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Rebecca Bigler, Developmental Psychologist

September 25, 2009

Rebecca BiglerProfessor Rebecca Bigler is the Director of the Gender and Racial Attitudes Lab, at the University of Texas at Austin. Professor Bigler has written several famous studies on how young children view race, and how attitudes and beliefs towards race and gender may be formed. Her research was recently featured in the Newsweek magazine cover story, “Even Babies Discriminate.”

On September 16th, 2009, Racebending co-founder Marissa conducted a phone and email interview with Professor Bigler about her research, the casting of The Last Airbender, children, media, and the formation of racial attitudes, and how society deals with race issues in general.

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: Your study, “Shades of Meaning: Skin Tone, Racial Attitudes, and Constructive Memory in African American Children,” involved reading illustrated stories to children of color featuring characters with lighter and darker shades of skin. Children were then tested ten minutes later how they remembered the story, to see if they would correctly remember what happened, or automatically attribute lighter skinned characters with a positive role in the story, and darker skinned characters with a negative role in the story.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: We did a whole separate study on occupational stereotyping, too–the point of which shows that even in elementary school, kids know that white people have higher status jobs than black people do. This “Shades of Meaning” study was showing that even kids—African American kids—start to develop stereotypes of their own racial group, and some of those relate to skin color. Being light skinned goes with better things…

RACEBENDING.COM: To me it was interesting because it was about characters in storytelling, and film is a form of storytelling.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: That study shows that children hold stereotypes, and distort stories and movies to make them fit their views.

Children hold stereotypes, and distort stories and movies to make them fit their views.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Where do those views come from?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: I’ve been working on it—over the last ten years— to figure out where kids’ racial attitudes come from. One place, it looks like, is the media.

But the big story goes—and I did send you the long paper with the big theoretical model…

From the beginning, what we think happens is children look at people, and they vary in countless ways—height, weight, attractiveness, blue & brown eyes, right and left handed, earlobes attached or not attached. Children can see all of those things, and they can see race. They are not colorblind. They can see black and white people, boys and girls, tall and short, unattractive and attractive, all of that.

And children decide which of those things are important and “How should I view people.” We argue they don’t have any innate way of doing it. To see which [aspects] are important, they look to the social world. And how race gets to be important to them, from the social world, is that they see segregation.

In most of the kids’ worlds, they see that white people hang out with white people, black people with black people, Latino people with Latino people, Asian people with Asian people… so even in integrated schools—see the book Why are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria–we know people clump together.

Children see that. And if no one explains segregation to young children, then they think people hang out like that because they are different kinds of people. [Kids conclude:] “Black and whites would hang out if they were the same, but they don’t, so they must be different.” That’s what makes them think racial groupings are important.

Then they start to figure out….”If white people are different from black people, if Asian people different from Latino people, then I have to figure out how they are different.” Nobody sits kids down anymore and does this explicitly anymore—sit kids down to explain the differences. Well, except for maybe Neo-nazis. But the rest of us don’t talk to our kids about race–white people especially; most try to pretend that they just don’t see it. So kids are really left to trying to figure out themselves what it means to be black, white, Asian, Latino…

So they construct ideas based on what they see in the media, the model. And it’s implicit, not explicit. And it doesn’t take a while to look around and see that in the media, white people do better stuff than black people and mostly the representations of Asians are so few and far between.

If you’re interested in Asian stereotypes and prejudice there is not much support in developmental psychology on the topic. Most of what we know is from stereotyping of African Americans, and some studies on Latinos.

When you look around it’s pretty clear. I’ve been studying the Presidency, and pretty much all kids know that all of the past presidents have been white. (NOTE: Bigler’s study was conducted in 2006, before Obama’s election drew extra attention about this fact to schoolchildren.)

By the time kids are six, the majority of six year olds know all the presidents have been white and men.

This means that Asian kids still know that there are no Asian American US Presidents, and there never have been. Girls—there have been no female presidents, and there never have been. And kids are not dumb. They know that being President is about having power, and being smart, and having good leadership skills.

When we did our study, we asked kids why there aren’t any black or girl presidents and one-third of the kids said “They’re not smart enough to be. They’re not strong enough to be. They have bad leadership skills. They must be bad at it.” That makes sense to them, because no one has explained otherwise to them, and they are trying to figure it out. I remember interviewing a girl who said girls can’t be president because they’re not as smart as boys. To hear that coming from a girl, that just breaks your heart.

