Lights, cameras, representation! TV, movies, and children's thinking about race.
From the moment they are born, our children are participants in a hugely consequential, ongoing conversation about race and ethnicity of which we, and they, may be only dimly aware. Our news and entertainment media play lead roles in that conversation. According to Common Sense Media, 2-8-year-old children in the US spent an average of nearly three hours every day on screen media alone in 2017.
Watch this conversation about how movies and television shape children's ideas about race and ethnicity, what we can do to encourage the development of more high-quality racial representations in TV and movies, and how we can help the children we love critically engage critically with media.
The transcript follows as well as related resources.
Embrace Race: You all know as teachers, as parents, as folks raising kids, you really have to search often, whether it's books or educational materials, apps, YouTube, videos, and television to find diverse racial representation in children's media. But we know that no matter how much we try to surround our kids with diverse representations that oftentimes, they're sort of drawn in by TV and movies. Or they'll go to a party, and they'll watch something that actually is not very representative. And it has a huge effect on them, as do other forms of media advertisements, and all of that.
According to Common Sense Media, two to eight-year-old children in the US spent an average of nearly three hours every day on screen media alone in 2017. And of course, that's increased with COVID. So, the conversation about the media landscape and what that means for parenting and for activism around kids media is even more important.
Our first guest is Marcy Gunther, who is the Director of Media Development for Children's Media, and Senior Producer at WGBH in Boston. Marcy is a multi-Emmy award-winning producer with over 20 years of experience developing and producing educational children's media. In addition to overseeing GBH's development slate for Children's Media, Marcy was Senior Producer on the first season of the groundbreaking PBS Kids series, Molly of Denali, which was the first nationally distributed children's series in the US to feature an Alaska Native lead character. She's also worked on Zoom, on Sesame Street, on Arthur and more. Really glad to have you here, Marcy. Thanks for coming.
Candace Howze is a North Carolina-based writer, and activist and multimedia
artist. Candace's advocacy work began in 2016 when she authored a Change.org petition regarding police
brutality, which received 40,000 signatures.She is currently co-organizing a petition to address ethnic stereotypes in film and television. She holds a BA in Communication from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and works for a nonprofit to expand college access to marginalized youth. Welcome, Candace!
Also with us, is Hemant Shah. Who has been a professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison since 1990. Hemant teaches and conducts research on race, ethnicity and media; international communication, and a teaching symposium for graduate students. Dr. Shaw has conducted research on the representation of non-White racial and ethnic groups in the news and entertainment media. And frequently collaborates with students and local media organizations to devise strategies to help media do a better job of covering and depicting non-White racial and ethnic groups. Thanks for being here, Hemant.
I'm going to start with you, Candace. How you come to this issue of race and representation in television and screen media in general?
Candace Howze: Yeah. So, I was actually a freshman in college the year that George Zimmerman murdered Trayvon Martin. I was studying Film and Communications. And that incident really sparked my interest in advocacy and social justice work related to media. So, I started the petition with the police body cams a couple of years later. I've been writing just kind of editorials and articles since then, in places like MTV and Huffington Post. And one of my co-organizers contacted me this summer through one of those articles and shared with me the information she had found regarding racism in children's media. And I instantly knew that it was something that was interesting to me and that I wanted to help with. So, we've kind of joined forces with another indie filmmaker, and that was kind of what sparked the petition.
EmbraceRace: And let's just say too that Candace and her colleagues reached out to us, and that was the impetus for this program. So really appreciate you doing that Candace.
Hemant, how did you get into this work?
Hemant Shah: Sure. To be honest, I wasn't always interested in this topic growing up or even in college. What changed things was when my daughter was born in 1989. And I joined Wisconsin in 1990. And I remember two specific kind of incidents. One, I was watching television with my daughter, and for some reason there's was Western on. And she piped and literally said this: "How come the Indians always lose?" And it was a Cowboys and Indians movie.
