The "Is this Offensive?" Thread

We didn’t really have a thread where I thought this fit, so I decided to make a new one. We kind of talked about stuff like it with “Is D&D Racist”, so that kind of stuff could go here.

But the thing that came to mind recently, was this:

The Crow characters in Disney’s “Dumbo”

So I was talking to my girlfriend recently, and this song came up. Really, this whole sequence is really great if you remove all the racial aspects. And that’s how I viewed it as a child, when I saw it. To my young self, when I saw dumbo as a little kid, there was no thought about the crows being black people. They were just crows. And the songs were very well done.

But now, looking back at this, this is essentially a blackface routine, right? Especially when looking it up, and realizing that none of the voices of the crows are actually black people, but they’re pretty clearly exhibiting what are intended to be african american mannerisms and voices, in an exaggerated way, akin to a blackface routine.

I can’t imagine this getting made at this point, but it still seems kind of hard to fully get my head around. I can watch that scene now, and see that it definitely has racist stereotypes. But at the same time, I still appreciate the artistry and music. Part of this is likely due to nostalgia, although I suspect that just objectively most folks would admit that it’s a well put together animated scene.

On some level, my PARENTS must have realized the racism, but as I said, as a child viewing it, that stuff never really connected.

Does anyone have any thoughts about this example, or others like it? Would you let your kids watch this? If so, would you offer any additional guidance to them while they watch it?

that’s not even the worst one

“The film has never been released in its entirety on LaserDisc, Beta and VHS in the U.S., or on DVD and Blu-ray worldwide, due to accusations of racism and stereotypes of African Americans.”

I think we had the LP of this one, because I can still sing along to all the songs in it.

No wonder my parents are racist.

I was watching Lady and the Tramp with my kids on Disney+ and I was cringing like crazy during the Siamese cat song.

I can tell you that non-boomer, “greatest generation” parents didn’t think about it. Or at least mine didn’t at the time.

I mean, my mom and dad were both born in the late 1920s (I was an OOPS! baby; mom was 40 when I was born; I’m Gen X. My older brothers are all Boomers.) I grew up in a house that had a framed photo of FDR in the living room, and had framed photos of MLK and JFK in various other rooms. One of my few memories of my dad (he passed suddenly when I was just 8) is him teaching himself to play guitar while listening to Paul Robeson records.

So yeah. Mom and Dad were pretty liberal, politically. Hell, with those Robeson records, they might’ve been called leftists, even. :)

Anyway, with that said…I don’t think mom or dad even blinked twice about taking me to see Dumbo or Song of the South when those got theatrical re-releases in the early 1970s. They were Disney Movies ™ so they had that stamp of approval on them as being kid friendly and family wholesome.

And yet I can also tell you that when I was older and in college, I can remember my brothers and I joking about the awfulness of the racist crows in Dumbo at a family gathering (probably holiday dinner) and Mom just saying something like “It really is terrible that we just let that go by…” So yeah, it’s possible to NOT see something at one point in life, if society says so…and then see it plain as day later.

I think that blackface overall kind of fits into this category.

Mr. Yunioshi in Breakfast at Tiffany’s.

Fuck everything about this character.

Yeah I mean the crows kind of spill the beans when one of them is named Jim Crow.

So yeah, it is racist. But racist in that way that white suburbia didn’t recognize was racist until much later.

Peter Pan’s indian tribe also fit the bill. Some things that simply wouldn’t be ok, including the yellowface example that @Telefrog just posted that I was going to mention.

I mean they weren’t really ok then either, but some people didn’t recognize that.

Song of the South is certainly the most famous Disney issue, but a LOT of Disney early stuff has similar material. As do the Looney Tunes. As do the Hanna Barbara stuff. Or go watch the Charlie Chan movies. Or a lot of Peter Sellers work.

The world has changed. For the better, certainly, but I hope we can at least appreciate that (I hope) there was no ill will in a lot of earlier material, just a lack of perspective. It is damned hard to escape your own culturalization.

The Disney back catalog is full of land mines. Have you watched Peter Pan recently? “Why is the Red man red?” is totally awful in every way.

But, Dumbo is in a weird place because it’s got lots of excellent bits mixed in. Lindsay Ellis, for instance, directly addresses “When I See an Elephant Fly” (she notes that it " totally slaps").

