Children aren't born with racism -- they learn it

by Frank Rossi

When a film or TV show is hyped by the press, I usually view the plug in a skeptical vein, as in "Someone has a good PR agent."

But when I read about a recent episode of a Warner Bros. network sitcom, it actually elicited pondering.

On this episode of the sitcom, which features a black family, one of the children decides he wants to play Buckwheat from the Little Rascals for a Black History Month event at school. His parents discourage him, telling him he should go as a more respected figure, like Colin Powell or Louis Armstrong. The boy responds, "Buckwheat makes me laugh. He's funny." Therein lies part of the rub: Should Black History Month only cover positive, or politically correct figures in the black community, past and present?

This assumes Buckwheat was a negative image. Yes, he had messed-up hair and clothes and talked funny, e.g. "O-tay!" But the other Rascals weren't wearing their Sunday duds all the time, either. And as far as talking, remember Froggie, the Rascal with the raspy, barely understandable voice? And heck, Porky almost never spoke, come to think of it.

Face it, folks: The Rascals were neither fashion plates, nor did they speak the King's English. Sure, Eddie Murphy turned Buckwheat into a caricature ("Unce, tice, fee times a mady... .") But in essence, Buckwheat was part of a team, and he was never cast in a bad light. He never was shown committing crimes or being subservient to the other Rascals. He was their equal, and it's no surprise. Children aren't born bigots.

One day, I was flicking the remote, and came across a scene I've seen far too often in talk-show formats: Ku Klux Klansmen and black leaders on a panel. The twist was that the Klansmen brought their little kids along. The even bigger twist was that one of the little kids, a toddler, kept smiling and waving at a black man in the audience. To the child, he was just another person.

It was even more ironic when the black man stood up and pointed this out. While the Klan mother was denying this, the kid, sitting on her lap, kept smiling and waving at the black man, who waved and smiled back. I never thought a talk show could have that kind of poignancy.

As an Italian-American, I can relate to this Buckwheat thing somewhat. Ever notice how often the Mafia is associated with Italians in the media?

Take Frank Sinatra. He's been often associated with organized crime, especially in the `60s during the Rat Pack's heyday. Fortunately, the media have been treating these "links" in a rather humorous manner.

It's not that I and other Italians object to films about the Mafia. It's that often, the implicit message is that ALL Italians are associated with the Mafia at some level, and THAT'S not true.

If I had a son, I would not object to him going to an Italian event as Al Capone, though. The Mafia is part of my heritage, like it or not, and I will not ignore it.

Rossi is an alumnus who never liked Godfather's Pizza.

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