The other thing that happened was, I had taken her to see the movie Aladdin, the animated version. And I was struck by the opening scene where the narrator refers to this fictional Middle Eastern country as barbaric and backward, and it just kind of struck me that, well, here's my kid taking in these messages. And so, I started reading more about it and thinking more about it. And eventually, by the mid '90s, I was teaching a course in my department on race, ethnicity, and media. And so, I haven't looked back since. I continue to teach those courses and write about them, academic research and working with community groups, as Andrew mentioned. So that's my story.
EmbraceRace: Fantastic. Thank you. Yeah, I love that it started with your daughter's observation.
Marcy, how did you get into this work?
Marcy Gunther: Yeah, I feel very lucky and privileged to have spent most of my career working in public media where really, our mission has always been to really create media that serves the very diverse audience that public media serves. My first job out of college was actually working on Sesame Street. And from there, I went on to work on the very first season of Arthur, which is now in its 24th season, so you can do the math there. And then another new kid show, that at the time was new, called Zoom. Which was actually a reboot of the Zoom from the 1970s. It was really, for kids, by kids. And especially in the 1970s, Zoom was very seminal in that it really showed a representative cast of kids, real kids not actors, with a lot of representation.
So that's how I got my start. And most recently, I had the wonderful experience of working on the first season of Molly of Denali. And like Andrew said, it's the first kid show to feature an Alaska Native character. So again, I feel like I've been kind of doing this work for a while now. And I feel very lucky to have the opportunity and a sense of responsibility to really create media where all kids can see themselves. We've heard that saying, “If you see it, you can be it.” And I know, Candace and Hemant, you'll talk about the importance of kids seeing themselves positively depicted in media. And we've just heard countless stories from kids over the years about how impactful that is.
EmbraceRace: I want to go to you, Hemant, to ask, what the stakes are for kids? How bad is it in terms of racial representation in kids media, and why is racial representation important for kids?
Hemant Shah: Well, I think it matters a lot about how kids are viewing, whether it's animation or not, what they're viewing in terms of representation of race and ethnicity. I think at the most general level, I think it's really important because I think kids can sort of learn and see what's their future going to be in society. Are they going to be part of a healthy multicultural society, or are they going to be part of a more hierarchically organized society in which kids of color are not valued or depicted in problematic ways?
But specifically, there's different things that kids pick up when they see stereotypes of people of color in movies and film, and in other places. They might see depictions of heroes and villains, for example. There's a story I told about my daughter noticing right away that the Native Americans never win, those kinds of things. Or they may believe that stereotypes are actually real. And there is research suggesting that those adults and kids, those who watch TV, for example, heavily and continuously are more likely to believe that what they see on TV is real, is actually reflecting reality. And of course, that has, I think, impacts that we can all think about and that child psychologists have researched.
And I think it also has an impact on White kids who are watching this programming. That they learn how to behave, perhaps towards kids of color. They may not feel they have to intervene when they see acts of racism or acts of bias, things like that. So in a nutshell, I think it's really, really important for us to think through these issues, and pay attention to how producers are also making decisions about how to depict these issues. I'm sure Marcy can talk a lot about that.
EmbraceRace: I want to go to Candace, to see if you have anything to add to that.
Candace Howze: Yeah, definitely. I think that when we're dealing, especially with kids, the stakes are very high. Kids are in front of screens, four and five hours a day. Kind of, as you mentioned earlier, even more since the pandemic. And I think what's more concerning for us as adults, or as educators is the content of what they're watching more than the hours. Because for a kid, this is their window to the world of understanding our roles in society, how we're expected to act. So, if there's any type of stereotyping, racism, direct nuanced on a screen, a kid already understands the hierarchy that they're seeing.
And what's important is that kids pick up on these things so fast. So if you can imagine your child getting on the school bus for the very first time. They already have an understanding of, where do I fit into society, what is my place, so to speak. So I think the stakes are incredibly high. If there's negative imagery that's going to affect, especially for Black and Brown kids, we're talking mental health issues, depression, anxiety, physical health issues.
But what's so great, what I love about media and the power of it, is that conversely, if we think about positive images, we can also create youth who have higher levels of self-esteem, who are more empathetic individuals. And that's really a benefit to all of us as a society that we're creating content that produces better individuals in society, who can ultimately create a better landscape for us.
