The biggest argument that I hear in defense media with racism in them is, “When it was made, it was a different time”. Coincidentally, this is also the argument that brings the most anger from the people who are offended by that same racist media.
Racism stems from cultural stereotypes. While the phrase “it was a different time” in no way excuses any kind or use of racism, it is a valid point in the fact that when these movies and cartoons were made (namely, before the civil rights movement), the stereotypes commonly found in them were much more culturally acceptable than they are now. This is mostly because the minorities that the stereotypes targeted were much smaller than they are now, and had no voice to speak out for them. Or if they did, it just wasn’t listened to.
Take shows from the “golden age of radio”. Shows like Amos ‘n’ Andy, which was about characters in an african american neighborhood, or the early days of Eddie “Rochester” Anderson’s character on the Jack Benny show. These characters were full of stereotypes, from their “crude, uneducated” speech to the fact that they carried switchblades, shot dice on the streetcorner, and were always thinking up a get rich quick scheem. At the time, this is what the mostly white american audiences thought was funny, so it was what was used. In films, the stereotypical fat, dark-skinned ”Mammy” character had been around for ages, and was particularly common in 1930s and 40s period pieces (Gone With The Wind, of course, being the classic example). Other popular stereotypes of the time included the portrayal of East Asians as very small people with huge front teeth and the portrayal of Native Americans as dangerous savages.
At the time that they were produced, Walt Disney was not the only one using stereotypes in his cartoons. Many of Warner Brothers’ popular “Loony Tunes” and “Merry Melodies” cartoons are editied when they apear on television today, to remove things that today’s audience would find offensive or racist, such as an explosion creating what (usually intentionally) looks like blackface on a character. But, in the case of a group of cartoons that has come to be known as “the Censored Eleven”, the racist themes are so essential to the plot and so completely pervade the cartoons that the copyright holders believe that no amount of selective editing could ever make them acceptable for distribution, and they have not been broadcast on television since 1968. These included shorts like Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs, Sunday Go to Meetin’ Time, and Goldilocks and the Jivin’ Bears. All of the Censored Eleven can be found online, if you really want to see how truly jaw dropping they are.
While the Censored Eleven are predominantly full of african american stereotypes, there are also another ton or so of cartoons produced by other distributers from the 30s through the 50s which are no longer aired due to their stereotypes of other races, particularly ones from World War II with racist depictions of the Japanese, a very common practice at the time.
So keep this all in mind during the course of the next few posts. As Whoopi Goldberg warns the audience in the intro to each disk of Looney Tunes Golden Collection: Volume 3, although the behavior was and is not acceptable, the cartoons depicting this are a vital part of history and should not be forgotten.