The great American melting pot?

by Anti-Racist Parent Columnist Jae Ran Kim

Okay, I am totally showing my age here, but when I was a kid in the midwest in the 1970′s and 80′s, my siblings and I spent every Saturday morning watching cartoons and its safe to say that much of what I remember about the 3 R’s (reading, ‘riting and ‘rithmatic) came from the Schoolhouse Rock series that ran from 1973 to 1985.

Some of you might remember –Feeding on the commercial nostalgia and marketability, a few years back Disney put together a compilation of the 41 Schoolhouse Rock “episodes.” I thought it would be a fun way to kick in the nostalgia-memory cells and show my kids how tv was done in the “olden” days. They were amazed at “Conjunction junction, what’s your function?” and little, lonely “Bill” on Capital Hill. But then we came across the “America Rock” series.

In 1976, the Schoolhouse Rock creators began working on a series to celebrate and highlight the bicentennial that was titled “America Rock.” My favorite of the America Rock series was “The Great American Melting Pot” with the image of all these little kids jumping into a swimming pool “pot” shaped like the United States. Of course, as an internationally adopted kid, “The Great American Melting Pot” was a comforting notion. Heck, the United States is a country MADE of immigrants like myself! Right?

Uh, wrong. Looking back at TGAMP with fresh and adult eyes, here is what I learned: “American was founded by the English, German, French and Dutch.” And the “immigrants” who came “in search of honest pay?” They were Russian and Italian. That’s right – nary a Korean, Nigerian, Iranian, Japanese, Indian, or Kenyan. Not an Ethipoian, Somalian, Chinese or Guatemalan.

According to the 1970s version of the United States, this country was only made up of European and Eastern Europeans.

Nothing was mentioned about the people who were already on the land. Nothing about the slaves and indentured servants kidnapped and stolen and forced to “immigrate.” In short, nothing but a happy, pastel rainbow version of how great all the “immigrants” have “melted” into a giant pot. My daughter, in her viewing of this clip, said outright, “That’s racist!”

In the class I taught last semester, I used this clip in my lecture on the frameworks and messages we receive about race and differences in our childhoods, through media, and our culture. I think about how much more people of color are represented in the media now, versus when I was a kid; yet mostly those representations are still founded on stereotypes.

None of the America Rock episodes address slavery or how the early colonists tried to wipe out the First Nations people who were living on the land they wanted to homestead. Which in a way surprises me since this is after the Civil Rights movement and MLK, an era which I have always associated as a time of hippies, the feminist movement and 70s “Free to be You and Me.” To give you a comparison, the miniseries Roots was aired in 1977, the same year “The Great American Melting Pot” began its Saturday morning run.

In researching America Rock, I looked for some kind of critique of the biased representation of what “America” is (and of course, they say “America” but really mean the United States, not North or South America). I haven’t come across one yet. Even when Disney re-issued these episodes, where was the review about how “old school” they are? That the idea of a pluralistic society back then was equated with a European-ethnic identity and not a truly global ethnic identity?

It’s things like “America Rock” that contributed to my internalized racism and internal colonization. Despite the lack of people “like me” portrayed in these vehicles of education I completely bought into the melting pot mentality. It’s bizarre that as an internationally adopted person who was raised by a family who embodied the perception of what “American” was I was raised to believe I had the same white privilege of my family and could not reconcile why other people did not “know this.” Because duh – other people saw me as a racialized person. That’s a humdinger of a concept to try and get.

In trying to negotiate the way people of color are portrayed in our society’s cultural production, I’ve made a conscious decision not to prohibit my kids from watching these shows and movies, but to watch them together and point out how people like ourselves and our friends are portrayed in entertainment. As a result my daughter has honed a critical eye. When we went to a water park last spring, there was a “Tiki” theme to the park and my daughter was the first to notice the “mascot” was a buck-toothed, short and stout “Native Pacific Island” girl. When I was her age, I doubt I would have been able to articulate how I felt seeing someone like myself portrayed in such a stereotypical caricature – and although I was proud that my daughter is able to do so, it hurts to know that we’re still facing these stereotypes at all.

Jae Ran Kim, MSW is a social worker, teacher and writer. She was born in Taegu, South Korea and was adopted to Minnesota in 1971. She has written numerous articles and essays and is most recently published in the anthology “Outsiders Within: Writings on Transracial Adoption” from South End Press. Jae Ran’s blog, Harlow’s Monkey, is at http://harlowmonkey.typepad.com/

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