Black History Month: Black Characters in Children Programming

The Teen Titans from left to right: Cyborg, Ro...

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Quick, name one cartoon or programming aimed at children that had a black main character or the cast had more than one black person! If you’re having a hard time, that’s because despite it being 2011, we still don’t have many shows that have a black main character or shows where the cast isn’t an overwhelming majority of white people. Now some of you may cry out and say “But there’s black people in cartoons! Look at Teen Titans! Or look at Power Rangers!” To that I say, yeah but they’re the token black person. Now I’m not nit picky, I know some shows there won’t be many black people based off  the location where a show is and whatnot, but when you have shows set in fantasy worlds or in huge cities, and your main cast is mostly white, we have a problem. In fantasy, you can be less realistic about the proportions of white to black people. I mean if I can suspend my belief that Superman can catch Lois Lane while she’s falling, I can believe that there are black elves or black aliens.

I’m writing about this topic because even as a young kid, I noticed that most of the characters on my favorite shows didn’t look like me, as in not black.(Finding a black female is even harder.) Don’t get me wrong, some of these characters were written in beautifully treating the characters as human instead of as buffoons, angry people, or some perfect person who can do no wrong. And yes writers, that is annoying as well because it says to black kids that you have to be perfect to be accepted into society. Not a cool message. As much as some people will try to argue, there have been studies that detail how television can influence our thoughts and behaviors and one article in particular highlights what happens to young black kids being repeatedly exposed to stereotypes: http://ap.psychiatryonline.org/cgi/content/full/32/4/338.

So, what can we do? Well first off, try having black characters being the central character for once, the world will not end if there’s a few shows that don’t focus on the white male perspective. One of the shows that best exemplifies this is the underrated Static Shock. Our main character Virgil a.k.a Static was smart, witty, and did dumb teenager stuff. I’ll write more about that show at a later date. Second, try getting some more black female characters in the lead. You think finding a black male was hard, black females seem to be nonexistent or at the most comic relief/sidekicks.This is one of my problems with Power Rangers in that so far we haven’t had a female red ranger leading the main cast despite the show being on for 17 seasons. What, is the color red a “male” color or what. And by the by, stop using us, black women, as the Twofer Token Minority so you can kill two birds with one stone. One example of another under-appreciated cartoon that subverted this notion was Class of 3000 which had not one but two black kids, a male and a female in the main cast, a rarity in cartoons. Hey TV execs, you can have two black people in a show and the world won’t collapse! Third and most important, write the characters as human beings not as the Sassy Black Woman, or the Angry Black Man. We are more multi-faceted than that, thank you.

This topic resonates with me more than most because of what happened a few years ago. My mom and I had just arrived at the airport in my hometown and we’re picked up by my dad’s colleague who had her son with her. We talked about Harry Potter and other kids stuff and what this kid says still sits with me today. He point blanked wondered why there wasn’t any black Harry Potter types, a black character who was the chosen one or who went on amazing adventures. So people who tell me that I’m making a hill out of a mound, remember this. Kids notice this stuff. It’s time we start listening to them and create some characters they can admire and think “Hey, maybe, just maybe I can be a hero too!” If we only show stereotypes, them as sidekicks and even saying how the white male on the team is the “true” leader or hero(I’m looking at you Young Justice), this could hamper  some of their self-esteem, making them think that that’s their roles in life and might be less inclined to try and be leaders and movers of the world.

Just so you guys know, this is not the only post where I’ll talk about this subject. Consider this entry, the appetizer to whet your appetities for what’s about to come. I’ll go further into details about tokenism, go more into detail about the shows and not to leave out my Latino and Asian friends, discuss Latinos and Asian Americans and females. One last thought. Despite all the problems I listed, children programming still has an edge on prime time in being representative of all races and ethnicities. Make of that as you will.

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