Racism is a horrible thing, a disease that has been part of our collective history and that remains until today. Particularly in recent years, with a refugee crisis on our hands and a strong populistic right-wing emerging in several western countries, it feels like racist movements are gaining traction. Have we learned nothing at all within the last century?
Racist Cartoons History
Sometimes the key to understanding the problems we have today lies in our past. How can we complain about deeply rooted racism in our society, especially in the US, when looking at how we used to embrace and mock other races in our past? Fact is, that cartoons used to portray African and African-American people in a way that was shamelessly degrading, to say the least. Cartoons that million of kids around the world grew up with and adapted, and some may still carry around in their heads to this day.
We have made an effort to find nine racist cartoons, which tried to find “funny” ways to drive a nation apart and inspire prejudices in the worst possible way.
Mickey’s Mellerdrammer (1933, Walt Disney)
Let’s address the elephant in the room. Yes, there are racist cartoons and movies by Disney that depict scenes that are, hands down, awfully racist. And there are plenty of them. I can even remember watching some of them on old washed out VHS Cassettes that belonged to my parents when I was younger. And to get you warmed up, what could be more appalling and racist than Mickey Mouse himself staging a slavery (“Uncle Tom’s Cabin” to be exact) story by wearing blackface?
If even the poster child of the cartoon era wore blackface, what else can you expect from this list? Well, did you know Mickey Mouse once adopted an African sidekick named Friday? Mickey, in fact, starred in many racist cartoons.
A friendship that was so deep he used the always smiling and awfully misrepresented character as a signal horn for his boat. Racist cartoons are racist.
Santa’s Workshop (1932, Walt Disney)
Well now that we’ve destroyed Mickey’s white vest with some blackfacing evidence, how about we take a look at dear Santa Clause next. In a Walt Disney production released a year prior to Mellerdrammer, we can see Santa producing all sorts of toys for kids in preparation for Christmas. That cannot be bad, right? Right?
Well casting the creepy butt-stamping aside, bringing out the worst stereotypes in a toy seems to be Santa’s favorite past time activity. If he does exist out there, we hope he is indeed better than this “old classic” from Disney’s racist cartoons collection.
Tom & Jerry (1940 – 1967, MGM)
Tom & Jerry is a cartoon series most of us are familiar with and know why they’re on this list. Despite being an integral part many generations growing up, it also had a very inappropriate way to picture African-Americans in the short clips. Some of them have long been banned, while others have been banned and partially restored to its original form. Like the maid, which was replaced with a white woman in a censored version, while the versions aired today still include the original depictions, though with different voice actors. Those semi-original versions of the ractist cartoons are still aired today, though only with a disclaimer condemning certain contents.
If you don’t believe us and still have the rose colored glasses of childhood memories, how about you take a look at this worst off we have found.
Magical Maestro (1952, MGM)
Let’s stay with the MGM Filmstudio for now, as they have other workings that play with depictions of blackface for some easy jokes. One of them is Magical Maestro by Tex Avery, which was chosen to be preserved in the U.S Natural Film Registry for being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant” in 1992. Whenever the short is aired on television, however, TV stations usually cut out this scene in particular:
Jungle Jitters (1938, Warner Bros.)
We’ve already covered Mickey and Tom & Jerry, so it is about time we give another influential cartoon series the attention it deserves – The Looney Toons. While most associate the carrot munching Bugs Bunny or the lisping Daffy Duck with the name, the series has produced a variety of shorts unrelated to those iconic characters. One of which is Jungle Jitters. And while we usually had to hand-pick certain parts of the previously shown racist cartoons to illustrate the racist parts, Jungle Jitters is actually the other way around.
A salesman in the jungle finding a cannibalistic tribe, black as night, voluminous lips, crazy for chicken, and ruled by a white queen – well done Warner Brothers, we actually don’t know what to say at this point. Maybe we should be glad none of the white characters on screen chipped in with some blackface makeup. You may have won, or rather lost, this competition. Unless…
Scrub me Mamma with a Boogie Beat (1941, Universal)
If the title is not indicative enough let me spell it out for you – this short is incredibly racist and just packed with African-American stereotypes. A town full of African-Americans being lazy, called Lazytown. Right. What’s next – they all eat watermelons? Wait…
The funniest part here is actually that a white woman comes by and teaches them the rhythm to be more productive and lively – well there are more things wrong with that than I can count with two hands. You have to be a certain kind of sadist to portray African-Americans as a lazy bunch after enslaving them for years and exploiting them to the bone. At this point we can probably be glad they at least spared us the, up to this point, almost essential depiction of a white person sporting blackface makeup. Universal stopped distributing the short in 1948 due to obvious criticism about racial stereotypes. This is about as bad as racist cartoons can go.
All This and Rabbit Stew (1941, Warner Bros.)
And the award for the most racist accent goes to…
Well deserved Bugs Bunny, well deserved. With this clip, The Looney Tunes seemingly only replaced the white Elmer Fudd with an exaggerated African-American, but otherwise left the concept of the short intact. This clip, along with Jungle Jitters, is one of The Looney Toons’ collection of racist cartoons called Censored Eleven and was not broadcasted on Television in the US since 1968. Wise move Warner.
Racist Cartoons Bonus: Betty Boop Making Stars (1935, Fleischer Studios)
If you ever questioned when all those goddamn talents show started, look no further, Betty Boop invented them more than 80 years ago starting with the youngest in our society. Racist cartoons indeed never produced a single good thing. Putting babies on stage is weird in itself but if it’s three African-American ones, chained together with a diaper pin, things start to get very wrong. And if you then imply babies of this ethnicity only respond to eating watermelons… Well, let’s say I am starting to see why we are still fucked up in the head today.
Plane Dumb (1932, Van Beuren)
Well, technically we have already shown you nine (and one bonus) cartoons at this point. But how about we throw one more in for good measure? Did you know there was another pair named Tom & Jerry before Tom & Jerry? We neither, and we’re glad about it. I think this one needs no further introduction or commentary but speaks for itself. Just one sentence: Blackface taken to the extreme!
How to Handle Racist Cartoons Today
This is, undeniably, part of our history and, in fact, an integral part of many people’s childhood. Nevertheless, should we be able to look back and realize how horribly unequal and evil some facets of our lives were and how to learn from them. Risking just a peek into the comment sections of any of those videos makes it evident that people are very touchy and aggressive when things they grew up with and perceived as “cultural” is all of a sudden questioned and devalued based on the actions depicted. I am not for banning this kind of cartoons, but to use them for education purposes. Racist cartoons and the depiction of blackface in any medium are something we need to look at and learn from, acknowledge that we have come a long way and there’s still more to go until we can really all be equals in society.
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