When we did our study, we asked kids why there aren’t any black or girl presidents and one-third of the kids said ‘They’re not smart enough to be. They’re not strong enough to be. They have bad leadership skills. They must be bad at it!’

“That makes sense to them, because no one has explained otherwise to them, and they are trying to figure it out.”

RACEBENDING.COM: How does seeing people of their ethnicity frequently portrayed in negative or stereotypic roles in media, popular culture, and society affect children?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: If you watch TV it doesn’t take long to see that white people are associated with power, money, influence, leadership and African American characters are associated with crime, sometimes athleticism…

Kids get the message from the worlds they see. “Different people, hanging out from different places, different racial attributes.” They are already “stereotypers” by the time they are four.

Parents of color do things a little differently than white parents. Most white parents don’t think about race, or talk about it—they act colorblind. Parents of color are more likely to talk about race than white parents as they don’t have the luxury of ignoring it.

RACEBENDING.COM: Throughout the protest we’ve been told by our detractors that “children do not see race.” Do children see ‘race,’ and if so, to what extent?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Children notice racial differences by about six months of age. Of course, they are unlikely to understand racial groups in the same way that adults do. Nonetheless, they are not colorblind and notice the difference between African American and European Americans.

Children notice racial differences by about six months of age. Of course, they are unlikely to understand racial groups in the same way that adults do. Nonetheless, they are not colorblind and notice the difference between African American and European Americans.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Is the ability to “see” race innate, or learned?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: It’s innate in the sense that they innately can see color. You pretty much have to have your eyes not function to not see dark skin, light skin.

RACEBENDING.COM: But what about other ethnicities? Could they be able to tell the difference between say, a European American and an Asian American, when both have relatively “pale” skin? The reason why I ask is because one of the arguments we’ve faced is that since one of the main characters in the franchise [Aang] is pale-skinned and does not have slanty eyes, he “must be white”—despite all evidence, including his language, dress, and culture—indicating otherwise.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: I don’t know of a study about children being able to differentiate between Asian and White. If you held skin color constant, and can the kid tell the difference? I don’t know if anybody’s done that study. You’d be comparing things about physiogamy–eye shape, and hair…We do know kids notice hair a lot and that’s how they differentiate genders. Long hair: that’s a girl. Short hair: that’s a boy.

We do know young children focus a lot on what they can see. For example, in [our research lab] in Texas, young people can’t tell who is Latino. When they are looking at you they can’t see your culture. If you’re blonde and light skinned and speak English they can’t tell you’re Latino, even if you are. Even if you’re a Mexican American but don’t “look it,” they treat you by how you look.

Kids have excellent color receptors in their eyes. But all that’s to say, if I showed you a white person, and suddenly replaced it of a different race, all of what we know to date shows that even a baby would notice that. If you took an Asian cast and replaced it will all white people, kids old enough to go to a movie would notice. They would not be fooled and say, oh those are the same kinds of people.

One question would be—in the original cartoons, what would kids know [about the ethnicities of the characters]? Would they pay attention to the language, cultural traditions, when they deciding what the people were? I know of no research that addresses that.

RACEBENDING.COM: So the changes may be more obvious to them with the heroic characters who clearly had darker skin on the show [like Sokka and Katara], who are now the palest characters in the movie cast.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: There’s one of the messages that is now missing—associating dark skin tone with good things. Which is just too bad–badly affecting Asian and other children of color, but also affecting white children. All children need to see models of that message.

It’s [also] a terrible shame for white kids, that they don’t get to see Asian characters be strong, powerful, and heroes. And what white kids are missing is learning to associate other groups with these wonderful traits, as well.”

White parents ought to say: “I won’t take my kid to this movie because my kids see plenty of white heroes.” It’s a terrible shame for white kids, that they don’t get to see Asian characters be strong, powerful, and heroes. And what white kids are missing is learning to associate other groups with these wonderful traits as well. And here [with The Last Airbender] you have this great chance to present Asian groups as heroes for white kids to see–and white kids are being robbed of that chance.

RACEBENDING.COM: Pretty much all children, no matter what their race or ethnicity, are being robbed of that chance.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Yes! That’s one of the frustrations where a lot of white parents may say: “This is a minority issue” or “What does it matter to me if the character is no longer Asian,” and the problem is, their kids may grow up to be more racist, if they don’t get more depictions [of characters of color.]

