Childhood Movies, Racial Justice, and Calling Out “Products of Their Time”

Hi. My name is Sarah (Spanish pronunciation). I’m the founder of the podcast and blog What the Kids Were Watching. And I’m back on the blog, for the first time in months, to remind y’all that Black lives matter.

I have a lot to say about how racial justice impacts a podcast about childhood movies. But first, I want to share a list of resources that I have been using to learn about white supremacy and fragility, reach out to government officials, and find organizations to donate to. This list is by no means comprehensive — it’s pretty short — but I wanted to compile a few of the things I’ve found helpful, some from the last few years and some from the last few weeks. Many of these links came from a community of friends and colleagues I made at a former job; I’m still grateful to them for all of our conversations on white supremacy, intersectionality, and internal bias.

So here’s my list of where to start and what to do first:

  • Learn about white supremacy and white fragility. Be honest with yourself about your own biases. I’ve found the Instagram accounts of Layla Saad and Rachel Cargyle to be incredibly insightful.
  • Learn about intersectionality. Watch Kimberlé Crenshaw’s amazing TED talk on it.
  • Take action and donate money. Donate to one racial justice group, donate to five, or even match donations your friends are making up to a certain amount!
  • Support Black businesses. Buy their products and share on social media why their work is awesome. And don’t just support the famous authors and musicians that everyone knows about — find up-and-coming musicians/artists/authors and purchase their products. (Side note: If you’re into knitting like I am, you’ve probably read about racism in the knitting community; remember to support the yarn stores that support racial justice.)
  • Watch movies made by and starring Black artists. Tons of great films that spotlight Black experiences are available for streaming right now. (But please, skip the white savior movies.) Alas, I can’t find the incredible Maya Angelou: And Still I Rise documentary on streaming channels; but if you can find it, watch it. I also loved Horror Noire, a series of fantastic and eye-opening interviews about Black representation in horror movies. And Visible is a great documentary about the history of LGBTQIA+ representation in media (there’s intersectionality again!).
  • Also, all my love and appreciation to BlackAFinSTEM on Twitter and Instagram. Watch videos like Birding While Black Part 1 and Part 2 and read the stories from Black Birders Week. I hope that all the people who never realized how isolating (at best) and dangerous (at worst) it can be for Black people outdoors have their eyes opened and commit themselves to making these fields truly inclusive.

And now, I need to talk about the podcast.

If you’re wondering what a podcast about movies from childhood has to do with racial justice, I’ll tell you the answer: EVERYTHING. Raf agreed to start this podcast with me so we could re-analyze and re-evaluate the films we loved as kids with the knowledge we have now. Almost all of them are problematic on some level, but some of them are so deeply flawed that I cannot celebrate them anymore.

I refuse to excuse any media with the phrase “They were products of their time.” Just because something is socially acceptable doesn’t mean it’s right. Just because it was acceptable to, say, have someone in brownface doing a bad Indian accent does not mean that it was okay. I’m going to call that shit out when I see it.

While putting together the first season, we made some hard decisions about staying on topic vs. challenging the racist content in some of the films we covered. For example, Raf heavily edited our “Short Circuit” episode. This was because I started talking about how Johnny 5 became a U.S. citizen in the sequel while today our government has immigrants in detention centers and cages, and I became so angry that Raf stopped recording. He told me he’d edit that section out, and if I was okay with the resulting episode, we’d release it. When I heard the finished version, I signed off on it because it still included our honest discussions about being ignorant kids and how angry I was (and am) that I wasn’t exposed to more diverse perspectives growing up.

But some things can’t be salvaged. We made the last-minute decision not to air one episode. We recorded and Raf edited a podcast about the 1987 movie “Dragnet.” It’s a goofy comedy, and Tom Hanks gives a great performance in it. I loved it as a kid, even though — as with most of our selections — it was not appropriate for children. In theory, it was a fine candidate for the podcast. But when listening to the edited episode, I couldn’t stop thinking about the police brutality in the film. Yes, it’s all played for jokes, and I commented at great length about how problematic the movie still was. But in the end, I wasn’t comfortable saying anything positive about a film that made light about cops assaulting and using tanks on citizens.

Not everything that inspires nostalgia is good. Not everything from “another time” is bad. But when privilege turns racism and violence into comedy, we have to call it out. “Real Genius” was right — it IS a moral imperative.

Again, I feel such huge gratitude to everyone in my circles dedicated to racial justice and allyship. And thank YOU for reading all the way to the bottom of this post. Keep fighting. Keep learning. Stay strong. Be wonderful. I love you.

Copyright 2020, Sarah A. Ruiz & What the Kids Were Watching/Quail School Media. All rights reserved.