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Birgitte Vittrup, Early Childhood Development and Education Researcher

March 25, 2010

Professor Birgitte Vittrup is a researcher at Texas Woman’s University’s Department of Family Sciences who studies Early Childhood Development and Education.

In September 2009, Newsweek magazine published an article called “See Baby Discriminate”. Writers Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman featured Birgitte Vittrup’s 2007 dissertation, “Exploring the Influences of Educational Television and Parent-Child Discussions on Improving Children’s Racial Attitudes.” Vittrup’s study explored if multicultural children’s television or conversations with parents helped improve white children’s attitudes towards black people.

Racebending.com staff was immediately interested in this study because Avatar: The Last Airbender is a multicultural show. Although A:TLA was not one of the shows used in the study–kids were shown episodes of The Puzzle Place, Sesame Street, Little Bill, and Zoom–were curious to know if shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender help foster diversity. When Racebending.com staff tried to find Professor Vittrup’s contact information, we were shocked to learn that her studies have caused her to receive a substantial amount of hate mail from white supremacist groups.

We interviewed Vittrup over email about her studies, the developmental psychology of children as media consumers, their perceptions of race and ethnicity, and the potential impact the The Last Airbender “racebending” casting decisions may have on a young viewing audience.

NOTE: The opinions espoused by the interviewees represent their viewpoints alone, and do not necessarily represent the views held by the staff of racebending.com

RACEBENDING.COM I was wondering if we could start off talking about your dissertation, the one that researched whether or not children’s television, conversations with parents, or a combination of both would influence how they see race? Can you describe what happened?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP:The study was an intervention study to improve children’s racial attitudes. One group of children watched racially diverse educational TV programs by themselves, one group watched the programs and discussed the content (i.e., the diversity messages) with their parents, one group had the conversations with their parents (without the programs), and a fourth group was our control group.

We compared children’s racial attitude scores before and after the intervention and also considered neighborhood and school diversity and interracial friendships the children might have.

Initially I found that there was no statistically significant difference between pre- and post-test scores in any of the groups. This was of course disappointing and I started looking more closely at the data to see what might be the reason. The viewing and discussion diaries that parents filled out each day started to clue me in as to what might be going on.

Parents in the TV + Discussion group and in the Discussion Only group had to indicate whether they had the discussion, whether they covered all topics provided, and the level of discussion they had (no discussion, just mentioned the topics, had some conversation about the topics, or had in-depth conversations with their child). It became clear that most parents did not follow the directions given, and either they skipped some of the topics, had no discussion, or just barely mentioned the topics. Very few parents had real substantive conversations with their children.

I then looked at some of the background information and lead-in questions the parents had filled out prior to the intervention, and the questions related to whether or not parents discuss race with their children and why gave additional clues about why the intervention might not have worked.

Many parents indicated that they had chosen not to discuss race with their children, and the most commonly given reasons were that they wanted their children to grow up to be “colorblind,” the topic had not come up, they didn’t think it was important to discuss race, or they simply did not know how to discuss it in an appropriate manner.

The parents who indicated that they did discuss race mostly mentioned very generic statements, such as “Everyone is equal,” “God created everyone,” and “We are all the same on the inside.” These are vague statements that don’t necessarily translate into messages about race and equality in a child’s mind.

In conclusion, it became apparent that the intervention did not work because parents were so uncomfortable talking about race that they chose not to follow the instructions given for the intervention. When looking at the small number of parents who did have significant conversations with their children, there was a significant improvement in racial attitudes.

Parents were so uncomfortable talking about race that they chose not to follow the instructions given for the intervention. When looking at the small number of parents who did have significant conversations with their children, there was a significant improvement in racial attitudes.

Another thing we measured was children’s perceptions of their parents’ racial attitudes, both before and after the intervention. Prior to the intervention, many of the white children indicated that they did not know what their parents thought about Black people, and some bluntly stated that they thought their parents did not like Black people.

