The White Ninja

yXA6yySSomeday I’ll remember that what my kids see and what I see is not always the same thing.

This weekend, the boys and I spent more time than any good mother would allow watching episodes of Ninjago on DVD.

(If anyone is keeping score, I am not a good mother.)

At first glance, Ninjago a fantastic show. A team of four Lego ninja lives on a flying pirate ship and fights against giant evil snakes and skeletons with the help of their elderly sensei and a samurai.

It’s like the folks down at Lego Studios (or whoever makes their shows) canvassed thousands of little boys and asked them to list everything they could think of that’s cool and then crammed all of the kids’ answers into one story line with heaps of merchandising and Lego building sets to pique their imaginations.

Fantastic, right?

Only, after watching about two dozen episodes with my boys*, it finally occurred to me that A) there’s only one girl character, and B) EVERYONE on this show is white. Ok, the girl and the sensei might be Asian or partly Asian, but I’m not really sure.

(*Don’t judge me. I was editing a manuscript on a tight deadline. No, go ahead. Judge me.)

Now I’m willing to overlook the girl thing. Like Black Widow in The Avengers, Nya is a super badass samurai who kicks it in this giant mechanical suit (like Ironman but with bigger shoulders). But the show is clearly meant to appeal to boys, and while we could go on for days about gender equality in kids’ entertainment, I’m ok with the boy-heavy theme.

But the race thing really bothered me.

For one thing, if I were an executive with Lego, it would seem like—if for no other reason—leaving out characters of colour is just bad marketing. I haven’t seen the market research, but wouldn’t the show reach a wider audience if there were an even mix of characters of different races? Even if there were a few characters of mixed race? SOME sort of diversity???

I refuse to believe that children of colour secretly wish they were white and prefer to see white characters in their TV shows. Just the idea makes me sick to my stomach—if that’s the case, then something has gone horribly, horribly wrong with our society.

The more important point, though, is that showing an image of an all-white world just isn’t realistic. I think it’s true that people tend to gravitate towards and identify with people who are similar to themselves (thanks to a sociological phenomenon called ‘homophily’)—which is fine—but the fact is that NOT everyone in the whole wide world is white.

And just because my boys are white, it couldn’t possibly hurt them to experience characters of other races, could it?

I guess the argument would be against creating characters that are essentially white in every way except for skin colour—because a lot more goes into race and culture than simple pigmentation—but couldn’t we try? As a white mother of white kids, it’s hard for me to say. I just think Lego has missed an opportunity to represent a larger community and to educate (or at least expose) white kids to other races.

As I was tossing all of these ideas around, thinking how they might best sound in a cleverly worded blog post, my youngest son presented me with a teachable moment.

“That’s weird,” he said, still watching the show. “The pirate captain talks like an American, but he’s supposed to be from the other side of the world, so how can he be American? And all the ninja are American too.”

“That IS weird,” I agreed, wondering if I’d managed to project my thoughts into my child via some cosmic mother/son mental telepathy. “And you know what else is weird? Everybody is white!”

At this observation, my son looked at the TV and then looked back at me.

“No they’re not. They’re yellow. Like the Simpsons. They’re Lego colour.”

At which point it dawned on me that my boys think ‘Lego colour’ is its own race and none of them are black or white or Asian or anything else, which I think is kind of cool. So maybe the Lego folks have sidestepped the entire issue of race by creating their own. Or maybe not.

All I know is, we should probably watch fewer cartoons.