Song of the South is a bit trickier. It was explicitly racist, and was even identified as being a racist throwback when it was being made, whether or not the bulk of white suburbia was listening.

Used to like this guy as a kid in the 70’s.

Song of the South comes across as part of the then-ongoing and long-term campaign to mythologize the history and culture of the South to minimize the real meaning of the Civil War and the Confederacy.

Don’t forget the other elements. Implied suicide, domestic abuse, sexual assault, and assault and all that just in Pepe Lepew. There is a lot of classics, but there is also a large number of forgotten shorts, that disappeared down the memory hole because they were bad in some way.

Yeah. It’s a problem, because blackface comedy was a mainstream part of American culture for several decades, continuing to appear here and there well up through Bugs Bunny, Popeye, etc. etc. There’s a lot of cultural product one would like to consume that has a blackface tinge to it.

John Berryman was a major American poet (white), and his masterwork is a series of formal poems called The Dream Songs. He talks about himself via a stand-in named “Henry,” and frequently Henry is addressed as “Mr. Bones” by an unnamed interlocutor who speaks in blackface dialect. “Mr. Bones” and “Mr. Interlocutor” are the traditional names used in minstrel-show skits — think Amos and Andy, where the joke is, Oh boy, that Amos sure is lazy! And Oh boy, that Andy sure is deceitful! And there’s often a sentimental note of, But aren’t they a lot like us? But Berryman’s Mr. Bones and Mr. Interlocutor don’t talk about anything like that — they continue the subject of the poems, which is Berryman himself and his depression, flaws, and failings. Is it racist? I honestly don’t know. Racism certainly isn’t the point of it, but does it have to be the point to be called racist? By the way, what is the point of it? Self-deflation? Maybe, but after plenty of reading I’m really not sure.

Another complication is black consumption of blackface culture. There’s a novel by African-American writer Paul Laurence Dunbar that I read back in skool — I forget the title, but it’s from about 1920 and is about a family that moves up to NYC from the South. The old mother is puzzled that all the Harlem crowds go to theaters to see blackface routines and dancers no better than she could see on any street corner in her hometown and act like it’s all remarkable and hilarious. But the crowds all seem so sophisticated and certain that she goes along with it. The scene seems to be about forgetting the past and holding oneself above one’s own past self. It’s not “You shouldn’t be laughing at blackface because it’s racist” but “It’s sad that we forget our own roots.”

More recently, it has occurred to me that Richard Pryor’s classic routines about Mudbone and the Wino are basically blackface routines. They’re certainly not racist, but they come straight out of the tradition of those skits. You can’t escape the influence. Just be aware of it? I don’t know.

Also, one of the best records I own is Good For What Ails You: Music of the Medicine Shows 1926-1937. Much of the music on it uses minstrel dialect (“While the moon am a-shinin’”) and racist tropes (songs about how much the singer loves chicken). Some are sung by whites, some by blacks. Some are beautiful, beautiful songs. Are they racist? Sort of? I don’t know.

Porgie and Bess has amazing music, but nobody ever performs the whole musical as written, because it is LOADED with painful period authentic stereotypes and racist behavior.

The fact that it is so clearly meant as a respectful homage, and that the dancing is so transcendently good, makes it hard for me to ‘cancel’ this particular bit of blackface.

I purposely didn’t post in the other thread about the D&D stuff because I didn’t want to contribute to the derail, but since this is an appropriate thread I’ll put in my 2 cents. Yes, there are some fairly obviously racist underpinnings to many fantasy worlds, including the various D&D planes and Tolkien’s world. It is incumbent upon those who make use of those worlds to acknowledge and offset that history. With an RPG like D&D, that’s literally built into the structure of the product…you’re supposed to make your own stories and rules as the Dungeon Master. When I DM a D&D game, I’ll often work against the racial stereotypes…not only does an intelligent orc who cares about his family push back against the racism, it also makes for pretty good storytelling.

More Disney

And the really obvious one from the second Transformers movie

Bingo. I watched this repeatedly as a kid in Georgia. Only later did I pick up on the subtext (or really, it’s so blatant it is just the text I guess). But it’s all part of the “moonlight and magnolia” movement, like GWTW.