Anti-Black racism has a new foe, and he’s an animated cartoon aardvark.
Last week, the beloved children’s series “Arthur” released a short PSA where the titular aardvark and his bunny pal Buster react to a video we don’t see that sounds like it displays police brutality against Black people. The video isn’t described in detail, but Buster says “I can’t believe someone would be hurt like that, just because they’re Black.”
Buster is shocked that something so bad could happen in their neighbourhood, but Arthur tells him it happens everywhere, because racism has such a long history.
They call Mrs. MacGrady, their school’s wise cook and lunch lady, who tells them racism is like a disease: “if you don’t treat it, it’s just going to get worse.”
She tells the boys it’s not enough to say “I’m not racist” or act like it’s someone else’s problem. “We have to actively fight against racism,” she said, before quoting her friend, late congressman and civil rights leader Rep. John Lewis. She encourages them to talk about racism with the people in their lives, to ask questions and keep leaning, and to listen to and try to empathize with people about their experiences with racism.
And most importantly, if you see someone being treated unfairly, stand up for them. “It may be scary, but it’s the right thing to do.”
These are issues the show has been tackling long before the racial wounds that George Floyd’s death reopened this summer. Mrs. MacGrady’s friendship with John Lewis first came up when the congressman (a bear, in the “Arthur” universe) visited Arthur and Buster’s school in a 2018 episode called “Arthur Takes a Stand.” When Arthur thinks Mrs. MacGrady is being treated unfairly by the school, he gets some advice from the visiting congressman, who tells him that “a person with conviction can change the world.”
Arthur goes on stage a sit-in, which convinces the school’s management to give Mrs. MacGrady the funding help she needs. It’s also revealed that Mrs. MacGrady knows Lewis because they both attended the March on Washington in 1963.
The idea of the episode came about in 2017, when the show’s creator Marc Brown met Lewis at a book fair, according to the Los Angeles Times.
“It definitely is in line with all that we’ve done always on ‘Arthur,’ which is to bring in diverse viewpoints and interesting guest stars and think about topics that a lot of other kids’ series might not,” the show’s executive producer Carol Greenwald told the paper.
The late congressman was excited to reach a new audience with the show. “He knew it was important to be talking to kids about this stuff,” Greenwald said.
Some parents thought kids who watch “Arthur” were too young to be exposed to these kinds of ideas, but Greenwald said, but the showrunners disagreed.
“Maybe some kids can be protected from these issues, but not all kids, and we want all kids to understand what these issues mean to different communities,” she said.
Kids are actually aware of racial difference much earlier than parents might realize, according to experts in early childhood education.
“Children are making sense of the world from the time they start looking around,” Carl James, an education professor at York University who specializes in Black youth, previously told HuffPost Canada. “They try to understand what everything means, and so they give meaning to things... so, no time is too early.”
“Antiracism never accidentally shows up,” Jennifer Harvey wrote in an essay for CNN about how white parents can raise anti-racist kids. “When we don’t break white silence with ongoing and explicit teaching about race and racism, and active and persistent modelling of antiracism, we end up raising the Amy Coopers of the next generation.”