Following the intervention, the children whose parents had had conversations with them which included messages about racial equality were much less likely to say that they didn’t know their parents’ attitudes or to say that they thought their parents held negative racial attitudes.

RACEBENDING.COM After reading the article in Newsweek, racebending.com readers had an online discussion about how the label “racist” is synonymous with being bad, or irredeemably awful.

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: I agree, it’s a very “charged” word – and a very charged subject. Before the civil rights movement, it was considered somewhat appropriate to hold negative attitudes towards other racial groups as well as to speak openly about it. However, in current times, it is considered inappropriate to harbor such negative attitudes. Whites especially are so uncomfortable with the topic of race, probably because they do not want to be labeled “racist” if they say something the wrong way, and I think the word “racist” has become somewhat associated with the notion of being of irredeemably low character.

RACEBENDING.COM It seems to hamper any effort at constructive dialogue about race, since it then becomes impossible to point out someone’s prejudiced beliefs without also being seen as accusing them of being the scum of the earth. Do you have any thoughts about how society approaches discussions about race?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: One definition of racism is that it is a system of advantage based on race – this system involves cultural messages, institutional policies, and attitudes, beliefs, and actions of individuals.

In the U.S. that means whites (who are the majority) have an advantage over racial minorities. This is an uncomfortable definition to some, because white people often do not think of themselves as being privileged or having additional opportunities for success compared to other racial groups. They often don’t see it.

Because of this, discussions about race are subdued and people in the “majority” group (i.e., White Americans) are weary of engaging in such conversations – they don’t want to appear “racist” or even slightly biased, and they don’t know exactly what is “PC” to talk about and what isn’t (so rather than risking saying the wrong thing, they choose not to broach the subject at all).

Similarly, it is considered perfectly appropriate for people of racial minority status to express pride in their race and heritage, whereas pride amongst whites is usually associated with “white pride/white power” affiliations (which are usually categorized as “hate” groups), and thus in order to instill “appropriate” pride in white children, parents usually focus on the specific country of heritage (such as Irish, Italian, German, French, etc.), rather than the race overall.

All of these things, in combination with the strong history of racial discrimination in this country, contribute to the discomfort many people feel in talking openly about race.

In reality, we all have biases, and we’re all aware of the stereotypes that exist about various racial groups. The biases are based on our experiences, observations, and messages from parents, peers, and the media. In order for healthy dialogue to take place, we have to acknowledge these biases and evaluate where they’re coming from.

I think as a society we have to learn to more openly discuss biases and the origins of those biases in order to progress to being a more “equal” society. This takes effort at all levels – parents, teachers, media, government, policies, etc.

RACEBENDING.COM: Pretty much everyone we’ve interviewed so far has agreed that children see racial differences. But do kids attribute the same things to those racial differences that adults do?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: Generally, young children don’t. The Newsweek article didn’t quite explain everything as accurately as I might have wished for.

When babies see differences between faces or people of different skin color, the word “discriminate” refers to being able to distinguish. Babies tend to look longer at things that are familiar to them, and thus, if they are used to seeing people and faces of a particular skin color, they are more likely to look longer at those images because it is what’s familiar to them.

Young children (e.g., preschoolers) see skin color differences as well, but they do not yet attribute the meaning to race and skin color as adults do. To them it is simply a physical characteristic they are noticing. When they are young, children learn which differences are important in categorizing people and which aren’t.

For example, children pay attention to hair length and color as well, but they learn quickly that there isn’t really a consistent pattern of categorization into long-haired people, medium length hair people, and short-haired people, so it becomes more of a peripheral characteristic.

On the contrary they learn quickly that race IS a significant characteristic that is used to categorize people. This is based on their observations–the way people group together and what they see in the media–and what they hear (e.g., the use of racial labels to describe people, or any statements linking certain traits to certain racial groups).

So around the ages of 3-5 children develop racial awareness where they are able to recognize racial differences, label the differences, and categorize themselves within a racial group.

