For more anti-racism resources, check out our guide, Racial Justice Is Reproductive Justice.
You might find yourself nostalgic for Saturday morning cartoons if, like me, you were a white kid growing up in the 1980s ignorant of the racism that pervaded your beloved shows.
Then you grow up, you have kids of your own, and you watch in horror as some of the most popular kids shows deal in racist stereotypes. Kids take in this messaging—as you did—with no historical context. These shows can mold the way children perceive people of other races for the rest of their lives.
The Nick Jr. cartoon Paw Patrol recently came under scrutiny for its police dog character, Chase, the sort of archetypical “good cop” that portrays police officers as benevolent caretakers of their communities. The ever-present “good cop” can be especially insidious in a children’s show, teaching kids that all police are inherently trustworthy upholders of the common good. (They’re not.) Paw Patrol‘s seemingly innocent nature is precisely the point: messaging about law enforcement can be slipped into a cartoon about cute little dogs living in some sort of imaginary dog utopia.
Now more than ever, parents are scrutinizing their children’s media and looking for TV shows that don’t deal in harmful stereotypes. Here are five shows that are not only not racist, but also teaches children to celebrate diversity and difference.
This animated Netflix show for older kids (around 10 and up) follows adolescents navigating a treacherous video game simulation, featuring a diverse cast of characters who alternate taking leadership roles in their mission to get out of the simulated world. The Hollow is full of kid-friendly technologically dystopian twists, and while it does feature some LGBTQ representation, there’s room for growth. I was pleased to find my 7-year-old son watching The Hollow, even if that meant I had to sit down for his incredibly detailed 20-minute plot synopsis.
A Black female doctor can be a powerful image for kids in the media they consume. That’s what they’ll get with Disney Jr.’s Doc McStuffins, an animated show about the good doc providing care for her stuffed animals and toys. Doctors were almost exclusively white men in the shows I watched growing up, so the sight of a Black woman health-care professional—who is not nurse—will have a lasting mark on children.
I’m grateful that my son and daughter have already learned that doctor doesn’t automatically mean white, or man.
This PBS Kids cartoon centers on four children known as the “Sparks’ Crew” who are learning to harness their superpowers and their scientific knowledge to solve problems. The show (for younger children) focuses on the innate values of curiosity, teamwork, and empathy for friends and strangers alike. Led by Mr. Sparks, an energetic Latinx teacher, the Hero Elementary kids—Lucita Sky; AJ Gadgets, who has autism; Benny Bubbles; and Sara Snap—are free from racial and cultural stereotypes. They’re funny, too.
Avatar: The Last Airbender
Asian and Inuit characters led the way in this action-packed show—its three seasons from 2005 to 2008 were released on Netflix in May—that includes hard lessons learned by young people who have to grow up fast for reasons that might spoil the show. And I wouldn’t do that to you (or your child).
I’ve enjoyed watching these strong, complex characters (who can “bend” environmental elements, including airbending, waterbending, earthbending, and firebending) in storylines that won’t warp my kids’ brains with any racial stereotypes.
Molly of Denali
Molly of Denali, the first nationally available kids series to feature an Alaskan native leading role, helps younger kids “develop knowledge and skills for interacting with informational texts through video content, interactive games, and real-world activities,” according to PBS. My daughter recently began watching Molly of Denali—upon urging from a certain parent who was writing a piece on anti-racist kids shows—and she’s very much engaged in the series’ learning aspect. It’s one of those rare shows that teaches children about unfamiliar cultures without the kid having any idea that they are, in fact, learning.
There’s even a podcast that parents and kids can listen to together, featuring Molly herself.