Voices in Education

Unlearning: Who is the Main Character?

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As a Black girl, who grew up in the 90s, I count myself as fortunate to have come of age during the Black television and movie renaissance of the period. But despite this wave of primetime and box office projects featuring Black main characters, the vast majority of this content catered to older children, teens, and adults

Shows like Reading Rainbow, Gullah Gullah Island, and the short-lived sitcom, My Brother and Me provided some exposure to Black leads on-screen during my formative years. But except for a few episodes of Happily Ever After: Fairy Tales for Every Child, none featured little Black girls like me as the main character. All of my dolls were White, and all my picture books featured either White children, animals, or otherwise non-human characters. 

As a result, like many Black children, I learned to identify with White main characters, internalizing both pro-White and anti-Black biases when I started school. I remember coming home from kindergarten and putting t-shirts on my head, pretending that I was the White girl characters I saw on television and in the books I read. And I once scrubbed my ankle nearly raw trying to test my White classmate’s accusation that my skin was dark because I didn’t bathe well enough. 

I felt an odd sense of relief and disappointment when I realized that my skin color was permanent. It took another fifteen years of damaged hair from weaves, relaxers, and flatirons before I finally embraced my natural hair texture. 

The characters in children's books and other media are the first, and often only, "mirrors and windows" through which we learn about race. Like many Black children with limited access to positive representations with which to identify, I learned that Black people were less than “others,” while White people were the heroes, love interests, bosses, and everything in between.  

As Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adiche warned in her famous TED Talk, The Danger of a Single Story

“Stories matter...Stories have been used to dispossess and to malign, but stories can also be used to empower and to humanize. Stories can break the dignity of a people, but stories can also repair that broken dignity.”   

As educators, we have the power to introduce our students to stories and characters that either enhance or harm their identity development, self-esteem, sense of empathy, and overall worldview. 

Defining the Problem

According to an article published by Masterclass, "[t]he concept of a protagonist comes from Ancient Greek drama, where the term originally meant, “the player of the first part or the chief actor.”

While the origin of the English word "protagonist" (aka the main character) stems from ancient Greek, this definition illustrates the insidious power of words in erasing Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color (BIPOC) from history, along with their oral and written contributions. 

We credit the ancient Greeks with the very concept of a protagonist—as if BIPOC do not have oral and written narrative traditions with protagonists that predate ancient Greece. This implicit bias shows up in our classrooms when our storytimes, bookshelves, and curricula center on White main characters and do not highlight the stories, struggles, and accomplishments of BIPOC. 

Author Nancy Larrick called attention to this issue in her 1965 article,“The All-White World of Children's Books,” finding that out of 5,206 children's books published the three years before the article was published, only 349 (6.7%) featured one or more depictions of Black people, including background images. While the article focuses on the negative impact this phenomenon has on Black children, she also emphasizes the impact on White children.

According to Larrick: 

"[a]lthough his light skin makes him one of the world's minorities, the [W]hite child learns from his books that he is the kingfish.  There seems little chance of developing the humility so urgently needed for world cooperation, instead of world conflict, as long as our children are brought up on gentle doses of racism through their books."

 For context, in 1960, White people represented 88.6% of the U.S. population, with Black Americans making up about 10% of the remaining population. However, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 abolished race-based quotas that previously limited immigration from countries aside from Europe. Since then, more than 18 million documented immigrants have come to the United States from all over the world.

Today, White people represent 76.3% of the U.S. population. Meanwhile, in 2018, there were more children’s books with animals and other non-human main characters (27%) than all BIPOC characters combined (23%), with 50% of all children’s books featuring White main characters. According to the Cooperative Children’s Book Center, in 2017, a picture book character was four times more likely to be a dinosaur than an Indigenous child and two times more likely to be a rabbit than an Asian American child.

According to Tufts University's Children's Television (CTV) Project, the number of characters of color on television has improved over time—in large part due to PBS. However, in 2018, Tufts researchers found that Black characters only accounted for 5.6% of characters out of their sample of over 1,500 characters in kids' television and film. Asian American characters accounted for 11.6% (likely due to a few all-Asian cast shows, like "Legend of Korra"), and Latinx characters represented only 1.4% of their sample—despite Black, Asian American, and Latinx people accounting for 13.4, 5.9 and 18.5% of the population, respectively.

