Like a lot artists, I have a day job. I haven’t hit that magic point where the arts income has become self-sustaining yet.
Like a lot of businesses, my employer has training videos for me to watch. These are intended to teach me best practices, the company way of doing things, and technical information I need to do my job.
The ones I’ve been watching lately are that last variety. In an attempt to make them interesting, these videos, which are long and packed with a lot of hard-to-remember technical information, are taught by animated characters.
Every one of these characters fulfills a stereotype of some sort. There’s the Weird Old Lady, the Kooky Professor, the Big, Beefy Guy Who Sounds a Little Like Arnold Schwarzenegger, etc.
But there was another characteristic I noticed about my animated educators.
All the black people are fat.
Not that there are very many black characters proportional to the white ones, but all the African-Americans are noticeably overweight.
None of the white ones are.
The men are all fit. The women have really narrow waists and big chests. They look like Barbie.
And the thing is, if these were actors, you might be able to let it go. You might think, “Well, this is the most talented person who auditioned for this part.”
But they’re animated characters. That means someone made a deliberate choice on what my teachers were going to look like. So in addition to teaching me important technical information, I’m getting another, subtler lesson:
White people are thin and desirable. Black people are fat.
Now, I suppose someone made a decision that we need to be representative of plus-sized individuals. But why are they all African-American? And why are all the black characters overweight?
I see these things, and I find it easier and easier to buy into the concept of institutionalized racism. In a world where the Golden Globes and the Screen Actors Guild are capable of recognizing great movie-making achievements by black artists, but the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences isn’t; in a world where white police officers are always acquitted for killing black suspects under controversial circumstances; in a world where a plaintive and sincere movement to remind people that Black Lives Matter is rebuked with the phrase all lives matter; can it be surprising that black animated characters in a training video are drawn to be fat?
The message here is not overt. It’s very subtle. But it’s there: White people are attractive; black people are not.
There is no question that we have come a long way in the battle over race relations in the U.S. It’s not the ’50’s and ’60’s anymore.
But we still have a long way to go towards treating people equally regardless of their skin color. White America is still not comfortable with Black America. Institutional racism is a real thing, and it’s sinister, because it’s subtle. It’s harder to spot.
And it transmits its destructive messages to maintain the current inequitable status quo.
I know some will think I’m overblowing things. Some will rebuke or refute me, claiming that I’m reading too much into some poorly animated cartoon characters.
Messaging is powerful, though. Reinforcing stereotypes tricks people into believing they’re real. And the more we judge someone based on their race or their appearance or even their body type, the less we think of them as a person, as an individual, as a human.
And when you strip someone of their personhood, of their humanity, it becomes possible, even justifiable, to treat them poorly.
This is the legacy of race relations in the United States. It’s a battle we’re still fighting and a war we’ve just got to win.