When you’re willing to keep learning new things every day, it sure does make it harder to burrow into your ignorance, no matter how warm, snuggly, and persistent it seems. Evolution of thought, though a necessary prerequisite of growing as a person, can also be uncomfortable and stress inducing. The things you once accepted without reflection are now problematic. Popular attitudes have shifted beneath your feet, and, suddenly, you are faced with a radically altered landscape. You can either get with the program or risk becoming one of those individuals constantly talking about how things were better in your day. What you usually mean is that they were better for you, and screw everyone else. But occasionally something happens that shines a harsh spotlight on your past ignorance and complacency, making it impossible to ignore.
Such a thing recently happened to me, in fact.
I was on Twitter the other day — mostly because I’m a glutton for punishment, but also because I adore pettiness in all its online forms — and I happened upon a tweet that went something like this:
You’re trying to tell me that Willy Wonka sent Golden Tickets around the ENTIRE world and five white children got them ALL???
I have to tell you, I was shook. I read Charlie and the Chocolate Factory as a child and loved it. I watched Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka more times than I can count, rapt with glee as I imagined myself wandering through the chocolate factory, avoiding all the booby traps and ending up in the glass elevator, an everlasting gobstopper clutched in hand, victorious. But how exactly did I see myself in that story when there wasn’t a single person that looked like me represented in the book or the film? And, seriously?! No kids from Asia, South America, Africa? Not even one? And why didn’t I notice that glaring absence before that devastatingly simple tweet?
I’m not joking when I tell you that single sentence shook me to my core. It made me reevaluate everything I consumed as a child — books, movies, television shows, EVERYTHING — and take a full assessment of the appalling lack of diversity.
I had another such moment of sudden clarity when watching the Last Jedi in the theater a few years ago. I’ve been a Star Wars fan since childhood. Some of my fondest memories involve watching the original three movies on television with my dad and brother. Sitting in the theater, watching the final battle between the resistance fighters and the First Order, there were the obligatory close ups of the rebel pilots in their cockpits, dialing up the drama as you wait for one of them to suddenly burst into flames and explode after getting hit. Suddenly, out of nowhere, a closeup of a black female fighter pilot filled up the screen. It only lasted a few seconds, but it was enough to sit me back in my seat. I clearly recall saying: WHOA! And I was flooded with real elation…until I realized my excitement was born of the nearly complete lack of black people in the original movies. We had Lando, but he betrayed Han Solo, and he was never a central character. All the central characters were white.
And if something I loved as a child isn’t completely devoid of diverse characters, it’s chock full of sexism or stereotypes of what various POCs are supposed to be like. So much of what many of us adored decades ago has not aged well, leaving us struggling to come to terms with the trash we once believed was treasure. When we know better, we do better, but that’s complicated when large portions of our childhoods are bound up in the soft, sentimental feelings all these books and films stirred up in us back in the day.
I wanted a Golden Ticket with every fiber of my being when I was a kid, years before anyone knew about letters to Hogwarts. I wanted to be a jedi, even though there were no black jedis (and don’t start with me that Samuel L. Jackson’s Mace Windu was a black jedi in the prequels, which technically predated the original trilogy, because that storyline didn’t even exist when I was a kid, so sit down), no female jedis, and definitely no black female jedis. My imagination filled in the gaps in what I saw in the world. And, eventually, the world began to catch up with me. But what does it say that I didn’t even identify this as a problem? That I just considered it normal to never see faces that looked like mine represented in the media I consumed and loved?
I say it all the time and, despite the repetition, it’s never any less true:
I have no idea what eight year old me might have thought at the sight of a little black girl or boy walking into Willy Wonka’s chocolate factory. Who knows how I might have reacted at the appearance of a black jedi as the central character in one of the original three Star Wars movies or, hell, just a black female fighter jet pilot rallying with the rest of the resistance fighters. And if there were fewer movies and cartoons where the long and short of the female lead’s life revolved around pleasing a man or finding a husband, by any means necessary, what then?
Seeing myself reflected in more of what I watched and read as a child might have changed the way I thought of the world and my place in it. It might have expanded my idea of what was possible. I’ll never know, because I didn’t have that wealth of representation as a girl, but it’s encouraging to see more of it for the kids coming up today. When we know better, we do better.