Subtle racist indoctrination was everywhere. Not just television and the movies. It was also being transmitted in school.
Colonial Hills Elementary, fourth grade class of Mrs. D—. Before interactive educational computer programs, pedagogy ran on flash cards. Mrs. D— had flash cards for everything. One set had silhouettes of all the states in the Union. Another had all the countries in the world. See the shape, guess the right country, and get a shot of dopamine to the nucleus accumbens, the pleasure center of the brain. Capital cities and major crops and industries were listed on the back of these cards for extra points. I was a master of any and all flash cards. Without realizing it, I was also a slave to the rewards (approval, love) that their correct answers promised. Mmmm, dopamine.
In the pre-Powerpoint era, flashcards also served as presentational tools. One day, Mrs. D— was presenting cards that showed “families of the world.” There was a photo of a Japanese family in which everyone wore a kimono. A family from an unspecified country in Africa wore dashiki. A generic Arab family had the men in burnous with the women in hijab. Everything was going well until she got to a card depicting a white family. The father in the family wore a grey suit with straight lines. The mother wore a pleated skirt with petticoats. The daughter dressed like the mother, but the son wore dungarees and a striped shirt that let you know he was made of “snips and snails and puppy dog tails.” As she flipped through the flash cards, Mrs. D— provided minimal commentary.
“This is a Japanese family,” she said.
“This is an African family.”
“This is an Arab family.”
“And this is a normal family.” You could almost hear the brakes in her mind screeching to a halt. “Oh, no,” she corrected herself. “I mean, this is an American family.”
There is something beautiful about the way my fourth-grade teacher caught herself in her own normative bias, recognized the problem, and attempted to redirect the attention of her young charges. All of the families were “normal,” she must have realized, and she didn’t want to give her students the idea that American families are more normal than others. What was the point of having “families of the world” flash cards if not to teach intercultural understanding and diversity? Of course, I don’t recall Mrs. D— using those phrases. The fact that she caught and corrected herself is likely the only reason that I remember this episode, but the memory is so vivid that I can smell the mimeographed worksheets and waxy crayons in the room; I can feel the cool linoleum floor where we sat on cushions watching the “families of the world” flash by. I’m sure I must have been wearing dungarees and a striped shirt as I watched. My family had been “normal” for a split second, then we became American.
This ridiculous set of flash cards is so rife with racism that it’s almost impossible to figure out what to unpack first. The depiction of families in “native costumes” is a good beginning. Were we meant to believe that everyone in Japan only wore kimonos? The costumes were bright and exotic and grabbed our attention, but where was the harm in showing Japanese businessmen wearing grey suits with straight lines as they rode the high-speed rail to work? Or the school uniforms that Japanese children wore? Or what the children wore when they weren’t at school? This wasn’t feudal Japan in the age of the samurai for God’s sake! This was 1967, when many Japanese people shared the Western fashion choices of Americans. That idea is problematic, too, but at least it represented contemporary culture. And an “African family”? Not a family from Benin or Zimbabwe or Tunisia? Did the creators of “families of the world” flash cards believe that nine-year-olds were so unsophisticated that they couldn’t grasp different people from different countries? Benin is a country that is shaped like Vermont. Zimbabwe is shaped like Ohio. Tunisia is shaped like New Jersey. And Africa, which is a continent and not a country, is shaped like … well, Africa! I learned to distinguish all of this from the flash cards produced by the same company that made “families of the world.” If I could differentiate all of those countries and states, why didn’t they trust me with more nuanced depictions of people!?
The most infuriating piece was that Americans were depicted as white and upper middle class. The family on that flash card came right out of central casting for every TV sitcom of the 1950s. I didn’t know anything about Japan or Africa, but even I knew that there were all kinds of ways that an American family might look. The racist subtext of these flash cards seeped into my brain. But, thanks to my teacher’s slip-up, I also started to carry the tiniest nugget of discomfort about what the school was feeding me. I began to “question the dominant paradigm,” as I would later say in grad school. I was on my way to ... something.