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Cartoons discuss racism – The Static Shock edition two decades later

With everything going -it feels necessary to find ways to discuss the issue of white supremacy and racism in our society and especially in our media. As an Ashkenazi Jew with a non-Jewish name, I do pass as white most of the time. I don’t look “typically” Jewish – but I’ve always been in areas with a lot of Jews, so it’s never been a huge issue.

But, I’m still an outsider. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve gotten better at recognizing and learning about the issues visibly non-White people have. And I’m still learning.

When I was young, I learned the same sanitized version of racism and slavery in school that pretty much everyone in America does. My family never really talked about these issues, at least that I can remember, so a lot of my earliest exposure came from the media.

I’ve bought up Static Shock before, specifically the episode that deals most overtly with racism: “Sons of the Fathers.

I’ve decided to revisit this episode for my review this week – I am aware I am not the authority on this subject, so if I make a mistake, please let me know and I will correct it.

This episode appears in the first season of the show, which is much earlier than I initially thought it did. The episode begins with Virgil and Richie hanging out at Virgil’s place like usual -and he asks Richie why they never do sleepovers at his place and why he’s never met his dad.

During this exchange, Richie makes excuses but eventually relents -and invites Virgil on a night when his dad isn’t supposed to be home. Of course, his dad, Mr. Foley, does show up, and we get to overhear him complaining about his Black co-workers and that “one of them is in [his] house.”

Though Virgil tries to play it cool -saying, Mr. Foley’s dislike of rap music and complaining is a dad thing -the last comment convinces him to head home and Richie to run away. During his journey, he gets kidnapped by Ebon in order to lure Static, after he overhears the two talking.

Virgil’s father, Richie’s father and Static must then rescue him. Of course, this is a children’s 2000 cartoon -it has a happy ending. But if I recall, we never run into Richie’s dad again.

Does the lesson stick?

I remembered most of the episode very well – but even though the show often tackled some pretty serious issues, it was still bound by the laws of 2000s kids’ TV to have a happy ending. And I don’t think that part of the episode aged very well.

While it does seem that Mr. Foley has gotten over at least some of his bigotry by the end of the episode, we never meet him again, so we don’t know if the lesson stuck. He seems to move from “all these people are bad,” to more of “You’re not like those other Black people.” He does seem to be more towards the latter when he talks to Mr. Hawkins, but I can’t really imagine this playing out so neatly.

Re-watching it today definitely gave me the impression that he is more of a “I can’t be a racist, I have black friends” line when people call him out and as an excuse to use the n-word type of guy.

So I gotta wonder, he recognizes not all Black people are thugs thanks to Static and Mr. Hawkins — but the Bang Babies are mostly people of color and Ebon is Black. How did this affect him in the long run?

The Bang Babies, being mostly racial minorities and gang members, is a pretty important aspect of the series – it gets addressed in other episodes , but it seems like some of that could have been added to this episode.

In the end, Mr. Foley apologizes and reconnects with Richie, who does forgive him, but that’s it. We’re left with the impression that he’s no longer a racist.

Of course, I recognize this show was from a time when we weren’t having these conversations and it was pretty big to have an episode tackle this subject, particularly in a kid’s show with a Black protagonist.

This show helped lay the foundation for all the amazing shows we have today – but honestly, this episode feels so much like an after-school special that I was trying to remember if Virgil and Richie came out at the end and spoke to the viewer about what they can do to fight racism and be the real hero.

Thank goodness they didn’t.

Some anvils need to be dropped

But, not everyone had such easy access to the internet back in the 2000s, and certainly social media wasn’t really a thing, so stories like George Floyd, Tamir Rice, Breonna Taylor…just wouldn’t get talked about all that much outside of their communities.

And that’s important to recognize. It’s really hard now to look back at some shows and wonder how they were ever considered progressive. But back then, and sometimes even now, you can’t afford to be subtle.

So the show made sure its morals were as clear as day without needing to pull a Captain Planet.

Racism is bad. It’s shameful. And you don’t have to follow in your parents’ footsteps. Just because Richie’s dad is a racist doesn’t make Richie racist. 

And I can understand why Richie would want to hide his friendship with Virgil…his dad doesn’t seem like the most reasonable sort of guy. But it would have been interesting to see how their friendship developed in spite of his upbringing, especially since Virgil seems to be his only friend – and the two seem to have been pals for a while.

The episode doesn’t go into details like this. Sure, Mr. Foley  gets a lot of lectures and really comes off as a grade-A bigot, saying words like “those people” and not liking having Virgil in his house.

The dinner scene really captures this well – and it’s interesting how he keeps his most racist thoughts for when Virgil is out of sight and presumably earshot – but the meal is tense and you can tell the other Foleys are just hoping their patriarch doesn’t say anything too offensive.

I often wondered when I was little why they didn’t say anything. Of course, that was before I really understand a lot of the complex nuances of race, politics and social niceties.