The stakes are incredibly high. If there's negative imagery that's going to affect, especially for Black and Brown kids, we're talking mental health issues, depression, anxiety, physical health issues. But what's so great, what I love about media and the power of it, is that conversely, if we think about positive images, we can also create youth who have higher levels of self-esteem, who are more empathetic individuals.
Candace Howze, writer, artist, activist
EmbraceRace: That's so powerful. Candace, you use a phrase “window on the world.” Hemant you made a sort of a similar point, and I think, a really, hugely important backdrop of that, right, is social segregation. The fact that we remain remarkably segregated. Residential in terms of school, but perhaps even more fundamentally socially. I say, if we don't get to know each other, as friends, as intimates, then it seems that the window on the world, that books and movies and television offer, has an even larger role in determining shaping how we think about each other.
Marcy, I'd love to come to you with this next question. Because we know that, of course, you had George Floyd's murder and the protests, but before that Black Lives Matter, right. The escalating conversation about race under Trump. So there all these reasons why the conversation about race has been heightened, lots of institutions are responding to that.
Marcy, is your industry responding to Black Lives Matter and racial justice, and what does that look like?
Marcy Gunther: Yeah, I mean, I think the industry definitely even before this past summer, but I think even more so, there's a bit of a reckoning. I think that, and I'm talking about beyond just children's media, I think Hollywood in general. I think the statistics are that more than 90% of Hollywood showrunners are White, and a vast majority of those are men. So clearly, the industry as a whole has a lot of catching up to do. But I do see more and more, in a positive direction. I have the privilege of working for PBS, and we don't have to be driven by market forces, but some of the commercial broadcasters, that is more of a concern. They're waking up to the message of, be more diverse or get left behind.
And I think the work that you've been doing, Candace, in really making it known, and I think this is where parents, and caregivers, and educators have such a strong voice, and social media has given us such a powerful voice to tell broadcasters what you want to see more of and what you don't. And I think we can make our voices heard through social media, also through our eyeballs, now there's more competition than ever for those eyeballs. Because there's so many platforms, and everybody wants you there watching their platform, and also your wallets.
I mean, I think we saw the tremendous success of Black Panther. Which is such a great example, I think of representation done right. And really, at all levels of the production. But it was also an incredible box office success. And I think that's very powerful. Again, I think there's a lot of catching up to do, but I think that the industry as a whole understands that we need BIPOC executives, development executives, creators, writers, artists, designers, animators, musicians. And that's where we need to go.
EmbraceRace: Let me ask you a quick follow up Marcy. You started out describing, I would say, external pressures, so some consumer driven pressures. And you ended saying that increasing number of folks in your industry understand that we need more diversity at every level.
If we knew what you knew, would we feel encouraged about how many people and studios really want to do the right thing? How confident do you feel that, apart from market pressures, etc, the industry understands they need to step up and are taking responsibility for their impact on kids and others?
Marcy Gunther: Well, I'm an eternal optimist, that might be to my detriment at times, but I do think people want to do the right thing. But I think we have to create avenues and on-ramps to bring new voices and new creators. I think there's a process that is happening. And I think that it is happening, and I think we're going to see more and more and more. If you look at what Netflix has coming up on their slate, and PBS, and Apple TV+. There's some really rich, wonderful content that's coming our way soon, and I think we'll be seeing more and more of it.
EmbraceRace: Hemant, from your perspective as an external observer, are you teaching somewhat differently in your classes now, because of what you're seeing?
Hemant Shah: Yeah, it's true. I think progress has been made. I think there's no doubt about it. If I look at it historically, obviously, there's been a lot of progress. We don't see the most egregious stereotypes anymore. We don't see the Stepin Fetchit character for African Americans, or the yellow peril Asian and the dragon lady, those type of things we don't see. But I say to my class, usually that the story has two steps forward, one step back. That we're making progress very, very slowly. Yes, there's getting more diverse in management in some industries, but not all.
