Who remembers Ghostwriter, the PBS children’s series from the 90s? It was one of my favorites growing up, despite the fact that we weren’t actually allowed to watch TV. My grandmother would let us sneak PBS in (sometimes even for four or five hours a day, splurge!!!) when we stayed with her during the summer if both our parents were working. There were lots of great shows, including Kidsongs (uh, yeah, musical theatre + a kid-“produced” show? right up my alley), Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego? (apparently a cappella had a moment), Shining Time Station (Ringo Starr shout-out!), and Lamp Chop’s Play-Along with Sheri Lewis (this sketch was never on PBS!). But without a doubt, Ghostwriter was the best.
If you didn’t happen to watch it, Ghostwriter was a live-action show featuring a group of kids in Brooklyn that solved crimes and mysteries with the help of a ball of light and words. You can actually watch a lot of the show on YouTube! Fair warning, though: the pilot episode is suuuuper slow-paced, in spite of the delightful surprise of Samuel L. Jackson!
I was mildly pondering the show the other as I walked through a portion of Washington Heights, remembering how much I enjoyed it and how much I wondered, as a kid, what that magical, diverse, sun-filled land of “New York, New York” would be like in person (HA!), when something suddenly occurred to me: PBS (including all of the above shows, plus Mister Roger’s Neighborhood and Sesame Street) was the way I was exposed to diversity.
I spent my formative elementary school years in a rather white neighborhood and a very white private school. Honestly, things didn’t diversify too much when I later moved to a (high-income, mostly white) public school system for junior high and high school. So for a long time, PBS was my main exposure to kids of other races.
And I can honestly say that it made a huge impact. Especially Ghostwriter. As we did with all TV shows and movies, my sisters and I would pick characters that we got to “be” for the rest of the show. If I recall correctly, Amy was always Gabby, Katie was Tina, and I was Lenni. Of note is the fact that two of the three girls are ethnic – Gabby is Hispanic and Tina is Asian. (Lenni is really the only white protagonist on the show originally, if I’m remembering correctly, as Jamal was African-American and Alex was also Hispanic. From my picture above, though, it does look like a white male was added later – Rob, maybe?) Yet we weren’t conscious of ethnicity at all in casting ourselves – Amy chose Gabby because she spoke Spanish and was something of a freer spirit, Katie chose Tina because she was brainy and quieter, and I have a feeling I chose Lenni because she was often in charge. MY, HOW LITTLE CHANGES OVER TIME.
Anyway, tangents aside, my first impressions of all these minorities was a.) overwhelmingly positive (“they’re so cool!”) and b.) deeply normal. These were kids just like us, and their ethnicity rarely featured in the show, except in the occasional episode exposing prejudice or hate crimes or similar things. Also the world of New York seemed unbelievably different from my quiet little cul-de-sac, and I remember being impressed that they lived in the “city.”
I don’t want to read too much into this except to say, “Huh, that’s interesting,” and to see if other people have had similar or different experiences. (I’m especially curious whether people of other generations can relate to this?) However, the strongest impact on my racial paradigm undeniably occurred when I moved here to NYC, as every single day that you live here, you come into spoken and silent contact with literally thousands of different people of every race, economic level, and personality imaginable. You start to see things and think about people (and eventually even politics) in a way that you often don’t growing up in higher-income, predominantly white communities.
I really think it’s worthwhile recognizing the impact that a TV show can have on someone, especially a child. (Not the first time I’ve talked about this effect!) Too often we downplay the entertainment media’s influence on ourselves; and yet, I feel very strongly that the media has by far the strongest power to swing our paradigms – for better and for worse.