After they develop awareness, they develop “racial orientation,” which is when the first positive and negative attitudes about racial groups show up. These are sometimes referred to as “embryonic racial attitudes” and they generally become present around the ages of 3-6. These two phases form the foundations of later racial attitude development.

Around age 6-8 they begin to learn more about the complexities of race, including stereotypes and social status, and around the ages of 6-8. They learn this from society, media, and adults around them.

Many parents are under the assumption–naïve as it may be–that by not talking about race, children will grow up to be colorblind. Unfortunately, our society is not colorblind, so without parents mediating and explaining to children what they are seeing, hearing, and experiencing, children are pretty much left to their own devices to figure everything out.

[Kids] see the self-segregation of children into different racial groups at school, they hear comments made by their peers, they see the stereotyped portrayals on television, and they notice that their parents don’t seem to associate much with people of other racial groups. Thus, they are likely to make the conclusion that other racial groups are not as important, there are negative traits associated with these other groups, and you should not associate and mingle with them.

For this reason, I think it is vitally important that parents have more explicit conversations with their children–focusing on diversity, equality, respect, and importance across all racial groups–as well as teach them media literacy skills. Teaching them to critically evaluate what they see on television (or video games, computers, etc.) and make them realize that the world of television is not necessarily representative of the real world.

RACEBENDING.COM: What role does the media play in informing children’s perceptions of race? In your opinion, are there any differences in how white children view/interpret media, versus how children of color might view/interpret media?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: Media is such a big part of children’s lives these days. They spend countless hours in front of television, video games, and computers. TV has often been referred to as a “window on the world” because children look to television to learn about the norms, values, rules, and structure of the society they live in.

Children Now – a non-profit organization– has done some content analyses of primetime television programming and video games, and their findings are very interesting. Television is very white, and the proportion of minorities [on TV] is not representative of the actual proportion living within the United States. Furthermore, minorities are often cast in minor/secondary roles or very stereotyped roles.

This causes a problem when children don’t have regular “real-life” contact with people of other racial or ethnic groups, because their only knowledge of them then comes from television, and they’re likely to buy into the stereotypes, as well as pick up on a subtle message that non-whites are not as important–since they’re not portrayed as often, nor are they frequently portrayed in the “hero” roles.

It is important that children see themselves represented on television – not just in terms of race, but also in terms of socioeconomic status and family structure. Being represented on television makes them feel “normal” – that there are others like them.

It is important that children see themselves represented on television…Being represented on television makes them feel “normal” – that there are others like them.

For white, middle-class children this is usually not a problem. But for minorities, children from lower-socioeconomic status families, and children in single-parent, blended, or mixed-race families, this is not always the case. They either don’t see themselves represented at all, or they see negative stereotyped representations of themselves. This can over time influence children’s self-esteem and feelings of self-worth and “fitting in.”

RACEBENDING.COM: A lot of the fans really felt that Avatar: The Last Airbender was quality children’s television, in part because of how—despite the fact that it was set in a fantasy world—it introduced children to elements of Asian culture. They especially liked how the characters were ethnically from Pacific Rim cultures, rather than the traditional Anglo-Saxon characters you see in other fantasy shows.

Based on your research and what you’ve studied about children and race, do shows like Avatar: The Last Airbender, which introduce kids to new cultures and heroes of color, help kids become less prejudiced?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: Yes, I believe that it is important for all children to be exposed to ethnically diverse programs in which people from various racial/ethnic groups are presented as positive role models and in heroic roles. Children of all racial groups need to see “their own kind” represented on television, and they need to see a variety of “others” represented.

Exposure to positive role models and heroic characters of various cultural backgrounds will send the message that all racial/ethnic groups are important and that they all have positive characteristics. The more equally diverse children’s programming is, the more “normal” it will be for children to identify with and associate with people of other racial groups. It is, however, important for the portrayals to not be stereotyped and to emphasize individual differences.

