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Saturday, May 19, 2012

Hidden Racism in Thomas the Train?

Is the guy in the center white? Hard to tell.
Bubs 1 loves Thomas. I mean, he LOVES Thomas. He knows all the trains, and even their personalities. I also enjoy Thomas. When Bubs 1 and I began communicating - conversing - Thomas was the topic. We both shared a common knowledge. It was great.

It is still great, but over the past year, I've been noticing something about the cartoons that I want to also discuss with Bubs 1... soon. Not yet, but soon.

 I recently discovered that bubs doesn't like the diesel trains. He likes all the "steamies." I can only assume that he's just following along with the cartoon's design, which is to cast the diesel trains in unfavorable light. Fair enough. However, why are most of the people, who get on and off the various trains, white? I did take a pretty cool course that focused on the criticality of children's literature and how much of the literature out there reproduces society today (and therefore perpetuates slow change). Society does change, no doubt. However, do our children grow to perceive the world just as we do now, because of the "knowledge' we're dispensing into their minds today? Does this enable the slow evolution on social issues?
Black mother w/child

So how does Thomas literature expose the distorted power relations of characters in his children's books? After examining the first three Thomas books picked up from the shelf, I counted just three non-white characters in all three books. Wow. How does this translate into racism? Obviously, it is not the violent, above-ground form of racism that the white majority waged against non-whites in our nation's history, but is it a silent form of racism? Does Thomas imply that only white people ride trains? Socioeconomically speaking, trains are expensive. Is Thomas encouraging children to forget the poverty (more a class issue, really)? However, statistics do show that although a higher number of whites live in poverty, a higher percentage of Blacks and Hispanics live in poverty. One in four, in each of the later two groups, lives in poverty, whereas 1 in 10, in the prior group, lives in poverty.
How many of us ate in a dining car?

This reminds me of discussions I have with people who remember back when racism was more visible and out in the open. They're comments center around what they remember "seeing" versus what is still occurring today, but just below the surface. They believe that race relations is getting better, because they do not see what they saw. However, when we look at the statistics (above), we clearly "see" that racism is still going on. Is Thomas the Tank Engine helping bubs 1 (and soon bubs 2) "see" racism? Good question. Maybe not visibly, but perhaps unconsciously. This may be why mainstream discourse, regarding racism, defends that it is better, because they can't "see" it. I partly agree. It's much better not to see discrimination as it happened in days past, but racism isn't gone.
Who amongst us slept in a bed car?

It's a big issue that nobody talks about. In politics, many conservatives support the position that minorities should "pull up their bootstraps like everybody else" and many liberals support the idea of providing services to help minorities get on level playing ground. However, both political sides ignore the fact that structural design leaves a disproportionate number of minority members with lesser resources than those who are more privileged.  Therefore, both end up perpetuating (enabling) a system that both serves the dominant culture and discriminates against the others. The real solution, is a radical one, and that is to change the existing infrastructure that creates this debate.
All caucasian... all 16 individuals

Thomas may be more promoting class hierarchy than the dominant culture, but as the stats show above, that could be one in the same for many. The cartoon does disproportionately represent individuals from the dominant culture  (and maybe class too) than minority populations. If we examine Sir Topham Hat's words, he perpetuates the class system by using his power to encourage his engines to be "useful." The engines depend on Sir Topam Hat's blessings in order to be happy too. They are the working class. How about those diesel trains? They're dirty and from the other side of town.

Both creators are caucasian
Let's not be one-sided. Let's look at a multicultural cartoon... say Go Diego Go. This cartoon likely appeals to those who ask, "where are the people of color in cartoons?" Diego has them. However, Diego doesn't question the dominant culture, because he operates outside the system.

I would like to see a Thomas-meets-Diego cartoon, where Diego, while riding in either Annie or Clara Belle asks (out loud), "where are the people of color on this train?" I'm not sure that Diego creators, Chris Gifferd and Valerie Walsh, would understand the benefits to write a script like this. They likely believe that they're script and cartoon is dealing with diversity properly (as probably do the networks who share in their lack of social awareness).

However, this is just what kids, like Bubs 1, need to "see" in order for the discussions to be less taboo, later on, and bring along quicker change.


  1. Lol love this article. All I can say is "clap clap clap, clap clap clap...Go Diego Go! Go Diego Go!!" Omg now I have that song stuck in my head.

  2. Ugh. Get a life. Stop looking for racism where there isn't any. Or maybe you are secretly racist and that is why you see it where it isn't. Youa re just projecting your own racism on others?

  3. @ Anonymous: Systematic racism exists in our society. I know that this offends you, because you're likely not a racist. I believe you. Many of us do not believe that we're racist, and we're likely correct. But we need to look past this tension and pull ourselves from the waters of the dominant culture (I'm assuming that you're caucasian, or at least, part caucasian who has grown up within the dominant culture). You may also be a member of a non-dominant culture, who has unconsciously "bought into" the dominant culture's norms and values. There are many of us out there. Racism is more than simply "not liking somebody because their not like me." It also exists in the very fabric that weaves throughout our society. It's invisible to many of us. Once you begin deconstructing the world around you and digging deep into the histories of "why we believe the things we believe in," you'll slowly begin to recognize that your social location may likely be on that has benefited from the dominant culture's rules and norms... and therefore become "blind" to how these norms and values impact "outside" cultures. Good luck. (Is this Laura Sears?)


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