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The Colorblind Generation

by Lila Allen

July 9,2010

Man, have kids' meals come a long way. When I was little and downing one a week, you were lucky to get a burger that hadn't been sat on, and even luckier if it wasn't soaked all the way through with mustard and grill grease. Now it's apple sticks and milk. And these days, you can't even choke on the plastic toy anymore! Kids today. Coddled.

But really, nowhere is it more obvious to me that fast-food chains have stepped up their game than in the advertising department. I was a child of the "Burger King Kids Club" era — a campaign that, today, we consider gone horribly wrong. (Just look at the Internet.) A group of eight pals: Kid Vid (the Blade Runner Zach Morris-type), two redheads (I.Q., the whiz kid, and Boomer, the jock), Snaps (a blonde photographer), Lingo (a Hispanic artist versed in several languages), a musically-gifted Asian female named Jazz, a towering, flat-topped black male named Jaws, and a brunette, paralyzed from the waist down, named — I wish I were making this up — Wheels. Reviewing these characters from my youth, there has been some jaw dropping, a little squealing, and finally, to finish, a hearty guffaw with an accompanying "Really?"

I laugh because now these characters are so obviously token, so contrived and stereotypical, that they appear satirical. Part of this sentiment is informed by contemporary comedy — sexual and racial politics on "The Office" and the "truthiness" of Stephen Colbert come to mind. If we can't laugh at this stuff, we've learned, we'll cry.

But as a child, none of this seemed weird. It was how my generation was raised. Diversity, or at least a balance of skin colors and physical abilities, was always present. Exposure to and inclusion of physical difference in the curriculum was and still is a necessary first step in a cultural education. What is alarming to me as an adult, however, is that this diversity was rarely or never discussed explicitly — only in roundabout, huggy, superpositive phrases like "Free to be you and me!" and "We're all one human family" — the kinds of phrases I associate with awkward church day camps and Lifetime movie specials.

As a student in elementary school shortly after the 1990 passing of the Americans with Disabilities Act, I was on the front line for integration of a spectrum of abilities into the classroom. Every poster hung in school showing a group of children had at least one in a wheelchair — even as a nine-year-old, I knew that this ratio (one wheelchair for every four kids) was unrealistic. Of course, out of fear of saying the wrong thing, I never asked about it; even today, children learn to be afraid of embarrassment above all else. And nothing is more embarrassing than the faux pas of pointing out physical difference, be it skin color, religious garb, or physical ability.

Steven Colbert has joked that he is "colorblind" — that physically, he cannot distinguish any difference in skin color between individuals. It's absurd, of course, but is it an exaggeration? I catch myself pretending to be colorblind all of the time. If my friend asks me to clarify who a person is, I will purposefully make an effort to avoid color in the description. I continue in this manner until my friend asks, "Oh, is she black (or Hispanic, or Asian)?" Well, um, yes. Her physical appearance — which includes skin color or ethnic origin — would probably be helpful. Why am I afraid to mention this fact upfront? Because saying so would imply that "not-black" is my friend's default, or, equally embarrassing, my own.

A September 2009 article from Newsweek entitled “See Baby Discriminate” argues that diversity in schools and entertainment programming may bring attention to physical differences between ethnic groups in children, but that when it is not followed up with explicit discussion, attitudes on difference will not change, and may, in fact, suffer from a lack of explanation. The subtext of the ubiquitous “everyone is equal” message, it turns out, isn’t translating. Adults have become so afraid of saying the wrong thing that they've chosen to say nothing at all, leaving children to come to their own conclusions.

Exposure and inclusion, after all, are not enough. We've got to start talking to our children about difference the same way that we should be talking to them about sex — openly, honestly, and explicitly. It's cliché, but true: there is no such thing as a dumb question. Why not start over apples and milk?

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