Racebending.com

Media Consumers for Entertainment Equality

Categories

Michael D. Baran, Cultural Anthropologist

September 22, 2009

Prof. BaranMichael D. Baran, Ph.D. is an expert on anthropological and psychological theories of how children learn about race. Dr. Baran is a Harvard professor and also the director and founder of Cambridge Diversity Consulting, which provides diversity training to businesses, schools, and government organizations. Professor Baran was recently interviewed by the CBS Evening News and the New York Times about Disney’s first African American Princess, Tiana, in The Princess and the Frog.

Racebending.com collected questions from readers and submitted them to Professor Baran via e-mail. The following are his responses to your questions!

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: 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 BARAN: From the research I am familiar with, it seems clear that children are starting to make sense of race from a very young age. They do not necessarily think about race in exactly the same ways as adults do, but they are paying close attention to social categories, they may be starting to essentialize those categories, and they may be using those categories in their daily lives in ways that would surprise most adults.

Contrary to popular belief, however, children do not learn about racial categories primarily by visual information. As children look out at the diversity of people in the world, they mostly see physical differences as spectrums of difference. Racial categories do not come neatly packaged for children to notice. Instead, they probably learn about racial categories by hearing them named in language. Only later do they figure out who fits into what category (check out Lawrence Hirschfeld’s Race in the Making for more on how kids learn about race).

RACEBENDING.COM: Is prejudice innate or learned?

PROFESSOR BARAN:The cognitive disposition to pay attention to these culturally important categories at a young age may in fact be innate, but that is not to say that prejudice is innate. Even if children are cognitively predisposed to pick out important categories, they only attach negative value to some of those categories because of the explicit and implicit messages from our society. In that way, we should all maintain hope that racial prejudice is not inevitable.

Even if children are cognitively predisposed to pick out important categories, they only attach negative value to some of those categories because of the explicit and implicit messages from our society. In that way, we should all maintain hope that racial prejudice is not inevitable.”

RACEBENDING.COM: Is it different if the child is white or a person of color, or of mixed ethnicity?

PROFESSOR BARAN:If I were to generalize, I would say that children of minorities in this country probably do learn about race differently than children of whites because their parents probably talk to them more about race – in terms of family identity, history, culture, and inequalities.

Ideally, all parents would be able to talk with their kids about race, and therefore positively influence what their kids learn. Unfortunately, many parents don’t talk to their kids about these issues –because they don’t know what to say or because they want their kids to grow up colorblind or because they don’t think that race is important in today’s world. I think the time is right to change this, and I am working towards doing just that with some educational but fun iPhone apps – look for them in early 2010.

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 BARAN: The media can play a large role in how children learn about race. Since kids are really attuned to thinking about social categories, they may be closely watching for messages in the media and using those messages to construct their own knowledge. In addition, some TV shows and movies really become privileged sites for learning because they are emotional, they hold the child’s attention, and they are watched repeatedly. And unfortunately this is the time when parents are taking a (much needed) break from serious parenting. So the kids are left to decipher these complex messages on their own.

RACEBENDING.COM: Do children have the observational skills to notice situations like the fact that a character who was once Inupait on the show is now white in the movie? Could a kid perceive how the filmmakers of The Last Airbender discriminated against people of color?

PROFESSOR BARAN: This depends on the age of the child, how involved he or she was in the show, and lots of other factors. Some children will certainly have the observational skills to notice this but it’s hard to say what they will make of it. Again, really depends on the child.

I would say that if you have a child who was really into the show and you are worried about what they will think, you should really talk with them about it. Be as open and honest as you can, and this will not only help them make sense of this one issue, but will open up a dialogue for talking about all sorts of sensitive issues when they come up.

RACEBENDING.COM: What potential impact does the “whitewashing” of the heroes of The Last Airbender have on children in the audience? What messages, intentional or unintentional, does this casting send to children?

PROFESSOR BARAN: It’s hard to speculate on the impact of these casting decisions. Certainly it would be worrisome if all the heroes in any film were white and the villains were minorities. For those who were already familiar with the TV series, it may send additional problematic messages about the suitability of minorities as heroes. Because children are trying to figure out these complicated social categories, it is particularly important for producers and casting directors to pay close attention to these decisions and thoroughly think through potential impacts.

[The casting decisions] may send additional problematic messages about the suitability of minorities as heroes. Because children are trying to figure out these complicated social categories, it is particularly important for producers and casting directors to pay close attention to these decisions and thoroughly think through potential impacts.”

