Wednesday, May 01, 2013

CBC Kids doesn't want white people, and it's not racist or even a big deal

So, Kids' CBC is looking for a new co-host for their morning programming. Presently, the morning show is hosted by Patty, a 40ish white woman, and Mamma Yamma, a yam-shaped puppet. So, I guess that means that Sid Bobb, an Aboriginal man whose on-air role has noticeably declined in the last few months, is moving on to something else.

For the record, I've consistently watched Kids' CBC - sometimes more frequently than other times - with my daughter for more than 3 years, now. Aside from some bizarrely interesting musical guest choices - Billy Bragg singing with a puppet-crab, for instance - it's a remarkably tame show, no different from any other morning show aimed at the kindergarten demographic. So, this shouldn't be big news. But it turns out that it is. (Again, it shouldn't be, but it is.) Because this is what a hiring agency posted for the CBC:

The contentious line is the last one in this screen cap - "any race except Caucasian". (That this is the only contentious line is a hilarious irony that exposes the ridiculousness of the 'controversy', but I'll get to that later.) Twitter erupted with rage over the exclusion of white men, and both the CBC and the casting company they hired apologized. The casting agency also amended the ad so that it no longer mentions race, and you can read more about the agency and CBC's responses here. You can also check the coverage of this story at the Huffington Post, where Marni Soupcoff makes a number of observations that I both agree and disagree with, but all of them are quite thoughtful.

But as for that rage... the ads elicited a predictably conservative reaction, but I think that it's probably fair to look at just one. A friend of mine tweeted that it was an example of "sickly racism" and added the familiar cliché, "how about hiring the BEST host, rather than one with certain skin pigmentation?" He also made a connection between these hiring practices and the spotty record of Affirmative Action in universities, posting this link to a story in The Atlantic.

To that, I say "bullshit". (Well, in the actual interaction I called it a "non sequitur". But, y'know, it's bullshit.) The story in The Atlantic is about admitting students who lack the preparation and skill to compete at top-tier schools; this story is about a children's morning show host. The story in The Atlantic mentions that academic "mismatch"* might be responsible for black students dropping out of engineering programs at more than twice the rate of white students; but this job is literally not rocket science.

Some of the Kids' CBC cast: Sid, Patty, Captain Claw,
Mamma Yamma, and Salmon. Not rocket scientists.

There are two main points that I want to make, one in response to my friends complaints, and another more broadly in support of the CBC's hiring directives.

One, there is no "BEST host" out there. No one is finishing in the top-percentile of the Standardized Hosting Test and being overlooked because he's white. And to the extent that the CBC should be looking for the "BEST host", it's worth considering the actual needs and objectives of the program. Reasonably, I think, Soupcoff points out that "we also have to remember that what we're talking about here is casting an entertainer in a dramatic enterprise, not staffing a position in the bureaucracy."And indeed, a letter from the CBC told the hiring agency that they wanted actors who reflect "Canada and its regions as well as the country's multicultural and multiracial nature", since the show is very much about showcasing various regions and people in the country. In that case, the "BEST host" might very well be one with a particular race or gender that is otherwise under-represented.

And this leads directly into my second point. Regardless of the CBC's responsibility to aspiring hosts, they have a much larger responsibility to the kids that watch Kids' CBC. Canada's multicultural and multiracial nature? It's the audience for this show. Those same non-white kids? They can look forward to years of TV and film programming filled with the faces of white men, with the stereotypes of their own race and ethnicity, or with the exclusion of their race and ethnicity altogether. Representation is power, and for non-white kids watching a morning show that's populated only with white people? Well, it follows that lack of representation is disempowering.

I mentioned, at the top, that there was an irony to all this outrage. And it has to do with the fact that all the anger is directed at the exclusion of white people. The thing is, they're not the only demographic groups that were denied the opportunity to apply. Let me spell it out, in case you missed it. This was the very first requirement listed:
  • Male between the ages of 23-35yrs

So, who else can't apply? Anyone under 23. Anyone over 35. And women. No women can apply. An entire gender has been barred from applying. And where's the outrage? Where are the cries of sexism? Why aren't the people who successfully lobbied CBC to consider white men also asking them to consider women of colour?

Unsurprisingly, those hypocrites are nowhere to be found.

[*According to the article, "mismatch" is the term for situations where the student simply doesn't have the proper educational background for their program. The reasoning is that we don't want mismatches because we're doing those "mismatched" students a disservice - we should, instead, nudge them toward easier programs. What the "mismatch" rhetoric fails to address, of course, is that systemic racism has a lot to do with the lack of preparation - the disservice is done well before they ever set foot in a university classroom.]

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