The children’s show Arthur has a new character, Mei Lin, who was adopted from China by Binky’s family. Aside from the question of species (is Binky a dog? a bear?), there’s another question I wonder about.
Do any of the other characters have an identifiable ethnicity?
I always assumed that many authors and illustrators of children’s books used anthropomorphic animals so that their books would not be racialized and thus would have a “universal” appeal. But when the characters don’t have any cues or clues to their ethnic heritage, I always assume they are white.
It will be interesting to see how “Chineseness” is played out in a series where none of the characters have an “identifiable ethnicity” (read: non-white). You can see from the cartoon above that Mei Lin has black hair. She also has an identifiably “ethnic” name among the others. Arthur’s circle includes Sue Ellen, Buster, Prunella, Kate and George. Mei Lin clearly stands out as the Chinese dog (bear?).
Will she wear Chinese clothes? Talk with an accent? Eat with chopsticks? Will her parents start buying Chinese clothes and tee-shirts with Chinese characters on them for her dog (bear?) family members? Will their doghouse (bear den?) suddenly sport Chinese art? And in a happy make-believe world where groups intermingle without the friction of species clashes like eating each other, will Mei Lin be an outsider or an insider?
And where are the other Chinese dogs (bears?), aardvarks, monkeys and rabbits? Or can they only be seen within the majority gaze? As adoptees of color are sometimes the only visible people of color within the white adoptive parent circle, is Mei Lin destined to be alone?