RACEBENDING.COM: We’ve actually received a lot of comments from parents who are white and readers who are white, and they’re angry. They feel the studios assumed white people are too racist to accept a film that wasn’t cast like this. They feel condescended to.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Low status groups pay attention to high status groups because they have to, to some degree. And what you find is the high status group refuses to pay attention to the low status group.

In the case of gender, what is really well known is girls will watch shows with boy characters, but boys will not watch shows with girl characters. Girls grow up and girls really can’t show an in-group bias—one where “I only like girls and only will pay attention to girls, etc.” You really can’t be like that because boys run so many things. You can’t escape the influence of boys.

And, boys can and do say, “I hate girls; I don’t want to pay any attention to them, that show’s for girls.” So we know there are many, many, many books and shows with boy characters than girl characters, and when you make a girl character no one watches it but girls.

RACEBENDING.COM: Actually, this was a controversy within Avatar: The Last Airbender, too. The creators had to push the higher-uppers to add female characters. The thought was that too many strong female characters would turn boy viewers away, and that girls wouldn’t want to watch Avatar since it was martial-arts fantasy and therefore a boy’s show. The creators really advocated that the girl characters should have equal standing and prominence on the show. Because of that, a lot of girls became fans of the series.

But when toys were made for the animated series, none of the girl characters were made into action figures. Even background male characters were made into action figures, so those assumptions were still there.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Girls will read all about Harry Potter, and go to the movies. But if the whole series was about Hermione Granger, the boys would not [be as interested.] To some degree the exact same thing is true of race. If you have shows with only black casts, about black families, largely, white viewers won’t care, don’t go, don’t buy it.

RACEBENDING.COM: There is also a fear that audiences respond differently to movies when they have mono-ethnic casts of people of color. For example, when a film has an all-African American cast, a theatergoer might assume that the film is only targeting a limited African American audience. The casting of white actors is supposed to have “universal appeal.” What are your thoughts on how the concept of white as “universal” in Hollywood has come about?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Largely it comes to marketing numbers, and [Hollywood] pays attention, and they figure out who watches out and buys what. And in the case of minorities like Asian and African Americans they’re too small a number of the population, so it’s a financial thing. There are many more white people as potential audience members.

RACEBENDING.COM: But people of color will still go to movies that feature predominantly white casts, like Fast and the Furious attracting a predominantly Latino market. Why doesn’t it happen the other way around?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Women will go watch films with men in it, but men will not go to chick flicks. Women are lower power, lower status, and men do not need to pay attention to us, so they don’t. They have an in-group bias.

And research clearly shows that children do have an in-group bias. What I’m famous for is the experiment where we put some kids in red shirts others in blue shirts. It doesn’t take a lot, but after a few environmental messages, then the blue shirts think they’re better than red shirts, and red shirts think they are better than blue shirts—even though they’re exactly the same shirt otherwise.

Human beings can have a bias: ‘Whatever group I’m in is better than yours…'”

Human beings can have a bias: “Whatever group I’m in is better than yours.” But then, groups aren’t equal, so what happens is…

Girls start out kind of thinking “we are better” but it is really clear, pretty fast, that they are not. There are no female presidents, for example, so they start to think they are not as smart as boys.

And African American, Latino, Asian…those kids say, well it would be nice to think we are better than them but there are no Asian presidents. And big bankers, high powered people, people on TV, even teachers at my school–they all look white. We must not be better than them. So that low status group pays attention. They cannot have an in-group bias and they must pay attention, and “If the world is full of powerful white people I have to go to their movies and listen to what they say.”

If you went to school and ignored white people—you wouldn’t know about history, literature –stories largely about white men. They learn to pay attention, because they have to, while white kids learn there is really no need for me to pay attention to Asian people, stories, culture, or characters.

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 BIGLER: I don’t know about race differences in children’s “interpretation” of media but children show preferences for their own race by the preschool years. White children are especially likely to prefer white children over other-race children. They are likely, therefore, to prefer media that feature children of their own race.

RACEBENDING.COM: Do children have the observational skills to notice situations like the fact that a character who was once Inupait on the show, like Sokka, is now white in the movie?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Yes–even young children would notice a change in an individual’s racial group membership, just as easily as they would notice a change in gender.

Even young children would notice a change in an individual’s racial group membership,just as easily as they would notice a change in gender.”

RACEBENDING.COM: But could a kid perceive how the filmmakers of The Last Airbender discriminated against people of color?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: No. And that’s why the question about parents talking [is so important.]

