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My Black History in Canadian Animation

The character of Raquel (far left) on The L.A. Complex says a black friend is a TV-only thing.

  

     I was watching the pilot episode of the new live-action drama The L.A. Complex.  In one scene, a struggling (white) Canadian actress Raquel, tries to bluff her way into an L.A. audition for the “best friend part.”  But the producer (also white) says she’s decided “to go another way…we’re going black.”  Cut to a wide shot: the waiting room is full of black actresses.  The producer says, “I really don’t want an all-white show.  You know, it doesn’t really reflect reality.”  Frustrated, Raquel inappropriately blurts out, “So you’re making the best friend black.  It’s just kind of a cliché, don’t you think?  I mean, who has a black best friend?…It’s a TV-only thing.”

It got me to wondering…is the “black friend” a cliché in Canadian animated series or does having a black character in a show’s cast “reflect reality?”

So in honour of Black History Month, I thought I’d touch on the touchy issue of ethnic diversity in Canadian cartoons, specifically black characters.  I’ll use the term “black” even though it makes some of us Canadians uncomfortable.  We usually use the politer-sounding “African-Canadian” or sometimes the more ethnographically-correct term “Caribbean-Canadian” (as most black Canadians are of Caribbean origin.)

 YOU’VE GOT A FRIEND IN ME

 Over the past decade, I’ve written for a few series where the black character is pretty much in the “friend-zone.”  One was the title character’s best friend.

Best Friend: Jamie voiced by Jordan Francis in Carl Squared (Portfolio)

One was a member of a group of friends of the title character. 

One of the friends: Jamal on Ricky Sprocket (DHX Media)

And one was a member of a team of heroes – but the leader was a white guy.

One of the team: Odie scoots in on Class of the Titans (DHX Media)

 So in my experience, when you see a black character on a Canadian animation series, yes, he or she is usually either a friend of the lead or, more likely these days, part of an ensemble of characters.

How does Johnny feel about being part of an ensemble? I’m guessing…Stoked! (Fresh TV)

 

 

Until a show creator manages to sell a production company and a broadcaster on a series featuring, say, the daring adventures of a black superhero from Halifax and his “white friend” sidekick, or the hilarious antics of Caribbean-Canadian family in Toronto, for now most black characters are “one of the gang.”

Black team member (in green) Agura Ibaden in Hot Wheels Battle Force 5" (Nerd Corps)

 

Some might see that as tokenism.  But I see it as an  attempt to reflect the multi-ethnic reality of North American society. 

And I do say North American rather than Canadian society. 

 

Wyatt adding diversity to 6Teen (Fresh TV)

According to the 2006 census, the Canadian population was 2.5% African-Canadian, mostly living in urban areas of Ontario and Quebec.  On the other hand, Asian and South Asians make up about 11% of the Canadian population.  Yet you don’t see them represented as often in Canadian-made animation. 

So what’s up with that?

 

The faces of North American reality shows are reflected in the cast of Total Drama World Tour (Fresh TV)

 

Well, consider that the US is an important market for Canadian animation.  Their population is ten times ours with African-Americans making up about 12%.  Having a US broadcaster aboard can make the difference between a series going into production, or dying at the development stage. 

 

 

 

Piper: a member of the crew of Storm Hawks (Nerd Corps)

 

 

So from a sales standpoint, it’s good for business if your show reflects America’s ethnic diversity.

 

 
 
 

Custard (in centre) from The Save-ums (DHX Media)

 

It’s interesting to note that in even in preschool animation – which often dodges the issue of ethnicity altogether and broadens their international marketability by having a cast of animals characters or brightly-coloured creatures – sometimes care is taken to give a non-human character a black vibe, for example Custard from The Save-Ums (voiced by African-Canadian actor Jordan Francis) or Tyrone and Uniqua in the US series The Backyardigans.  Those producers feel it’s important for young children to have their “reality” reflected vocally.

 MORE IS MORE

 Of course, I’m not saying we have too many black characters in Canadian animation.  What I’m hoping for is that in future, show creators will include even more characters of all ethnicities in their series.  I’ve also written for Asian-Canadian and Latino-Canadian and First Nations characters in the past and it would be great to write for them more often.  Canadian animation viewers from a non-European background ought to be able to see themselves  represented onscreen, especially when TV programming is supported by Canadian tax dollars!

 So to all the writers, show creators, production companies and broadcasters out there: Canada welcomes  people of all cultures and ethnicities to make this country their home.  Let’s help our animation industry reflect our reality.

Is Ruby's best friend Louise (left) a "bunny of colour" on Max and Ruby? (9 Story Entertainment/Nelvana)

 

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  1. February 13, 2012 at 8:42 pm

    aaaand, wasn’t bradley from stickin’ around black? that show was so funny!!! it was the best!!!!

    and: awesome post!

    especially when you touch on the demographic differences between the US and canada. it kind of begs the question: if we are so committed to “fairly” representing ethnic diversity here there and everywhere, then should we also be striving to reflect the socio-economic diversity of north america ? was the littlest hobo ahead of its time? or is this a touchy subject ? is it a slippery slope?

    also, it seems silly, tricky, and almost pointless to me to check “ethnic diversity” off our “cleared conscience” lists by adding one black/asian/latino/first nations character in the midst of whiteness, because, obvs, there is no singular mode or story of being a black/asian/latino/first nations person, as token characters almost seem to imply when you just fill them in with a different skin colour 😦

    and i’ve been thinking a lot about the east asian-canadians/asian-americans on tv, too. i probably don’t have enough examples to back this up, but it’s almost as if people believe that audiences won’t accept asian characters who “sound american” unless these characters have american-sounding last names. these are live-action examples. pardon me!:

    like london tipton, played by brenda song, in the suite life of zack and cody.
    granted, she’s supposed to be half-thai, half-american. but still.

    and kelly and piper peckinpaw, played by ashley argota and tiffany espenson from bucket & skinner’s epic adventures.

    were they both adopted? (actually, i think the actress who plays piper was adopted)

    how come daniel dae kim played “tom baker” on 24 ? was he also adopted?
    http://24.wikia.com/wiki/Tom_Baker
    i mean, it’s cool if he was.

    and have a look at lucy liu’s imdb page
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm0005154/
    how has she played so many characters with white last names (“nola lyons, “mia mason,” “alex munday,” etc)?
    i mean it’s cool and all, but i don’t really get it. were they all adopted? or married? or anglicized because she didn’t want people to think she’d speak in broken english when they saw her name???

    on the other hand, how many doctor/cop/legal procedural dramas have you seen where an asian actor plays a character with a very asian-sounding name and speaks in broken english or no english at all as they cry desperately for help?

    and seriously, what is with matthew moy’s character, han lee, on 2 broke girls?!
    http://www.imdb.com/name/nm3211555/
    horrendous! UGH!

    anyway, thanks for the read! i’m always excited to read canimation posts in my feed.

  2. Gorillamydreamz
    March 4, 2012 at 12:42 am

    Thanks for reading, Justina. We post when we can so we try to make each one worth it!

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