RACEBENDING.COM: How does the absence of heroes, fantasy figures, and role models of color impact the children watching? How important is it for kids to have heroes who “look like me”?

PROFESSOR BARAN: It is critical that children see all sorts of people playing both the good and the bad roles in media. Otherwise, they may take those absences as meaningful and it may affect how they understand social categories. And it is certainly important for kids to be able to identify with heroes that they feel represent who they are as people.

For very young kids, this might or might not fall out along racial lines and we must be careful not to impose our reification of race onto their knowledge. But we might as well err on the good side, by having a diversity of heroes for people to relate to – not just racially, but also in terms of gender, religion, body type, etc.

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. How should parents explain the casting controversy to their children?

PROFESSOR BARAN: I advocate being as open and honest as possible with children. I think these parents should explain to their kids that they are angered by the fact that Aang has been cast with someone who is not Asian. And they should really try to explain to their children why they are so angry about it. Then they can explain that not seeing the movie is a form of protest, and that if enough people boycott the movie, it may send an important message to the producers.

On the other hand, going to see the movie with their children might be a good way to have a really important conversation. It could open up dialogue about this issue, and really foster a critical perspective for their children that would be valuable throughout their lives.

RACEBENDING.COM: You were recently interviewed about Disney’s The Princess and the Frog, which has generated a lot of attention since it is the first Disney movie to feature an African American princess. Nickelodeon produced the animated series Avatar: The Last Airbender and also Dora the Explorer and now, Ni Hao, Kai-Lan. Other movie studios and television studios seem to be adding diversity to their slates to reflect the country’s changing demographics, and these programs have been quite popular. What impact will these new popular programs have on how children view race and culture?

PROFESSOR BARAN: It’s great that studios are adding diversity to their programming, though we must look beyond that obvious diversity to see what kinds of representations are actually being presented.

For example, in The Princess and the Frog, it’s great that the Princess is African-American, but it’s also important to wait and see how Disney represents her history, her culture, her intelligence, her strength as a woman, etc. And we must critically examine how they represent the other characters in the film as well.

If we get a real increase in diversity that is done with responsible representations, this would certainly be one important way to work towards equality in the long-term.

It’s great that studios are adding diversity to their programming, though we must look beyond that obvious diversity to see what kinds of representations are actually being presented…If we get a real increase in diversity that is done with responsible representations, this would certainly be one important way to work towards equality in the long-term.

RACEBENDING.COM: When characters of color are featured in children’s media, sometimes a special emphasis is placed on the character’s ethnicity. For example, young viewers are explicitly told that Dora is Latina or that Kai-Lan is Chinese. In other media, such as Pixar’s Up, the Avatar: The Last Airbender television series, or even The Princess and the Frog, while characters are clearly people of color, their identity as such is not directly commented upon. Is one way better than another?

PROFESSOR BARAN: Great question. I think that there is a place for both styles of integrating diversity. I tend to appreciate the understated ones, but there is no research that I know of suggesting that one is necessarily better than the other.

RACEBENDING.COM: When we spoke with Professor Russell K. Robinson at UCLA, he had a theory about why Paramount decided to whitewash the cast. Beyond the fear that mainstream (white) audiences would not be able to relate to an Asian lead, 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” come about?

PROFESSOR BARAN: I can’t comment on whether this is the real reason behind the casting decisions, but certainly white has been the “norm” or the “universal” for a long time now, and that has got to change. In this country, those who are not white are often exoticized or “othered,” while white remains the acceptable unspoken standard in all sorts of domains. Many people think that we are all equal now as Americans, and under the law that may be true, but the hegemonic power of whiteness is strong and continues to bestow privileges on some but not others.

In this country, those who are not white are often exoticized or “othered,” while white remains the acceptable unspoken standard in all sorts of domains.

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 use this argument to put people who are critical of the cast on the defensive?

PROFESSOR BARAN: It’s hard to generalize about why people may use this argument, though I’ve certainly heard it before. Sometimes when I’ve heard that argument, it seems to be coming from people who want very much to believe that we live in an equal society. And anything that threatens that belief can provoke a strong reaction that does seem to put you on the defensive.

Sometimes these interactions can lead to interesting discussions; other times they can hit a wall and it seems that no progress is made. I guess a good place to start that discussion might be pointing out that the race of the actor seems to matter to the casting directors, and then maybe you could work together from there to figure out why and what are the ramifications.

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

Categories: Interviews

About the Author

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

Related Posts

Comments

There are no comments on this entry.

Trackbacks

There are no trackbacks on this entry.