But regardless, we have other issues that have to be addressed in terms of the depiction of BIPOC people. And that is things like for example, colorism is still a problem where light-skinned minorities tend to get cast more so than others. The distribution of roles is really interesting. In TV, where do you find African Americans? You find them in comedies mainly, and rarely in dramas, sometimes you do. But so, that's a kind of a problem that still has to be dealt with. The issue of Whitewashing, where Studio's elect to cast White actors in roles that were maybe written to be African American, or Native American, or Asian American, whatever it might be.
And there's also this final problem that I always talk about in my classes. If an African American says something bad on TV, it's attributed to their group culture, right. But if something good happens by an African American, well, it was mainly due to some contextual factors. So it's very subtle, but it kind of conveys this idea that success by some groups is due to their individual traits, and lack of success is due to group traits. It's a kind of a problem that has to be dealt with too. But as I said, my bottom line in my classes is progress is being made. But we have to be very aware of the kind of progress that it is, and that problems remain to be tackled.
Benetton clothing ad
EmbraceRace: So one of the things on that point of it getting more subtle, that drives me kind of nuts is having, it's almost like the Benetton version of a show, where it's really diverse, but the story is still White-centered. So the message is always, if you're Black, stand back, or if you're a person of color, you're kind of the friend or just someone who's not to be focused on. You're not the star of the story. So, I think that happens a lot. Even though we see a lot more folks of color in kids media, I'm still seeing that. And I'm talking about mostly on sort of like a Disney or something. It's almost the same story, but there are people of color in it, and it feels really wrong.
Candace, I'll start with you, if there are kids shows that you're seeing out there that you think really are getting race right? And I know no shows perfect, but.
Candace Howze: Yeah, absolutely. I think that there's a lot and I'm probably definitely more aware of probably films that I think do a good job, even more so than TV. But I definitely think films like Coco, Hidden Figures, Black Panther, those are all great examples. There's a lot of great shows that you can probably find on places like streaming sites. There's a lot of initiatives like Strong Black Lead on Netflix. I think This is Us as a fantastic family show that deals with a lot of racial issues really well.
But honestly, I think anytime we're watching TV or movies, is a really great time to talk about race, right? Just because whether a show is doing something really well, or whether it's kind of leaning towards something that's problematic, it's just a fantastic time to kind of take that moment and discuss with your kids. What does society look like? How do we treat one another? Andrew made a fantastic point about our social lives being very self-segregated, from schools to so many different communities. So that means that a lot of us, people of color, White individuals, we're all kind of getting a lot of information about different ethnic groups through the screen. And so that means a lot of times we're getting perceptions built that aren't true.
So it's really important when you're thinking about watching any film with your kids, that you are discussing with them. Younger kids, if you see something that's not right, kind of think of it like a scary movie: "Hey, that's not real. That's not something we do." If you've got older kids, you can kind of draw comparisons to things that happened in your community or on the news. But just always be very clear about endorsing or condemning what you see. Don't let it always be a negative conversation, because there's really great movies and TV out there. So even if you see something that's great, it's like, "Hey!" Make sure you point that out, because kids recognize things that are positive, just as much as they do negative things.
I think anytime we're watching TV or movies, is a really great time to talk about race, right? Just because whether a show is doing something really well, or whether it's kind of leaning towards something that's problematic, it's just a fantastic time to kind of take that moment and discuss with your kids. What does society look like? How do we treat one another?
Candace Howze, writer, artist, activist
EmbraceRace, Melissa: One of the things that we were noticing with our kids and sort of pointing out was the stereotype of the quirky genius who's always a White man. And we found this, we heard from people we know, "Oh, gosh, there's this great detective show that's set in St. Lucia. And there's so much culturally from that." We have a family from the islands and all that. And so, we were so excited to watch it. And guess what, they had a British guy from off Island come in, in the middle of first show to take over and be the quirky genius. And the kids were like, "Ah, I can't believe it!."