I did realize there seemed to be something more, but at that time I couldn’t put my finger on it.

An extra interpretation

I think Richie’s dad was supposed to be abusive.

 The feeling at dinner went beyond just them wishing he wouldn’t bring up race. They seem genuinely frightened and intimidated by him.

His mom and Richie are apologetic and meek -they don’t argue. And it seems like they’ve never really argued before, they’re afraid of the consequences. The fact that we never get a lot about Richie’s home life makes me think there’s a lot more going on.

 I know in the comics Richie is gay – and that’s something that doesn’t get bought up in the series. It’s mildly implied since he never gets a love interest but I bet if they rebooted the show today, it would become an important aspect of his character.

And it would make the relationship between him and his father tenser. But, it’s also kind of cliche. 

But, Mr. Foley in universe being abusive would explain why he spends so much time over at the Hawkins place beyond his father’s bigoted views. He feels safe there.

Holding up to today.

I think it would be really interesting to see how this topic would be handled today. I would love to see the issues of police brutality and protests tackled. And it would be interesting to see how the discrimination Bang Babies face due to their powers is compounded by their race – as  opposed to superpowers being a direct metaphor for race.

There’s another episode where Virgil is ecstatic to meet another Black superhero and another focused on how his mom died during gang riots as a first responder. But they still don’t have a whole lot of nuance.

The episode itself though doesn’t focus as much on the issue as I remember it to, and when it does, it’s mainly through lectures, of course, given by a Black character who does most of the emotional labor.

Even Virgil is the one who has to sort-of apologize in the end and assure Richie he doesn’t hate him for his father – I don’t think Mr. Foley ever really apologizes to Virgil. He apologizes to Mr. Hawkins –but it doesn’t feel quite sincere. And it’s only to Virgil’s dad about specific actions and not his attitude in general.

Look, all I’m saying is Mr. Foley in this episode seems like the kind of guy who’d be calling the pandemic ridiculous and goes to Costco without a mask on, and then complains about the current protests. I don’t think it’s because he’s a realistic character -though he’s certainly the kind of guy who would like the cops and blame the Hawkins family for kidnapping but that’s beside the point.

This show is dated. I’ve said it before. And it’s not just with how the show handles its topic but also…the language. I’m pretty sure “phat” as slang was already outdated by the time this episode aired and there are moments when the dialogue is just downright cringe-worthy. I assume this is because the producers thought that all inner-city teens talk in slang and wanted “authenticity” rather than an actual attempt to incorporate AAVE into a show that’s focused on African-American characters. 

I would say the episode is still a decent starting point to introducing racism to older children – but there are still better options that do it much better and Sesame Street is one of them (as I doubt your 7-year-old wants to watch Elmo.)

Things aren’t great now, and they haven’t been great in a long time or possibly ever. And that needs to change. And we’re going to need the media to help us with that goal -it shapes our perceptions about groups that aren’t our own – so we need to do better at depicting those groups, their culture, their perspectives and ideas. And we need to band together to end this -it isn’t easy now to protest for many due to the pandemic, but there’s a lot you can do: donate, call governors, sign petitions, and talk to your family and friends.

And that’s the scoop.

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Score: 8/10

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Info: 

Year of release:  2000

Length: 22 minutes

Director: Dan Riba

Writer: Christopher Simmons

Voice Actors: Phil LaMarr, Jason Marsden, Kevin Michael Richardson, Michele Morgan, Gary Sturgis, Brian Tochi,

Please consider donating to one of the bail funds on this list: https://www.scalawagmagazine.org/2020/06/protest-bailout-donations/

6 thoughts on “Cartoons discuss racism – The Static Shock edition two decades later”

  1. Whilst he’s never a major character, Mr. Foley does make minor appearances throughout the series where we see he’s still in contact with Mr. Hawkins.

    I don’t believe he changed overnight, but I did get the impression that he’s making an effort if only due to his son and Mr. Hawkin’s influence.

    I totally see him as the type to still make judgements about race, even if unconsciously (like thinking a nice African American teen in the community center is a hood).

    Also Shiv and several other bang babies were white.

    I also got the impression Mr. Foley was abusive, at least verbally/emotionally, his wife seemed afraid of him.

    There was an interesting comment at the end where Richie mentions the guys in makeup at the comic convention, leading Virgil to say one step at a time. According to the creators, Richie Foley is indeed gay but they weren’t allowed to say it.

    What was in the Sesame Street link, its gone now?

      1. Thanks for the video, thats actually very interesting and relevant, especially from a educational TV series!

        I never thought Shiv was Asian, but looking it up others think the same and I don’t think his race is stated, so I might’ve been wrong!

        I meant the cartoon version of Richie is confirmed to be gay. It’d be interesting to see how that’d play out if the cartoon was allowed to show it back then.

        Now I’m imagining how a modern day Static Shock would cover Covid 19 and Anti-Maskers! Man I’d like to see another series like this, I love Batman, but he could use a rest.

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