Curses!: The Arctic is Saved but Unconscious Biases are Reinforced

January 20, 2017 — Leave a comment

By age three or four, children in America across all racial groups understand, implicitly, that it is better to be White.

This research-backed statement, shared by Dr. Robin DiAngelo during a public lecture I attended last week floored me. I hope it hits you similarly, if you haven’t encountered it before.

How or where could they be getting this messaging from, many of my fellow White citizens might be wondering? Certainly we aren’t teaching this to our children. (Except those of us who are, but let’s leave that aside for today.)

Instead of diving didactically into research, I thought I share some on the fly analysis I did a few days seeing Dr. DiAngelo while watching a 2016 animated film with a White friend and her six year old daughter. The movie, which I’d never seen before was Norm of the North. (NOTN from hereon out).

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I’ll preface this by saying:

  1. I’m not a identity analyst expert.
  2. I watched the film once. I did not go back and fact-check numbers.
  3. I start with race but move to gender and color markers, and American English dominance.
  4. I hated this movie generally, as did others.

 

White People

The plot of NOTN revolves around the possibility of condos being built in the Arctic. We see early on that people are visiting the Arctic, but not living there: cut to shot of around six tourists, bundled up, taking pictures of the animals. All the tourists are White. The condo plot line is introduced: the owner (the antagonist of the film) and lead marketer are White, as is the entire film crew shooting a commercial. A family of three featured in a flashback are White, as are the other tourists in the group they’re with.

The setting of the movie transitions from the Arctic to New York City. All the people on the streets this New York are White… except… wait! There’s a quick panning shot and I caught two people who I thought were meant to be people of color… and then I definitely saw the first person of color in a quad of characters reacting to seeing a polar bear (Norm). He was a lighter toned Black male.

At the condo company’s advertising agency, there are a collection of actors waiting to audition to be the polar bear mascot; if the actor is not wearing his polar bear costume’s head, not only is it a male actor it is White male actor.

The Sushi restaurant that Norm is taken to has an entirely a mostly White clientele, but the chefs and owners are Asian (presumably Japanese). [UPDATE: in searching for images, I ran across one from this scene and saw a POC in the Sushi restaurant.] The two city council members are White. The reporters are all White.

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Not only is she sassy, but this Black female talk show host has a pink set!

The talk show host who welcomes Norm onto her show is likely modeled after Opera and so is a Black. (But being the only Black female in the movie she is also “sassy.”) There are a few other mass-of-people-on-the-streets shots in which the same Black male (or what looks shockingly like him) as the reaction shot early in the film appears. And at some point there’s a Latino character in a limo but honestly the movie was so bad that I was taking notes on this blog post and lost track of who he was. He, like the other characters of color were incidental.

And that’s it.

While, yes, the “evil” antagonist in the movie is White too, all the good-hearted human protagonists who help Norm on his mission to save his home are White.

And let’s top this all off by noting that the primary character of the entire film was a shinning white, aquamarine-eyed polar bear.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

Polar Bears and Lemmings

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Lemmings on bottom, polar bear on top.

In the first ten minutes of NOTN, we see a range of Arctic wildlife: caribou, orcas, and seals. The two animals featured prominently in NOTN are polar bears and lemmings. Polar bears are the leaders, they are special, fewer in number, grand, powerful, smart, and they have names—individual identities. Lemmings are prolific, short, workers, executers, comic relief, and they are referred to as “lemmings”—group identity only. Polar bears save the day. Lemmings assist with the saving, sure, but they also urinate in an office aquarium, fart extensively, and are intentionally jumped on top of to flattened and then pop-back into shape. Polar bear bodies are respected. There is no respect show to lemming bodies, even by lemmings themselves. Polar bears are White. Lemmings are Brown.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

Primacy of English

Norm the polar bear is able to save his Arctic home because he is “different”—he can communicate with people. (He also does a dance called the “Arctic Shake” but I digress.) Norm’s special ability is identified for him in his youth, show to us in flashback. Norm and a few polar bear friends encounter a human family (White, blonde) and Norm speaks. The little girl reacts to what he says, to his surprise. “You can understand me,” Norm asks. The little girl, in close-up, laughing (mockingly I might editorialize) at him replies affirmatively “you’re talking human.” The turn of phrase was so abnormal from the mouth of a child: you are talking human. This is the phrase used by an obviously American child character speaking English, to another American-sounding English speaking character. Albeit, a polar bear.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

Pink

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This is one pink bedroom. With soft pink lighting too!

The little girl who tells Norm he’s “talking human” is wearing pink, as is her mother. The condo marketer, the human female protagonist, is dressed in a full pink snowsuit. Her daughter’s room is entirely pink. The antagonist has a receptionist who is wearing a pink-purple dress. I developed a love for pink in my thirties; however: the use of colors for gender markers, particularly the wide-spread insidiousness use of pink, is deplorable.

What message do you think that all sends children? In no way is the answer: it doesn’t.

And so my question is…

What are we doing to counter these messages? NOTN is one bad movie to which, with hope, you have not been subjected. But there are countless good ones that contain similar messages leading toward the development of prejudices and unconscious biases early in life, and reinforcing them throughout. How can we heighten our awareness, maintain vigilance, and initiate conversations with our children, youth, teens, friends, spouses, parents, colleagues, and associates? We need to take advantage of every opportunity, even stinking rotten tomatoes like Norm of the North, to interrupt messages (and behaviors) we don’t want to continue. 

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