So we had a lot of sort of fun with it as well. We got some questions from people registering, like how do you not spoil the fun? Because there's sort of you don't have to throw the baby out with the bathwater, because there can be good things. And there were some great characters in that show in particular. We were able to do both, but it was essential to sort of watch it together.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: But you know what, when every episode, you get the great reveal, right? So this British White guy is the one who figures it out. And he doesn't even offer the reveal to his colleagues of color, right? We need to go to the scene and everyone there, and they learn along with us. I mean, it's actually so offensive.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Marcy, do you have recommendations for kids media that does race right?
Marcy Gunther: I have some. Some I have to say are shows that are PBS Kids. I think if you haven't seen Molly of Denali. I think the reason that it is such a great depiction of Alaska Native culture is that Alaska Natives really created this show. We used our expertise in children's media, and animation and storytelling, but we really co-created this show with the Alaska Native community. And I think that's why the show is as rich as it is, and in its second season, I think almost half of the writers are Alaska Native.
And I think that, what you we're talking about, about that White centered experience even when you're trying to tell a culturally relevant story. We all have to own our lenses and our bias and where we're coming from, and be open and willing to hand over the mic and say, "I want you to tell the story. This is not my story to tell." And what a much better show it might have been to have that detective show, from the perspective of someone who was native to the island, and that was their lived experience.
I'm not really answering your question, but I think that when stories are lived experience, it's so rich. Molly, I think is an example of that. I've seen some great books in the list. I think there's other wonderful media out there for kids. I think Doc McStuffins is another example of a show that's been very transformative for young children. I think Daniel Tiger does a wonderful job about talking about race to very young kids. And I can come up with a longer list, but I think there are some good resources out there.
EmbraceRace: What can we do to further push the race and representation ball? One level is, what can parents, educators, adults in homes and in schools do? Another other level is more with the work that you're doing, Candace. What can we do to push the executives, and the studio leaders, and make a more structural push?
Hemant Shah: Yeah, I tend to capture these approaches in the phrase, “media literacy.” And I'm sure many academic fields conduct research on this topic. But in my field, Journalism and Mass Communication, the research definitely shows that if people come to the TV viewing context with some background knowledge about the history of stereotypes, the ways that media work, how decisions are made, the role of corporate media, etc, all those kinds of things. If they come to the viewing context, with some of that in mind, there's a tendency for the stereotypic thinking to be inhibited.
So experimental research has shown that kind of close studies, observational studies with kids have shown that. I think that's really important. And that does put it on me and my colleagues as educators. Of course, we're at the college level, but we still have a lot of work to do there, believe me. About kind of telling people what is the history of this particular type of imagery? Why did it exist? And how might it affect people today? And why is it relevant today? So we have to talk about White centrality, and about the negative impact that stereotypes can have on thinking and behavior and so for so.
It's a semester long process for me, usually. But of course, then they go away and do whatever they're going to do in college. So I think for me the challenge is, how do we do it over a long period of time, and in a context other than the classroom? And I know that you two have done a lot of work with other educators and caregivers. So I think it has to happen at multiple points. My focus has been on freshman-level education, but there's a lot more work to be done on other places. But I think media literacy in general is my starting point.
The research definitely shows that if people come to the TV viewing context with some background knowledge about the history of stereotypes, the ways that media work, how decisions are made, the role of corporate media, etc, all those kinds of things. If they come to the viewing context, with some of that in mind, there's a tendency for the stereotypic thinking to be inhibited.
Hemant Shah, professor of media studies at U-Wisconsin @ Madison
EmbraceRace: That's great, Hemant. Thank you. And that point that you made, Marcy, makes me think of the conversation that we had before about what happened behind the scenes. So this idea that these are productions, they are creations. Real people are doing this, and who's doing it is not all that matters, but certainly who's doing it really matters. And you talked a bit about how the cast of characters creating this had changed over time. That takes deliberate work, deliberate effort, and indeed, you generate a different product.
Marcy, what do you have to say about how we move this ball?
Marcy Gunther: I actually also feel like it's media literacy. And I think that's why the work both of my co-panelists are doing is so important. And really teaching kids media literacy skills from preschool. I think we've learned, and the research shows, that kids at a very young age are aware of race and racism, and parents really starting those conversations right then.
