Visibility revisited


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?

4 thoughts on “Visibility revisited

  1. I SWEAR my answer to your question Do any of the other characters have an identifiable ethnicity? was WHITE before you acknowledged your assumption.

    For a long time I wondered wtf Arthur was supposed to be with those ears — an aardvark right? But he walks on two feet like all his other buddies and they all have the same accents (middle American white) and the same values, and the same social conflicts. All lifted from white culture.

    BUT it did not immediately occur to me that it is weird to throw in a Chinese character into a culturally homogenous white environment. Then again, the concept doesn’t strike very many of us white AP’s as weird enough, does it? And yet we are surprised and offended when someone notices.

  2. When my kiddo first started watching this show it made me so crazy that I couldn’t figure out WTF these animals were supposed to be that I looked it up on PBSKids. Binky is a bulldog. Here’s the link to the FAQ which solves the riddle:

    I do like this show, but the anthropomorphism-to-the-extreme thing is a little freaky. Thus the whole animals- having-an-ethnicity-thing is freaky x 2. But I agree that the assumed ethnicity of the majority of the characters is definitely White. There have been a number of episodes of this show and its spinoff, Postcards from Buster, where a character is clearly portrayed as having a “different” ethnicity (i.e. waiter in Chinese restaurant drawn with distinctly Asian features, family from Ecuador that speaks Spanish).

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