I think parents need to be very open about expressing their views: what they liked, didn’t liked, why they went to the movie or not. It may be taking a child to the movie and then sitting down and saying, “What did the people look like in the movie? They looked a lot like us, didn’t they?”—if they’re white—and “Jeez that’s kind of too bad, since really the story was about people who looked like X and let’s look go on the internet and learn what they are like. Why do you think they changed them to look like us?” Even a six year old can have that conversation.

RACEBENDING.COM: Many of our supporters are parents who have children who are fans of the Avatar: The Last Airbender franchise. Some of their kids have been asking why Aang is no longer Asian, like them. Other kids don’t understand why their parents will not be taking them to see this movie.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: For Asian children, it is really perfectly appropriate for an Asian parent to not take the child to see the movie and explain, “I am really disappointed, and my feelings are hurt. It is unfair. We know they were Asian, but the movie made them white.” Explain that some white people are prejudiced against Asians.

RACEBENDING.COM: How should parents addressing the casting controversy with their children?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Parents should be very clear and honest, brought down to language a six year old can understand. You may not want to use the word “discrimination,” but you can use the world “unfair.” Even by three children understand fair and unfair.

You can also talk about how your feelings are hurt. “The [casting of The Last Airbender] made me feel bad, like our culture isn’t as valuable. It feels like other people don’t want to appreciate the customs and histories of people related to us in history.”

I think that parents — white and Asian — should explain to children that people are sometimes treated unfairly on the basis of their racial or ethnic group membership. That is, they should introduce the idea of racial discrimination.

Research suggests that parents shouldn’t over-emphasize the frequency of racial discrimination but a parent could say…”I was very disappointed that the people who made this movie took characters who were Asian and made them White. I don’t think that was right. We see lots of movies about White people and they are often great movies. But I think that we should find a good movie about Asians instead of this movie.”

RACEBENDING.COM: So if kids can notice it, then what might the impact on them be? Is it something they might just accept? What potential impact does the “whitewashing” of the heroes of The Last Airbender have on children in the audience?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: We need more research on the consequences of kids figuring out that there’s discrimination in the world. There’s not much research. We are starting to study children’s perceptions of discrimination in our lab, and what the research is suggesting is that children tend not to perceive discrimination. It really has to be pretty blatant for them to perceive, compared to adults. And it may not be especially troubling to them. It’s hard to know.

A kid who loves the animated series, might be really quite disappointed. A child who wasn’t really involved or didn’t love it might be like, “oh, who cares.” Certainly your average white kid won’t care, though they should. The white parents could step up and say: “It should make all of us sort of sad that they did this.”

It’s hard to predict, how troubling it would be to an Asian American child. But we have found that when it comes to talking about discrimination, research suggests that it doesn’t devastate children. They seem able to think about it, to cope and to say, that’s too bad. And then it might give them a little buffer to maintain self esteem and say, “It’s not really that we’re bad or something is wrong with us, that we can’t be leads in movies–but that some white people are prejudiced and would not go to the movie and it wouldn’t make as much money, and that’s why they did it.”

Your young children—it will—they’ll be a little mystified. Young children won’t know as much about movie production, box office gross…that would all have to be explained to a child.

We have found that when it comes to talking about discrimination, research suggests that it doesn’t devastate children…

“It might give [Asian American kids] a little buffer to maintain self esteem and say, ‘It’s not really that we’re bad or something is wrong with us, that we can’t be leads in movies–but that some white people are prejudiced and would not go to the movie and it wouldn’t make as much money, and that’s why they did it.'”

RACEBENDING.COM: What messages, intentional or unintentional, does this casting send to children?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Children readily identify the correlates of race. For example, elementary school-age children (both African American and European American) associate White people with higher status occupations than Black people. Media that depict whites as heroes and people of color as victims contribute to the development of biased views of the attributes of racial groups.

I don’t know of a single study—but it would be a great study to do. Sit kids down and say, “Here’s the TV show, but when they made the movie they made the characters white. Why do you think they did that”

Media that depict whites as heroes and people of color as victims contribute to the development of biased views of the attributes of racial groups.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Wow, now I wish I had a classroom of kids to ask, to see what their responses were.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Like when we asked kids why the presidents are all white men, and we were—frankly–shocked by some of their responses. In 2006, 1 out of 4 kids we interviewed said: “It’s because it’s against the law in America for a black person to be president!” That’s what made our mouth drops open.

