Is Disney racist? I don’t believe that Disney is racist any more than a drinking fountain or a bus or a cathedral can be racist. I do believe that Disney is part of a system that is inherently racist.
Now hear me out, especially if you never had any trouble finding dolls that look like you on the shelves when you were growing up.
Walt Disney, who, incidentally, was rejected from being a cartoonist at a Quad City business, came to fame in the 1930s when our Black brothers and sisters in the south were still caught in the throes of sharecropping which was slavery by another name. It was illegal for Blacks to own property. It was illegal for Blacks to serve in the Military in any meaningful capacity.
Disney made the Brothers Grimm and Hans Christian Andersen’s fairy tales come to life. All of these tales were Northern European, home to whites. The cartoons were white. The feature films were white. The majority of people who could afford to go to the movies or who were even allowed to go to the movies were white.
Disneyland opened in 1955. That same year Rosa Parks refused to give up her seat in the front of the bus to a white man. 1955 was the same year 14-year-old Black Emmett Till was kidnapped and brutally murdered. His killers, who bragged about the murder in Look magazine were white adults, and were acquitted by an all white jury. In 1955, it was still illegal for interracial couples to be married in some states.
Disney World in Florida opened in 1971. 1971 was three years after Martin Luther King was shot. Disney World opened around the same time President Nixon was quoted by his chief of staff as saying, “You have to face the fact that the whole problem is really the blacks. The key is to devise a system that recognizes this while not appearing to…there has never in history been an adequate black nation and they are the only race of which this is true… Africa is hopeless.”
Clearly, President Nixon and many of our national leaders have been and could currently be construed to be racist. But is Disney racist?
Disney, as an entity, isn’t any more racist than any other corporation who came of age during those tumultuous and hate fueled years.
But here’s what I noticed when I was at Disneyland recently. When I was standing in line, I looked back at the people behind me and spotted perhaps one family of color. I stood on a bridge looking over a huge portion of the park and noted a couple people of color. I rode a little boat out to Tom Sawyer’s Island and there were two people of color aboard. At Chef Mickey’s, a nearby resort hotel where I had lunch, I sat next to a Spanish speaking family. A couple of servers who are of color are also in the restaurant. In the parks, the vast majority of the workers were white. The majority of the attendees were white. With 40% of our country being people of color and Orlando itself 65% people of color, I was surprised.
I was surprised because I live in an area that is 75% white, and I notice how many of our public spaces and churches and events are filled with whiteness. When I go to a bigger, more diverse area, I love the change.
I love going into Chicago and seeing the various shades of people, the different styles of dress, hearing multiple accents and languages on the L and on the street. I was expecting that on my trip to Disney World too.
I was expecting to see people of color at our resort. I didn’t. There were thousands of teenage cheerleaders who stayed there, and I would have assumed at least 40% of them would have been of color. They weren’t. I was expecting to get to talk to people from all over the world of all different shades. I didn’t. I thought I would see a huge variety of people on Main Street, USA, representing the full richness of the USA. I didn’t.
I think we better start asking why.
Is it because Disney is too expensive for many families of color? If that’s the case, why can more white families afford a vacation to Disney? Is it because the median income of a white male in 2017 and 60K compared to 42K for a Black man? Is it because white households are about 13 times as wealthy as Black household? Is it because Black children are almost 3 times as likely to be a part of a single-parent household than white people children making dual incomes an impossibility?
Or perhaps is it because families of color can’t relate to Disney? They don’t see themselves reflected in the Disney culture. Is it because there’s only one Black Disney princess, and she spends half of her movie at as a frog? Is it that the only other show where Black people get any major representation is via the crows in Dumbo, the leader of which is literally named Jim Crow? Or Uncle Remus in Song of the South, which was never even released on DVD because of its treatment of people? Is it repulsive to Native Peoples because of the red man song in Peter Pan? Is it divisive to people of Asian descent because of the Siamese cats in Lady and the Tramp?
We need to ask why.
Why can’t Peter Pan be black? Why don’t we have an Indian Jessie or a Native American Snow White? Why hasn’t someone cast a Pacific Islander as Princess Leia or a Hispanic person as Sleeping Beauty? Why don’t we have a Belle who signs and sings? Why do we have to keep it like it’s always been when that way clearly is exclusive?
Is Disney inherently racist? I don’t know. I do know it has tried to make huge strides in diversity in feature films in the past 25 years. Disney Corporation has made attempts to overcome its monoculture and outright racism of the past. If Disney is racist now, it’s a continuing symptom of a culture, of a societal system that has its roots steeped in racism and hatred and which needs to be completely cleared away. Every little bit helps, but we have to do better than this.
If our country is 40% people of color, then we should expect to see people of color represented close to about 1/2 of the time in our orchestra concerts, plays, musicals, churches, sporting events, homeschool events, and amusement parks. And if we don’t, we need to ask why.
As a white woman I need to use my voice. You do too. We need to speak up. We need to invite representation for all people of color in all of the areas of our lives.