culture in which they are produced and consumed (which brings up another important point that I won’t follow here--the profit-making industry that disseminates these imagined worlds). I’m not providing a comprehensive review here, but most of it seems to perpetuate the idea that white is normal. When non-white characters appear, it’s usually a version of tokenism (think Lando Calrissian--the sidekick, never the primary hero).

A quick, heartbreaking anecdote emphasizes how children’s stories impact real kids. My brother is close with the six year old son of a friend. The boy is Hispanic, has brown eyes and brown skin. My brother has blue eyes and pinkish-light brown (you know, “white”) skin. Once, the child told my brother, “I wish I had blue eyes like you so that I could be one of the heroes” in the shows and movies he was consumed by. Heroes were blond, white and blue-eyed, while brown eyes and skin were reserved for sidekicks and villains. The dominant stories that fascinated this child reduced him to a marginal, second-class citizen or even antagonist in his own imagination.

Recently, my three year old son has discovered the Backyardigans. From my quick web searching, it looks like the show is no longer produced, but still airs on the Nick Jr. newtork around 75 episodes are still available on DVD or through streaming services like Netflix. From an initial view, it’s simply a show about animals that sing and have fun. In another way, the Backyardigans seem surprisingly subversive to the dominant racial regime of children’s programming. The show incorporates non-white characters in normalizing and non-token ways.

The Backyardigans consist of five, vividly colored animal friends who share musical adventures through the use of imagination. From my viewing, the characters include a penguin, dog, hippopotamus, alien and moose. One might even argue that they represent the ideal of the “colorblind” world where racial differences go unnoticed, unrecognized and unimportant. So far, the Backyardigans are similar to so other children’s media--presenting an idealized, happy world where racialized social divisions don’t exist.
The many different colors of the Backyardigans remind me of the frequent statements made by people who claim that race doesn’t matter, along the lines of, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, green or blue, it matters what you as do as an individual.” Speakers use such statements to identify as themselves as “non-racists,” to deny their participation in continued racism--”if racism still exists, it’s not my fault,” and to argue against the fairness of Affirmative Action programs. Steven Colbert often satirizes this idea with his contention that he “can’t see race.” Such colorblindness can be damaging to a child’s ability to detect racism, however. Last year, Tim Wise posted about a study that indicates children’s stories that are completely colorblind diminish a child’s ability to see racial discrimination.

But, I think the Backyardigans aren’t completely colorblind. At face value, the Backyardigans do seem far removed from the racial dynamics of American society. Despite the fantastic characters and imaginary storylines, the show portrays a “normal” world of children and in this “normal” world, race is invisible as it is populated by intelligent, sentient animals with unnatural coloring.

While most of the Backyardigans’ world is colorblind, character names are not--Uniqua, Tyrone, Tasha, Pablo and Austin--do invoke real world racial identities. To me, this seems to be the unusual, subversive element.

The fact that the majority of the names used are clearly associated with non-white groups creates a world where these first names are the “normal” ones. Four of these five names imply a non-white social identity (Uniqua, Tyrone, Tasha, Pablo), if applied to an actual human rather than a impossibly colored animals. As a rabid viewer of cartoons as a child, the inclusion of so many non-white characters runs against the grain of my experience. I cannot remember one cartoon, movie or other show in which more than one non-white character was featured. In the case of this show, the token character seems to be the “white” one (Austin).

In the “real” world, first names that invoke non-white identities are often unfortunately easy anchors for discriminatory action and markers of negative difference. The clearest example of this can be found in Marianne Bertrand and Sendhil Mullainatha’s 2004 article, “Are Emily and Greg More Employable than Lakisha and Jamal?”. Bertrand and Mullainatha responded to job announcements with resumes demonstrating equivalent qualifications. The only difference in applications being the names of the applicants, some “white sounding” and some “black sounding.” Unfortunately, the answer to their article’s question was a resounding yes. White names received significantly more call backs than black ones. This is one of the clearest examples of ongoing racial discrimination, in addition to historical legacies.

To be clear, it’s not that there is actually anything “wrong” with names like Lakisha and Jamal, it’s that the society uses those names as indications of otherness, which is a target of discrimination.

In the real world, non-white names invoke otherness and suspicion, but in the world of the Backyardigans, they are common, becoming background normality. While the show creates a colorblind world, it does so by using first names that imply a world with in which non-white colors are the most common, maybe even the norm.

Where does this leave me and my son? I like that he runs around the house identifying as “Pablo” (and not in some jokey, Mock Spanish kind of way) and that he sees the first names as normal and not negative markers of difference. However, the show does present a colorblind world and I agree that denying race doesn’t make it actually go away. Does the divorce of recognizable human physical appearance from names make this whole exercise moot? Could a three year old even “get” the nuance of race and discrimination? I don't know, but I think I'll stop thinking about the Backyardigans for awhile.

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