Same with a female president. One in four children, in a different group we interviewed, said it was against the law. We had no anticipation that they would say that sort of thing.

We are currently in the middle of writing up a huge study with new kids about their views of the 2008 election.

RACEBENDING.COM: Well, speaking of Obama and how people see him as role model for children…How important is it for kids to have heroes who “look like me”?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: I can’t answer the question—but I think everybody’s got instincts, and almost all developmental psychologists’ gut instincts say that it is important to have role models who look like you and do positive things, which is why people say Obama is so important to African American children as this role model.

But to really answer the question, what you’d have to do is raise a group of kids with no models and see what’s happened to them, and no one has ever done it in a scientific setting, so it’s hard to know. It’s hard to answer “What happens when you have no models?”

There are no kids who have no models at all. For example, Asian kids have Asian parents and grandparents, aunts and uncles and cousins who all do wonderful things. They have models. Though, they have no president of the United States, so you could ask what having no model of someone who has never been a national leader does to children in your group?

It’s not all that clear. What’s interesting is, in our research, we found that African American kids were just as interested as white kids in being president–even at the time, there had never been a black president. Some people thought maybe black kids would not want to be president as much, as they had never seen it, but that wasn’t true at all. Some kids even said” I want to be president because I want to be the first!”

It is important, but, in my view, it is also important that children learn that heroes come from all racial groups. Children of color are exposed to other-race heroes very frequently. White children are rarely exposed to other-race heroes.

It is also important that children learn that heroes come from all racial groups.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Your studies—like the one with the red and blue t-shirts—found that children tend to prefer others from the same “group” as them. Is it harder for children to accept characters and heroes of an ethnicity different from them?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Yes. I think the answer is yes. Especially without support from the environment, and this is where parenting comes in. That, left to their own devices, especially the “superior” group—white kids—really will have a harder time, and we know from tons of psychological data, similarities are really powerful things. Similarity promotes liking. People like other people who are similar to them. And that’s just been found a bazillion times.

Here’s a little white kid looking at an Asian kid, how are they supposed to like them? There is not a lot of data on how you could get them to like them but one hypothesis—mine—is that if parents say, “You need to like people who look different, and talk different, and walk different from you; because they are interesting and wonderful and they will enrich your life.”

If you tell kids to stick to people who talk like you, dress like you, look like you because it’s “safe,” then they’ll do that. If you say, and model, and have friends who look all sorts of ways and take them to diverse neighborhoods and give them cultural experiences that are different, then you say to a kid that difference isn’t scary. Difference isn’t wrong, or bad, or be avoided. Difference is wonderful and interesting and enriching. But I think the parents have got to say that to their kids–because our culture doesn’t.

RACEBENDING.COM: We’ve pointed out that kids didn’t dislike Russell–the Asian kid in Up–or Aang or Sokka in Avatar, just because they were not the same ethnicity as them. They were still big fans of these characters, because the characters were brave and inquisitive and funny, just like them.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: There are a lot of dimensions of similarity. But I do worry about parents who say, “Well, you can like this black child because he’s just like you. He’s in first grade, too. And he plays basketball, just like you.” Then the message is “You should like people who are just like you. Ignore that his face isn’t like yours, but he’s fundamentally like you so that’s who you should like.”

Any time you say to a child “You should like him, he’s just like you–regardless of race,” you still reinforce this message: Like people who are just like you.

My favorite anecdote about that is this: If I came home and came back to my kid and said “I met this woman today. We had so much in common and really liked her!” My kid would understand me.

But if I said, “I met this woman today and we had nothing in common. I really liked her!” That doesn’t make sense in English–which shows just how much in our culture we accept the premise that “You like you like people who are like you.” It may not be race, but you better like the same things, eat the same things…

I’m wildly optimistic, and I don’t think a lot of people think like me in the field, but I believe you can raise a kid to say: “I met some kids who weren’t like me. They were hardly like me and they were great! I really liked them! I got to try a new food I’d never had before, or participate in a new custom and it was really cool.”

Any time you say to a child ‘You should like him, he’s just like you–regardless of race,’ you still reinforce this message: Like people who are just like you.”

It would be interesting to compare kids who have been abroad a lot, since the kind of parents who do that are people who travel to different countries because they are in heaven trying new things and meeting new people who don’t look, talk, act, speak the same language they do. But most Americans are not like that. Many do not even leave their own country. We hang with people who look, talk, act, dress, just like us.

