6 Times When Disney was Racist
I love everything Disney. My family spent a lot of time in Disney World when I was growing up, and I know many random facts about Disney that I’ll never need to know. The other day, Jeremy and I were watching one of our favorite Twitch streamers. He was looking at the different times that Disney hid racist comments or ideas within their movies.
Some of them were better hidden than others, but what disturbs me is that I never thought of them as racist when I was a kid. I needed to write about this because I need to process how the innocent movies I used to watch were not so innocent.
Dumbo wasn’t one of the movies that I watched a lot. In fact, I think I’ve only seen it a couple of times in my life. This movie was made in 1941, and some parts didn’t age well. A group of crows are depicted as black and are seen as racist because of their “jive talk.” As if that’s not bad enough, the lead crow is named Jim–as in Jim Crow. This reference to the segregation laws that lasted into the 1960s did not age well.
There is also a song in Dumbo that’s called the “Song of the Roustabouts.” Roustabout is defined as “an unskilled worker,” and the song is sung by faceless black people. They sing about being happy roustabouts and how they never learned to read or write. They sing about how they work until they’re almost dead, then they throw their pay away. I might be looking too far into it, but it also seems like Disney was trying to compare black people to elephants throughout the song. You be the judge!
The Aristocrats is another movie that I remember us owning, but I didn’t watch it often. I don’t remember too much from it, but I definitely remembered this scene. In it, Disney depicts this Siamese cat with all of the Asian stereotypes that they could. He has a symbol as a hat, teeth that stick out of his mouth, talks with a lisp, and uses chopsticks to play instruments. Honestly, I don’t think they could have made it worse.
Peter Pan is a classic story–one of which I plan on diving into deeper in its own post someday, but there’s a lot to it. This movie was a popular one in our household, and I remember feeling uncomfortable during this scene but not knowing why.
In this particular scene, Native Americans are shown in the most stereotypical way. They sing a song that’s called “What Makes the Red Man Red.” I don’t know what else to say other than, now I understand why this scene made me uncomfortable as a child.
Lady and the Tramp
In Lady and the Tramp, Lady meets the two Siamese cats when she gets adopted into a new home. The cats are introduced with symbols and bells. They have teeth that stick out of their mouths, and their eyes are narrow and exaggerated. They make a mess in the house, and Lady tries to stop them as they tear everything up, then blame her for it. The entire time the cats are talking, they have a strong Asian accent that’s exaggerated.
Aladdin was one of my favorite movies–the live-action one is still one of my favorites. I never thought anything of the lyrics from the song “Arabian Nights,” however, the words say a lot about how the Middle East is portrayed. There’s a part where they say, “where they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face–it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home!” I had to search for the de-edited version because it’s been edited since the movie came out.
Disney also portrays all of the “evil” characters as stereotypical with thick accents and turbans, while all the “good” characters are accent-less. There’s a lot of sexism in this movie too, but that much was apparent to me at a young age. It’s the racism that I didn’t pick up on.
Song of the South
This is the main reason I wanted to write this post. I recently heard about a Disney movie called “Song of the South.” It was released in 1946 and caused a lot of controversies. The story takes place either during or right after slavery–no one seems to know the exact setting–on a plantation in the south. Slaves were depicted as happy to work and very stereotypical. Most of the movie is live-action, but some parts are animated as Uncle Remus tells his stories.
Disney is making changes to a famous ride in Disney World. Splash Mountain has been one of my favorite rides since I was young. I had no idea what the ride was based on, but I knew that I liked the catchy song and the animatronic animals. The popular ride was inspired by Song of the South. The song “Zip-a-dee-do-da” was sung by Uncle Remus–one of the plantation workers–and the animals from his stories. I can’t believe I had no idea this movie existed.
I can’t find a way to watch the whole movie because Disney has had it locked in a vault for almost thirty years. The whole movie is on YouTube, but it’s blocked in most countries. This movie never got a home release in the United States because of its controversy, but it did get a home release in the UK and Japan.
In further research, I discovered that the movie premiered at the Fox Theatre in Atlanta, Georgia. The man who played Uncle Remus, James Baskett, could not attend the premiere because the city was still segregated. It boggles my mind that the star of a movie wasn’t allowed to go to his own premiere.
If you’re interested in Song of the South, this video explains a lot about the movie. You can also watch all but Song of the South on Disney+. Happy learning!