And really, I think, when you see something that you don't like, and I think you said this Candace, that's an opportunity to have a conversation about what that was, and how did that make you feel, and what did you see, and how could they have done this differently? I mean, I think now with remote schooling and so much of the way we're consuming education even is through media. We have to teach kids and parents how to have these conversations with their kids, and be critical media viewers.
EmbraceRace: Candice can you tell us a bit more about to the petition? How is it going? What do you hope to accomplish?
Candace Howze: Yeah, absolutely. I think there's two really important things that we can all do just in this landscape. And I think one of those is remembering that film, and television, it is a business. I think Marcy mentioned earlier the idea, where we're putting our views and our streams, and our dollars is so important. Because we have the narrative in the industry that, shows and films that have Black and Brown leads, they're not going to be profitable. And as consumers, if we're making a point to seek out media that is produced by BIPOC creators who are putting out positive representations, we are really flipping that idea on its head that people do want to see different people. Who would have thought, right?
So it's really important that the way we're engaging with media is a great way that we can make a change in the industry. And obviously, advocacy is a huge part of that. So finding and supporting organizations that are creating content that are putting pressure on the industry. And that's really what our petition was all about. Was just seeing the effects that media has on kids and saying, we want to draw attention to the fact that we've got disclaimers already that warn us as parents about harmful imagery and mature content. But we're really doing ourselves a disservice to leave racial stereotyping out of that discussion. So the petition is really all about getting places like the Motion Picture Association of America and different studios to identify racial content in their rating system just to help us to identify these things.
And as we mentioned, again, just reiterating the idea of media literacy. It's not intuitive to think intentionally about something that you're watching for fun, but as adults, we have to do that so we can teach kids to have more agency over what they're watching. So any type of advocacy or support that you can give to organizations is really important.
EmbraceRace: So we have a lot of questions about what to do? What the implications of all this are for parents and for teachers? Talking about whose story is it? Talk about who produced this? What's their context? Who's paying for this? And of course, that would change with different ages. Would you suggest instead that you watch it with them, which is the thing that I try to do more. Instead of using TV as a babysitter, which I am guilty of sometimes, of really realizing, "Wow, they're watching this without me and it'd be better for them to watch it with me."
Do you have advice on whether to prepare or to protect your kid from harmful media? What are your specific tips of how to talk to your children about media that isn’t fantastic racially?
Hemant Shah: I think I personally have erred on the side of watching with. When my daughter was growing up, I mean, to the extent possible, when she was watching something at home, we would try to do it together without ruining the experience. And of course, that's what she would always accused us of, "Well, you've ruined the show for me now." She's now 31. So something stuck, because she now watches media very critically as well. And I'm not taking all the credit for it, obviously, because she had other influences. But I think it's important to do that much with them as the mediator, so to speak, or the interpreter or whatever it might be. And I've even advised some folks to literally, if they're watching, if you have a pause button, pause. Just pause the movie or pause the show. “What did you think about that, that piece of acting or that scene?”
You'll get stares, you will get pushback, but it's kind of worth it if you do it strategically, and not too often so that it has an impact when you do do it. The other thing I would just say if, I can just add one more thing is that, with my students, I often do what we call a content audit. It's an assignment where they actually have to watch some primetime show and keep track of the characters and what they do. And if there are positions of power? Do they take orders or give orders? Are they cast as heroes? Do they control their destiny? Just like the story you told about the quirky scientists always being White. The thing I have discovered is that a lot of students, light bulbs go off for them, when they do it in a systematic way like that as an assignment. And it sticks. They can still watch leisurely on their own time. But it does stick. I often get comments several semesters after the given class that, "Hey, I watched this show the other day, and it had these stereotypes. I remembered your class." So it does tend to stick. You have to do it over time, I guess is the point. It’s just not a one shot and done.