RACEBENDING.COM: When casting changes like the ones we are protesting happen, can kids perceive how the filmmakers of The Last Airbender discriminated against people of color? What impact might the “whitewashing” of the heroes of The Last Airbender have on children in the audience?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: This is a very good question. As I mentioned above, it is important for children to see themselves represented in the media world. It is also important for them to see other races represented. Thus, cartoons like Avatar can be important both for Asian children as well as children of other racial or ethnic descent.

I think it was an unfortunate decision on the part of the casting directors to choose an overwhelmingly white cast to represent the heroes in the motion picture version of this show. It would have been a great opportunity to portray heroes of other cultural heritage since there already are plenty of movies and shows featuring white heroes.

I understand the argument some have made that this is an American movie and therefore they are trying to cast people who are representative of current day American culture. However, given the fantasy setting and original “location” of the cartoon, I think that argument may be flawed.

Similarly, reality is that children are able to create fantasy games and pretend to be heroes of any ethnic descent, and they don’t always necessarily pick someone of their own cultural heritage. But nonetheless, my argument is that there is a great lack of representation of cultural minorities–especially in heroic roles–and this movie would have been an excellent opportunity to add more representative diversity to the big screen.

There is a great lack of representation of cultural minorities–especially in heroic roles–and [The Last Airbender] would have been an excellent opportunity to add more representative diversity to the big screen.

Unfortunately, I also think that too much emphasis on the race of the movie characters can backfire and send the wrong message to children.

On the one hand we want to have this debate because we believe that Hollywood does have a responsibility to give equal opportunities to various racial/ethnic groups–not just in numbers but in the type of portrayals as well–but on the other hand ,we have to be careful with what message this debate sends to children. They may inadvertently pick up the message that race is an important distinction between people, that they should distinguish between “us” and “them” when it comes to race, and that there are negative characteristics about some racial groups.

We have to be careful with what message this debate sends to children. They may inadvertently pick up the message that race is an important distinction between peoplethat they should distinguish between “us” and “them” when it comes to race, and that there are negative characteristics about some racial groups.

RACEBENDING.COM: We’re heard from parents with confused kids who want to know why the characters no longer look like them, or don’t understand why their parents want to boycott the movie. How should parents explain the casting controversy to their children?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: Putting too much emphasis on the “whitewashing” argument and flat-out boycotting the movie can backfire if parents want their children to grow up with respect for diversity and equality. This goes back to what I mentioned previously about putting too much emphasis on race, thus creating an “us” versus “them” mentality.

My advice would be for the parents to explain to children that heroes come in all colors and from all backgrounds. When cartoons are made into movies, the characters don’t always look the same. However, they still represent the heroes of those cultures.

At the same time, you don’t want to ignore the issue, because that sends the wrong message as well. Young children most likely won’t notice the casting changes, but older children likely will, especially if they have been following the cartoon regularly. Parents may wish to tell their children that the movie directors simply did not do a very good job of casting representative actors to play the roles of the various characters. But they should continue to emphasize to their children that television and movies often do not accurately represent real life (for example, look at the so-called “reality” shows – they often feature a cast of white, middle-class, attractive, fit individuals – leaving out the “average Joe/Jane”, the overweight, the financially challenged, and the less successful).

Teaching children media literacy skills (i.e., being able to critically view and evaluate media content and recognize that it may not be representative of real life) goes a long way.

RACEBENDING.COM: Paramount Pictures told us that their cast is actually more diverse than the animated series, because they’ve casted these white actors to play heroes, and middle eastern-looking actors to play bad guys, and Asian American and Black actors to play villagers. They seemed to suggest that the animated series wasn’t diverse because it only had Asian characters, even though Asia is a very diverse continent. Our argument is that although they may have added more ethnicities to the story, they’ve shoved everyone who isn’t white into secondary roles, which is not equal footing. Do you have any thoughts on the difference between diversity and equality?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: I think the directors may be ignorant of the great diversity that exists within the Asian continent (as so many are). I teach a class on parenting and child care around the world, and most of my students are amazed to hear how many different countries, cultures, norms, and differences there are. I think many Americans think mainly of China and Japan when thinking about Asian countries, and they are generally unaware of the many other countries and cultures make up this big continent.

