By Jann Murray-Garcia
Special to the Enterprise
“But Mom, Mr. PoPo is like the smartest one on that show.” The character is from one of his favorite cartoons, the Japanese-style anime show, “Dragon Ball Z Kai.” My 11-year-old son was trying to convince me that I should not be offended.
But I am offended. The character has jet black skin, huge red lips and the whites of his eyes are oversized. That’s from a time before, “when your grandfather’s life was in danger because he tried to make things more equal for African-Americans.” I sighed.
As much as it was my duty to build Gabriel up in all dimensions of his identity, I also have the ugly role of breaking his heart with the brutal truth of America’s racial history … so he knows it when he sees it, and is not ignorant of its reappearance today.
“They’re making fun of you and your ancestors, Gabriel, and even if it doesn’t hurt you, it is deeply hurtful to me.”
I took Gabriel to an excellent Internet site, sponsored by Sociology Professor David Pilgrim of Ferris State University (Michigan): “New Racist Forms/Jim Crow in the 21st Century.” Gabriel saw postcards, coin banks, pancake boxes, cartoons, movies, matchboxes, you name it … all are still being bought, sold and even newly created for sale today.
“Wow. Thanks for the heads-up, Mom,” he said, soberly concluding our discussion.
For your children, whatever race or ethnicity, I hope you are as vigilant as we are about the stereotypes that fill their world. You can’t avoid them, but you must discuss them when you see them, if you are against those images and the denigrating values they illustrate being passively absorbed by another generation.
We are, each of us, each people group, not for one another’s use for unimaginable profit (think: Washington Redskins or Cleveland Indians), or for comic relief, even on the way to conveying a more laudable message.
This latter purpose of hurtful stereotypes unfortunately makes me think of a few “VeggieTales” videos. “VeggieTales” is a popular comedy video series with catchy, creative tunes that communicate single Bible stories to preschool and school-age children. We own several.
There is a “VeggieTales” character, Mr. Lunt, who has a Frito Bandito Spanish accent, a gold front tooth and a white fedora that keeps us from seeing his eyes. He is frequently the “bad guy,” as in episodes “Esther: The Girl Who Became Queen,“ when Mr. Lunt played Haman, and “The Toy That Saved Christmas.” What a disappointment, this use of “The (visual and auditory) Other” to contrast good and bad for young children.
My litmus test for my family is to ask, “How would my parents-in-law of Mexican descent, both with accents, or our beloved adopted Chinese/Portuguese grandmother, or our South Asian neighborhood family members feel if they watched this with us?” How would we feel? Awkward? Apologetic? Would we feel compelled to point out how small this or that part is of the whole book or movie or show?
These are such great, often intriguing conversations to have with our teenagers as well. For those who attend Davis High School, ask them what they know or think about the DHS campaign, “Pursuing Victory With Honor.” DHS Principal Jacqui Moore is launching this “new thing” to make certain that at school sports events, the fan behavior reflects respect and good sportsmanship. There are graded consequences that you and your child should know about.
Is this simply an exercise to squeeze your child into a box of political correctness? Is this born from disdain for the intense spirit of Blue Devil sports, including among its spectators? I don’t think so.
Last winter, as the Grant High School girls basketball team boarded the bus here in Davis to return to Del Paso Heights, several players were called n_g_ers. A white Grant High school player was taunted, “What are you doing with those n_g_ers?” No perpetrators were ever identified.
At a 2011 boys soccer game, at least one DHS student fan dressed as a hot dog, with a sign that suggested opposing team members liked to eat wieners, an ignorant reference to the rivals’ sexual orientation.
Are these subtle signs that we are sliding or creeping backward to a time we don’t have to repeat in our community? A series of hate incidents and hate crimes committed by Davis youths from 2002 through 2006 first came to public light with the January 2003 taunting of an African-American basketball player from Fairfield High School.
“Cornrows! GPA! Who’s your baby’s momma? We go to college; you go to jail!” Those were jeers heard from DHS students. (Watch with your teenagers on YouTube the award-winning documentary created by Davis young people about us, this time in our community, and the subsequent, transformational youth leadership, titled, “From The Community To The Classroom.”)
During those intense, extremely painful and frighteningly tenuous times, several Davis folks told me that over the years, it was not unusual to hear at DHS football games against Woodland, “That’s all right! That’s OK! You’re going to work for us one day!”
We are, each of us, each people group, not for one another’s use for profit, for comic relief or for even the most intense show of team loyalty in the form of sexist, racist, classist, homophobic trash-talking. No people group should be used as a substitute for negative words: “That’s so gay! That’s retarded!”
My hat goes off to Moore, and to people like Emerson teachers Jennifer Terra and Alison Kimmel, who conduct the monthly diversity training days, led by Emerson and Da Vinci student peer helpers. Emerson Junior High School is unique in its peer helping and other two leadership classes. The peer helpers are trained and dispatched to saturate the campus with anti-bullying messages.
This is not censorship, but it’s the intentional nurturing of a community ethic, a collective expectation about who we want to be. Young people will censor each other’s socially degenerate behavior if adults don’t accept as normative the hurtful use of people groups, the continued entrenchment of hurtful stereotypes. These must be actively confronted if they are to disappear from our collective consciousness.
Try a conversation this holiday season with your kids. From your courage and perhaps awkwardness, you might just hear your kid say, “Thanks for the heads-up.”
— Jann Murray-García, M.D., M.P.H., is a Davis parent and pediatrician. She shares this monthly column with Jonathan London. Reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org