I think it’s getting worse. I used to hold my tongue and nod along with everyone else. The problem is I’m tired of not seeing folks of color in films. I’m tired of picking “good” YA texts for the classes I’m teaching and seeing white privilege reinforced on every page. I’m tired of not seeing the lives and experiences of my former South Central Los Angeles students represented in the books we read.*
I’m pretty sure my students might be getting tired of me: I’m a bit of a broken record when it comes to race and politics of representation when discussing literature, popular media, pedagogy, NCLB, relational aspects of connecting with students.
Sometimes (often), I fret about whether it might be best to let it slide. For one class, let the “race-thing” not be brought up. For one movie, don’t let the first thing you say when you walk out of the theater be, “Well, that’s gotta be the whitest movie ever made.”**
But I just can’t. It feels irresponsible not to.
Case in point: tonight I saw Wreck It Ralph. It was fun. The videogame references, the unexpected plot developments, the playful short film before the feature: it was better than its marketing campaign led me to believe. But then…
See, here’s the thing: I’m pretty sure every character is white (except for ancillary villains shown in a bad-guy support group at the beginning of the film… hmmm…). Ally pointed out that title character Ralph might possibly be something non-white. And that’s good, right? I mean he is the protagonist. Except that the attributes we learn about our hero is that he has halitosis, a penchant for making bad decisions, and oafish strength. Not exactly the apotheosis of a young person’s role model.
And then there was the police brutality. Without giving away anything in the plot, there is a part of the film where Ralph is detained. Though he’s already restrained in the sweetest possible way, the two cop-like figures take to physically accosting him. This is done for laughs. Like the part where Ralph can’t move so the cop tasers him in the face: funny, right?
I know. It’s just a movie. Let it go.
But I just can’t. I think about the ways these humorous scenes slowly reinforce lessons about social behavior and normality for the packed theater I sat in. Mix the giggles from this scene with the giggles about the use of the word duty/doody and it’s not quite clear where the line is drawn. And if Ally’s right and Ralph IS supposed to be non-white … well then, congratulations, Disney: you just got America to laugh at police beating up a person of color.
This turned into a frustrated rant. Sorry. I am actually genuinely interested in a pedagogical issue here: when is it our responsibility as teachers to “turn off” the critical lens? Ever? Does it ever interfere with our other content responsibilities?
*This week, my class is reading and discussing David Levithan’s Boy Meets Boy. I really like this book. It also, however, makes me wonder about the politics of queer identity in YA. Who gets to be gay in YA texts? Is this also a marginalized white privilege? (Future blog post about this at some point.)
**Film in question, by the way, was the Perks of Being a Wallflower. Seriously though, EVERY character was white. Seriously.