Thus, while the original cartoon may have been quite diverse, the directors did not see it that way and chose to add additional diversity – in the form of other races/ethnicities – to the movie. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but the unfortunate decision is that it looks like most of the heroic characters are in fact played by white actors while villains and secondary roles are given to minorities (Disclaimer: I have not seen the full cast listing, so I can’t comment in much detail about this).

Diversity and equality is not just about numbers. Just including an equal number of characters from each race is not enough to make a blanket statement about diversity and equality.

Diversity and equality is not just about numbers. Just including an equal number of characters from each race is not enough to make a blanket statement about diversity and equality. As you mentioned, if a movie has a lot of different racial groups represented but one group is mainly represented as the heroes and the other racial groups are presented as villains or in other highly stereotyped manners, then the representation is not equal.

RACEBENDING.COM: One of the critiques of the website or the movement itself is that our protest may be alienating to people who are white. Obviously, the views held by the producers of the movie are not held by everyone who are white, but it is still challenging to approach the subject. The last thing we want is for this to become an “us” versus “them” argument. Especially since we did a survey and actually, over sixty percent of our supporters identified as white or Caucasian!

In your study you found that people can become very uncomfortable with these kinds of dialogue, especially with young children. Do you have any thoughts or advice on how to engage people of all colors in these conversations so no one feels awkward or alienated?

PROFESSOR VITTRUP: Race is a very “charged” dialogue subject. Many people – especially white people – are very uncomfortable discussing race and race related topics. I think part of the reason is that this country has a very powerful history of white subordination of Blacks and other minorities, as well as the history of racism and discrimination.

Many whites are afraid that if they mention race, it will be interpreted in the wrong context, and they don’t want to appear biased. Many simply don’t know what to say. I think that among white people there is discomfort and confusion about what is “okay” to say and what is “not okay.”

As for the criticism of the website or movement in terms of alienating white people, I think the people who are most likely to feel alienated or offended are those with white supremacy tendencies. To them, battles for equality and representation by minorities are often interpreted as anti-white sentiments. And as you mentioned, many of your supporters are, in fact, white. Many people, regardless of racial or ethnic background, support equality and fair representation and wish to fight against discrimination and misrepresentation.

But as I mentioned previously, there is a risk involved in these controversies surrounding race. By focusing too much on the “whitewashing” argument, it can in fact backfire and create an “us” versus “them” mentality among some people. The key is to keep the conversation relevant across racial boundaries. I don’t have the magic answer as to how to do this, but it may help to broaden the conversation to include such topics as fair representation for all – including representative portrayals of all racial groups, socioeconomic levels, family status, body type, gender, and more.

There is a risk involved in these controversies surrounding race. By focusing too much on the “whitewashing” argument, it can in fact backfire and create an “us” versus “them” mentality among some people. The key is to keep the conversation relevant across racial boundaries.

As mentioned previously, television and movies present very stereotyped portrayals, and more often than not, racial minorities, low-SES groups, single parents and blended families, overweight people, and women are portrayed negatively, and these portrayals then sustain the existing stereotypes.

The key argument, in my opinion, is that Hollywood has a choice – as do TV producers, video game creators, and the like. They can choose to reinforce existing stereotypes–which is often easier, because it decreases the need for more thorough character development–or they can choose to be more representative of this melting pot that makes up the United States. They can do so both in terms of content, character development, and casting decisions. Some are already doing this, and children’s television has become more diverse during past decades, but we still have a long way to go.

Ultimately, I don’t think the box office for this particular movie will be affected too much by the protest–because they rarely are–, but… I do think the protest has merit, because it creates awareness, and it also sends the message to movie producers that there is in fact an audience for truly representative casting of appropriate ethnicities. Hopefully, this can lead to a greater awareness of the need for representative diversity in the media.

Racebending.com would like to thank Professor Birgitte Vittrup for this interview.

Categories: Interviews

About the Author

Marissa Lee is one of the co-founders of Racebending.com

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