By frequently exposing our kids to a disproportionate number of White protagonists, we are tacitly supporting White supremacy. Despite our multicultural society, children grow up in a world defined by racial segregation and class inequality, which dictate their neighbors, friends, and classmates.

When our children see only White characters as the main character, it limits their ability to empathize with or see BIPOC as heroes or leaders. Without intervention, this lack of empathy and racial myopia may lead to an increased willingness to pathologize, punish, and support policies that negatively impact BIPOC. For children of color, the harm may manifest itself as self-hate and internalized racism. 

The White main character phenomenon extends beyond children's books and media. It comes up in the context of whitewashed history lessons, which are built on erasures, harmful stereotypes, and inaccuracies. It also comes up in failing to mention the contributions of Africans and Indigenous people in developing mathematics and science, as well as in the family lineage, "pretend you were a 'slave owner'" or “founding father” assignments. Regardless of population, when teachers center Whiteness in their lessons, we set our children up to be inept at best and harmful at worst when grappling with race and racism issues. 

Colorful Faces Are Not Enough

Despite (albeit modest) overall increases in BIPOC representation in children's media, simply including more characters of color is not enough. We must still view content featuring characters of color with a critical eye. All representation isn't good representation.

For example, there's a tendency for kids' content to include characters of color as tokens and sidekicks. These characters often only exist to support the White main character's storyline, as they often lack significant character development or story arcs of their own. This tokenism also occurs when characters of color are only used to teach the audience or other characters about race. 

The Children's Television Project website features a visualization tool, which tracks trends in character representation in children’s television shows. When sorting the data by race, the data shows that 49% of heroic characters are White, and most characters of color are heroic sidekicks.

Hyper-tokenism can also occur when a character of color has increased screen time and dramatic involvement in the plot. Yet, only the White characters have dramatic agency, or the ability to change, influence, or control the narrative circumstances. These portrayals give the impression of positive representation while reinforcing that White people are naturally more capable than characters of color. When children are consistently exposed to media that cast Black, Indigenous, and other People of Color as sidekicks and tokens, they learn that these groups are not as valuable, interesting, or relatable. 

Even when the main character is Black, Indigenous, or otherwise a Person of Color, implicit and explicit racial bias and harmful stereotypes can still find their way in.   

The following are questions to ask yourself when selecting books, media, and other content for your classroom.

Questions to Ask Yourself:

  1. Will children of color see one or more characters with whom they can readily and positively identify? Does your collection depict diversity among people within racial/ethnic groups?
  2. Regardless of whether you teach children of color, does your overall collection include a diverse range of protagonists, or does it consist mainly of books and other media reflecting White, middle/upper-middle class, two-parent, and suburban families, with little diversity? 
  3. Do the stories show BIPOC as needing help or in passive roles, while depicting White people in leadership and action roles? Is there a balance of power among the story’s characters, or are White people the main characters, while BIPOC characters play supporting roles? 
  4. Does your book collection include heroes of color? And when they do appear, are they admired for the same qualities as White characters? Are the traits and actions of the protagonist reflective of their cultural group?  
  5. Do your books reinforce or counteract messages that teach children to feel inferior or superior because of their race?

Recommendations:

To help you diversify your book collections, below are links to recommendations and other resources: 

Brandee Blocker Anderson

Brandee Blocker Anderson Educator

Brandee is a lawyer, educator, DEI consultant, and founder of The Antiracism Academy. She earned a bachelor's in Political Science from Yale University, a master's in Education from the University of Pennsylvania, and a Juris Doctor degree from Columbia Law School. During law school, she served on the editorial board of the Columbia Journal of Race and Law and as a consultant for the Center for Public Research and Leadership. Before law school, Brandee taught secondary English and Social Studies at Sankofa Freedom Academy Charter School, where she was honored as Teacher of the Year and was a semifinalist for the Sue Lehmann Excellence in Teacher Leadership Award.

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