EmbraceRace: Thank you, Hemant. Here's a question I love that talks about class representation, and the class by race. “What do you make of current representations of class diversity in media? I think of a 1970s, '80s representation of poor and working class striving Black families in Sanford and Son, Good Times, The Jeffersons that gave way to more representations of middle class, even upper middle-class families like the Cosby's, in the '80s. What about now? Are you seeing more acceptance of class diversity alongside or, right, cross-hatched with positive racial, ethnic representative diversity?”
Marcy Gunther: That's a very interesting question. I can't say that I have looked at that with a wide lens. I think one of the, sorry, I'm going to talk about Molly of Denali again, I apologize. One of the many reasons we wanted to create the show was it was also showing a rural community. And so often, shows are set in cities, a lot of primetime television is set in suburbia. So I don't know that we've made a ton of progress there. But I haven't looked at it closely. So I'd be curious Candace and Hemant to know what you think of that?
Candace Howze: Yeah, I would definitely say I think there's a lot of progress to be made. Because I think you're absolutely right. Yeah, we went from kind of a lot of working class, especially thinking about families of color on TV to showing, upper and middle class. I think we're at a little bit of a stagnant point now, where we're not seeing always as many shows. I think about TV shows like Fresh Off the Boat, or Black-ish, who I think are doing a good job of trying to show that, but I still think that there's a lack of diversity, like Marcy mentioned geographically. But I also think there's lack of diversity, and there's still kind of the concept of the educated families are always living in the big house and doing really well, and the poor families are uneducated, and there's really no middle, in between where those places intersect. I think we have a long way to go in content creation of showing just the diversity of families, economically as well as socially and intellectually.
EmbraceRace, Melissa: Another question. “Can you speak to how we educate younger children about the history of race in America beyond MLK and Rosa Parks? And is that happening in media that you all have seen?”
I mean, I think now is the moment when you're hearing about people who are more and more like Claudette Colvin, or you're hearing about Pauli Murray, and just people who were important, but weren't recognized.
EmbraceRace, Andrew: I mean, it also makes me think of the proliferation of media just in terms of television and cable television. Yes, you can find certainly more of that if you're so inclined, and you can readily avoid it, if you're not. Which is for the good and for the bad.
Are we doing better in the children's books industry than in children's movies and TV shows in terms of diversity? And to the extent if that's true, why would that be? Is there something we can learn when we think about applying pressure to screen media, from the progress made in books?
Candace Howze: I'm not sure about the answer to that, in terms of is one advancing faster than the other. I mean, I'm excited too about what I'm seeing in the children's book industry and market, and so many new voices and new talent being published. I think what you're going to see is a lot of those books get turned into television and movies. I do think that the lift to create a television show, the investment is greater, it takes longer sometimes to get those things from development to being on the air. Even under the best circumstances, you have all the money, you have everything you need. Creating a film or a television show can take two years.
So I'm hopeful that we can catch up and that we can fuel each other. Like I said, I think there's more great content in the marketplace, if you look at just it as all media. Whether it's consumed through a screen or through an actual physical object, is a wonderful thing.
EmbraceRace: Is it possible to critically examine popular media together as a family, yet still ingest these pieces as fun family entertainment? What do you think?
Hemant Shah: Well, you try, right? And I think a lot depends on the kid, a lot depends on what mood the kid is in. It's a tough question. I don't have any kind of two or three ideas to make that work every time. I think you have to keep trying and just hope that some things are sinking in. And I have some optimism that it does sink in with kids. Because of what I see later, when the kids are older or even get into college. Some have had that experience and are aware of issues and problems that they should attend to. But, no, I don't have any two or three kind of magic recommendations to have that work, except to say just, I think it's important to try.
EmbraceRace: Yeah, and I think that's right that there isn't a recipe, right? Because you know your kid and you know your students and you know their context. It's going to be different on a different day, their disposition. But I've definitely increasingly had these experiences. I mean, one example that I've spoken about before is Hamilton, the musical. And at first, I didn't want to expose my kids because I knew that there was so much left out historically, and it was again sort of founder chic. And then a friend of mine said, "Oh, but it's a work of art. He's a genius. Your kids have to see it.” And I sort of thought, "What is she saying?" And I started to listen myself, and I realized, "Wow, he really is a genius" Just musically and my kids respond so well, so much to music. And it was just so complicated, and we loved it.