And it’s too bad because movies have that way—if you can’t travel to Asia, wouldn’t it be cool if you could say—go watch a movie, have a rich experience of this other culture? It would just be so wonderful. Why would you only want to see movies about middle class white people just like you?

RACEBENDING.COM: There are definitely movie studios and television studios adding diversity to their programs. Dora the Explorer, Ni-Hao, Kai-Lan, the first African American Disney princess… Even the original Avatar TV show was very diverse, before the characters were changed for this movie. Will these new popular programs impact how children view race and culture?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Probably if they’ll see them. The best evidence comes form things like Sesame Street. This isn’t a new idea; it’s been around since the sixties that media directed at children should promote diversity. Sesame Street has been involved in that for forty years and its decent evidence that it works; that children who watch Sesame Street are more accepting.

The effects aren’t like wildly powerful—not what you’d want. It’s not true that if you watch a few shows, suddenly you’re not prejudiced. It helps, and what really helps is if you also have parents who sit down and reinforce that—parents who show appreciation for diversity.

So you can’t just show kids the show. As a parent you need to say, “This was a great show because I loved learning about this culture. And I loved that character.” And to say, “Gee, I wish I had a friend just like that.” Reinforce pretty explicitly that the diversity was one of the things you liked about the show.

It’s not true that if you watch a few shows, suddenly you’re not prejudiced. It helps, and what really helps is if you also have parents who sit down and reinforce that—parents who show appreciation for diversity.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Do you think there’s a difference when shows draw attention to a character’s ethnicity–“Dora is Latina!” compared to shows or movies where the ethnicity of the character is never explicitly mentioned?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: I wonder if we did a study about Up and you went and asked white kids if [Russell] was white or Asian, what would happen. My research seems to show shows that kids will change characters to be white whenever possible.

It’s just like the memory studies [referenced earlier in the interview.] We had a study about a white character and a black character where the white character did something bad, and a black character did something good, and we asked the kids to recall who did the bad thing—they’ll always remember when the black person did something bad, but the memory rates really go down when it’s a white person. And kids will even switch it so that they remember that a black person did the bad thing, even if he didn’t.

Study after study shows that kids distort counter-stereotypic information. If the model in the movie is against what they think, they really are active in changing it and distorting it. So if you don’t make a big deal, then there is a chance the white kids will just turn the character into a white kid, and forget the parts that make the character Asian. The more you make it harder to forget that, the better.

RACEBENDING.COM: It’s not just white kids. A lot of adults have also said that since Avatar is set in a fantasy world, there is no way the characters can be Asian, so they automatically default to white.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: I have seen some of this, too. I think some people might think “Those people just look white.” Like in joint collaborations between Japan and the United States, such as Power Rangers, where if characters look “white enough” or you can’t see their faces, then white kids may assume “These characters are white!”

One possibility –while I don’t know anything about Avatar—is that one possibility is that white kids think they’re watching white characters in Avatar. They don’t think it’s Asian at all, that it’s a fantasy land and those people are just white people in some magical, made-up place.

RACEBENDING.COM: Since the show never explicitly says, “Oh, this character is inspired from the cultures of Tibet!” we can’t prove the characters are Asian to some viewers, even if we have tons of visual evidence. Why is it so hard to convince stubborn folks that characters should not have to be “White until proven Asian?”

PROFESSOR BIGLER: If white people have an in-group preference and want to see whiteness, then they do. Until you make it so blatant that they just can’t hold onto the belief that they’re white anymore.

A lot of that might go over kid’s heads. Kids may not be able to identify Asian architecture, Asian clothing nearly as well as adults can. That may just be going completely over their head. A white kid might be looking at [Aang] and saying “That kid looks like me, and is like me. I’m white, so he must be white, too.”

If white people have an in-group preference and want to see whiteness, then they do. Until you make it so blatant that they just can’t hold onto the belief that [the characters are] white anymore.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Quite frequently, the “colorblind” or “the race of the actor doesn’t matter to me, why does it matter to you?” argument pops up in defense of the casting. Any insights as to why people in support of the movie might use this argument to put people who are critical of the cast on the defensive?

PROFESSOR BIGLER: What research shows is that many white people have really adopted a colorblind mentality. “I’m not racist. I don’t even see race; no one should! It’s racist to do that!”

And where it comes from is partly this misunderstanding of Martin Luther King Jr.’s message about judging people “by the content of their character.” A colorblind person may argue, “I’m paying attention to your character. I’m not even seeing your race. Isn’t that what I’m supposed to do?”

