How Captain Underpants Teaches My Kids About Race

My kid loves Captain Underpants. Sometimes I cringe a little because of that. I mean, lots of potty humor, occasional disregard for authority figures, and continual lack of focus on responsibilities.

But it’s great silly humor.It teaches kids to explore their imagination, even at school. It teaches the power of friendship, and of laughter. It caters to the crude silliness of children to lure them into reading. My kids are going to enjoy underwear jokes, and author Dave Pilkey provides a safe place for that, without it getting to heavy no the potty side. The book/comic/movie series helps contain childhood hijinks.

It also teaches something neat about race. That race is a construct. And skin color is insignificant.

I noticed how obvious this is one day. In the comics, the protagonists George and Harold are introduced  the same way every time. George an African-American, and Harold, a Caucasian. Well, that’s how a lot of people would tell them apart. Not that there’s anything wrong with that. But it’s also something we take for granted, the idea that skin tone is a default differentiator between two people. It’s a sign of a very race-conscious world, one with a heavy history of race relations.

But in the comics, they are introduced like this:

Meet George Beard and Harold Hutchins. George is the one on the left with the tie and flat top. Harold is the one on the right with the shirt and bad haircut. Remember that, now.

friendship_by_sweets_and_giggles_dbtfz6p-200hI always thought this description was merely given to help prime readers about which was which. Two cartoon kids, always around one another. It helps to remember which name belongs to which kid in the pair.

But look at a drawing of the two, and how Pilkey asks us to tell them apart. One has flat hair and a tie. The other has just “a shirt” (as opposed to a button-up) and a bad haircut. They’re even drawn to highlight these differences in hair and clothing.

Genius. We could say that George is the black friend and Harold is the white friend. We could even make a point to say that they are best friends despite any racial difference. That would work fine. It would teach us the important of friendship transcending racial boundaries.

But the nuance in Captain Underpants is this: Friendship transcends anything. Also, what is race, even? It’s a way to teach race by not even mentioning it. And while that’s not always a healthy way to handle racial issues, which will come up and need to be addressed, it’s a great way to begin. Especially with kids who may have hardly noticed skin tone as anything more than a variation of skin.

Later, your kids will pick up on all layers of race culture, discrimination, favoritism, and race anxiety. But why not train them while they’re young to continue seeing their friends as distinguished by, well, anything.

Remember that now.

I think that last line really brings it in. I mean, maybe Pilkey was just reminding you to remember which kid is which, because either of them could be a George or a Harold. But I think he may have been intentional on a deeper level. Here’s these two kids. They look like this. Let’s start telling them apart by their style. Remember that now.

And the brilliant part is that Pilkey doesn’t have to say a single thing about race. He affirms the childhood understanding that friends are friends because of what they have in common and how they get along. Skin tones as some kind of barrier has to be taught to be reinforced. If you reinforce that skin tone can be just as arbitrary as hair or shirts, then you’ll remember it for life.

Not that we will ignore any idea of race as they grow older or pretend it’s not a thing in culture. But that we can work toward a world where we don’t have to talk about race so much. A world where it makes just as much sense to refer to these two kids by their clothing and hair, which they can change, to their skin tone, which is pretty much built in.

And if you’re the kind of person who wants to impose on this great friendship between ever so slightly different kids, well, maybe you take yourself and your ideas too seriously. Maybe your worldview is poopy.

So as I thought about this I decided I’d try putting it into practice more often. When I See a black person and a white person, while it may be harmless for me to point out “Austin is the white one,” I could point out “Austin is the one with the shades” or “Austin is the taller one.” Just to train myself to really see past boundaries that are made up.

Remember that now.


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