But it did create great opportunities for talking about who's missing in that. And even in our families who a lot of them, half of my family is from the Caribbean. And Hamilton lived in the Caribbean. And Andrew is also from Jamaica, originally. And so we could talk about like, "Well, where was our family there? And why is he the one who comes over?" And the Sally Hemings thing. And even to talk about, "Yeah, you know how we were talking about textbooks and how people are taught sort of a whitewashed version of American history? Well, guess what? So was Lin-Manuel Miranda. He went to American schools too, and he got a very Whitewashed view of history." And that was a real sort of Achilles heel in creating that, I think.
But even that's really fascinating, right? Like, "Oh, he made this beautiful thing anyway. And there's been a reckoning, even for him, right?" I was like, "Oh, why did I can't count on Ron Chernow? This particular historian, and what did he know? And what were his biases?" So I think it can still be fun. I mean, we sing those songs still all the time, and act it out and all of that, but we problematize it as well. And sure, they do often say, "You ruined XYZ for me." But we also laugh together quite a lot.
Marcy and Candace, I want to put one last question to you. And it goes back to the issue of whether or not there are changemakers within the industry, right? Candace, have you had responses, right, from sort of producers to the petition that would make us feel better?
And Marcy, and I'm thinking about PBS, of course, is known as a leader in education in general, of children. But certainly, they’re the kinds of shows that you've worked on in the space of diversity and representation. I'm wondering if the for-profit folks have reached out to you and said, "We want to do this better, can you help us?”
Candace Howze: Yeah, so we have not gotten a lot of producer feedback yet. And I think that's something that we're definitely pushing for in trying to do because we know it's not going to be an easy battle by any means. I think there's definitely a lot of creators out there who are trying to do more. And one thing that I'm hoping is that we're seeing more creators, more studios who want to create content for children specifically. Because I think there is a push to create better representation in Hollywood in general, but not always geared specifically towards kids. That's my hope, and I'm optimistic because we have gotten a lot of positive feedback in general, that we'll get more inside experts who are who are willing to work with it. I have to say I am a PBS Kids person myself, grew up on everything, so I know just how positive, and impactful, and life changing having that kind of representation is.
Marcy Gunther: Yeah, I can tell you there are changemakers out there, because I know a lot of them. And there's many, many more that I don't know, and I'm excited to meet. I think that there's some good things happening. I mean, I feel like part of my job being at the place in my career that I am, is how do we bring the next generation in? And how do we open things up? And how do we create more opportunities for new creators and BIPOC creators that may not see the road for them. And I think that's really important to our industry, is how do we bring, and keep, and get that new talent? And again, television does take a while, so we have to be a little patient, but I think there's some really exciting things happening. And we need to keep finding new ways to kind of bring more people to the industry. And I think the industry knows that, and is looking at that in meaningful ways.
EmbraceRace: Before we thank you for all the information and the insights and guidance you've given us. I want the folks to know that next Monday and Thursday, we have more webinars coming up on Monday. Both are about how do we nurture resilience and joy in young Black Indigenous children and children of color and among them. So how they see each other? How do we support them to recognize each other's full humanity? We have two programs, the Monday one focuses on what parents and caregivers can do? What their needs are in doing this work? And the Thursday one, focus on educators and especially early childhood parents and educators. Zero to eight is the age of the children we're looking at. So, you can go to our website, and sign up for that. And always you can go and get the archive.
Thank you so much Marcy, Candace, Hemant, everyone who joined. We really appreciate your work. So thank you so much. You rock, thanks so much.
Resources (return to top)
Marcy Gunther's recommendations from PBS:
- Arthur | Arthur on Racism: Talk, Listen, and Act | PBS KIDS - Arthur, Buster and Mrs. MacGraddy have a conversation about racism and what you can do to fight it: talk, listen and act.
- Molly of Denali | Grandpa's Drum | PBS KIDS - Molly sets out to find her grandfather’s lost drum, which he gave away when he was a child at boarding school.