I think it comes out of white people’s luxury of not needing to see race—if you are benefitting from the inequality there is no motivation for you to pay attention to race. The problem with colorblind is that—while colorblind is a great strategy in a world that is fair and equal and without racial discrimination—this world still has problems with racial inequality and racial prejudice. So if you’re colorblind, then what you are really doing is systematically ignoring and putting your head in the sand about racial inequalities, by saying: “I can’t see them, because I can’t see race.”

If you’re colorblind, then what you are really doing is systematically ignoring and putting your head in the sand about racial inequalities, by saying: ‘I can’t see them, because I can’t see race.'”

RACEBENDING.COM: I know my argument, and the argument of many other people of color, is to say that “You can ignore my ethnicity and say it doesn’t matter to you. It matters to me and is a part of my identity and you should see that if you want to see all aspects of me.”

PROFESSOR BIGLER: Rather that just say you are insulted and angry and emphasize the impact on you, it may be more persuasive to also say, “It’s too bad that white kids may group up to be prejudiced; to have only white friends, live in all-white communities, and only read books about white people. Their lives are impoverished by it, and they don’t benefit from the incredibly complex world out there, because they are ignoring so much of it, and that just hurts them.”

Think of all of the literature you’ won’t read is all you read is white middle class people like you, the art you’ll never look at, the countries you’ll never visit. Kids who grow up saying “I care about diversity and seeking out people who are different; I want the world to be more fair to everyone,” have richer, wonderful, more complex lives.

RACEBENDING.COM: We were talking about the difficulty of discussing racism on our online community, and one of the posters pointed out that in American society, being racist is conflated with being “a bad person” or “evil.”

PROFESSOR BIGLER: That’s a very insightful observation. Many white people are nervous about being associated with [racism], and that’s where “If I’m colorblind then I cannot be accused of being racist” might come from.

RACEBENDING.COM: People don’t want to think of themselves as a “bad,” so they’d rather pretend that nothing is wrong and not talk about the problem at all. We talked about how; perhaps the condemnation of racism is so harsh that fear of being condemned might actually impede constructive discussion about racism.

PROFESSOR BIGLER: White people get very nervous about being seen as racist. I think it is because it is equated with morality. It’s not saying like “I’m bad at math.” Being bad at math it doesn’t make you immoral, or unethical. But if you say “I’m bad at race relations,” then you’re seen as immoral, unethical— instead of someone who may need to learn more about it.

And the other part of it that is debated is, I think most white people don’t want to be racist. It really does go against their morals and it’s very hard for them to take. And white children may be more ignorant [about racism], since again white parents don’t talk about it, and they may hang out only with other white kids. They may just end up so ignorant about racism, and what it is, and where it operates–and where there are racial inequalities in the world. Being ignorant as a function of their upraising, makes it difficult to discuss race…

White people get very nervous about being seen as racist. I think it is because it is equated with morality.

“It’s not saying like ‘I’m bad at math.’ Being bad at math it doesn’t make you immoral, or unethical. But if you say ‘I’m bad at race relations,’ then you’re seen as immoral, unethical— instead of someone who may need to learn more about it.”

RACEBENDING.COM: And no one would want to admit the possibility that they could be racist without trying, or racist without knowing it…

PROFESSOR BIGLER: We are doing a study with white mothers and white kids who come into the lab. The kids fill out a questionnaire, and then the mothers guess their kids attitudes about race. And the mothers are totally wrong! The kids are racist, and the mother doesn’t know it.

Add the mothers are shocked and horrified. They’ll tell us, “I‘m so embarrassed and I don’t know why this happens, I don’t know what to do or say…how do I fix this?” And you just see how much experience they lack, what they don’t know…they haven’t had to think very carefully about any of this stuff.

And so we say to them things like, “Well, you live in a white neighborhood and your children go to a mostly white school. Also, the people who come over to visit your home are almost always white. We think that your kid might be assuming that this is because you don’t like black people. Maybe that’s what’s happening.”

We all need to try to be more understanding. And it will benefit us to have a more complex understanding of each other and of race and ethnicity in the world. If you don’t like something, you’ve got to complain and take action, so I totally support your efforts.

RACEBENDING.COM: Thank you!

Racebending.com would like to thank Prof. Bigler for this interview!

Categories: Interviews

About the Author

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

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