The hit Nickelodeon series “The Loud House” follows a cartoon family in which the main character, a boy named Lincoln, lives with 10 sisters. They’re white, but the show makes an effort to depict a multihued world everywhere beyond the house: Lincoln’s best friend, Clyde, is Black (and over the course of several seasons, has been voiced by two Black actors), with nothing made of it beyond the simple fact. One of the sisters’ boyfriends is Latino (voiced by a Latino actor), and one of the supporting characters is of South Asian descent (voiced by a South Asian actress). The “Loud House” spinoff, “The Casagrandes,” is about the boyfriend’s Mexican American extended family. We’re a long way from “The Flintstones.”
Interestingly, the same thing is happening on popular animated shows for adults: On the long-running “Family Guy,” Blackness has often been played for comedy; but on a recent episode, the main character, Peter, gets a new boss, a Black guy, whose race is incidental. He stood out not for being Black but for trying to squeeze the fun out of at-work birthday parties — you know, like a stereotypical boss. A recent episode of the also long-running “Bob’s Burgers” introduced a character as the game master of a Dungeons & Dragons-style game who was nerdy, charmingly awkward and a Black woman — i.e. a full spectrum of a human being. The hit “Ted Lasso” portrays today’s United Kingdom, where whiteness is hardly default as Black and brown people are part of the warp and woof of all levels of society. A recent “Archer” episode even jokes about today’s Britain, when Lana (voiced, as it happens, by the Black actress Aisha Tyler, who had a recurring role as Ross’s girlfriend on “Friends” back when there was a mild uproar about that show’s lack of Black friends!) wrongly assumes a Black man will stand out in a London crowd.
No doubt, some of you will think these pop-cultural examples are superficial. But imagine a ’50s-era segregationist sitting down to watch TV now and realizing that these shows are there for the watching in just about every American home — they’d be apoplectic. That represents genuine change, reflecting transformations in attitude and perception, which younger people, especially, see not as “oh, wow!” but “of course!” — as it should be.
Another good thing about our moment is that we’re gradually shedding the idea that racism is about only individual feelings, nasty words and overt acts of bigotry. The idea of systemic racism — societal inequities rooted in racism of the past or present that represent barriers, in many instances, for people of color — is now common coin to a greater extent.
Sure, I have documented my issues with the way we are taught to think about systemic racism, and to say that opinions about how to address it differ is putting it mildly. The argument for reparations, for instance, is not the utterly settled question some suppose. And controversy will continue over whether the take on systemic racism originating in, and taking a cue from, critical race theory is a useful one.