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Acknowledging a Violent Past: Disney’s Racist Fairy Tales

photograph of Walt Disney Statue with Disney Castle in background

After months of protests by the Black Lives Matter movement in the wake of George Floyd’s death some white people in the U.S. began to notice that perhaps the world is not as equal as they once thought. They also began to notice that this inequality was perpetuated by their lack of education on race in the U.S. This became obvious as book sales about race began to skyrocket from May to June with Robin DiAngelo’s White Fragility topping the list. This gave way to the Anti-Racist movement, where white people take it upon themselves to unlearn their inherent racist behaviors that they have been educated in since childhood. People began to acknowledge that the history we learn in school is drenched in the long legacy of white supremacy that this country was built on.

Debate was sparked about how to teach a history that highlights, rather than hides, the violent and racist past of the U.S., and how to deliver this material in a form suitable for children. It’s necessary to have these conversations early on with kids as studies show that children as young as three begin to associate certain races with negative stereotypes, while most adults tend to think they should wait until their children are at least five to begin discussing race. Since children are visually recognizing not only physical race, but the behaviors attached to different groups of people made up of different races, it is important to start teaching children about the history of race, rather than shy away or leave it up to a school curriculum that will likely only perpetuate racist stereotypes and histories.

This debate has arisen again recently with the decision by streaming platform Disney+ to restrict the ability of children to watch certain films. Disney+ placed a warning of racist depictions on certain older films last year, but has now blocked those films from Kids Profiles, which include the ages of seven and below. Some of the films include classics like “Dumbo” (1941) because of depictions of racist minstrel shows and “Peter Pan” (1953), which includes racist stereotypes of Native Americans. On their website, Disney acknowledges the roles that stories have in shaping perspectives in the world and makes a pledge to review the films it provides in an attempt to spark conversation on history. Certainly, these moves by Disney are a step in the right direction, but perhaps the billion-dollar company can afford, and even has a responsibility, to do a lot more than take just a step towards conversation.

Disney is considered a blockbuster powerhouse by the film industry, and it certainly has an enormous cultural impact in America, as well as internationally. Children for generations have grown up watching their dark-folk-story-turned-romantic-fairy-tales, with young girls longing to be princesses in search of their long-lost knight. Now that screens have become even more accessible, children can sit with their own iPads at home for hours watching these films. A summer trip to Disneyland or Disneyworld is considered a rite of passage for tens of millions of families. Disney has literally become its own world with all of its theme parks combined taking up as much land as the entire city of San Francisco. Now that Disney has also developed a streaming service, its reach only widens as 55 percent of their subscriptions belong to families with children. Disney obviously plays a large part in a lot of American children’s lives by way of the education they provide through storytelling.

Given the formative power Disney wields, when these stories contain racist histories it is necessary to acknowledge and discuss that history. While Disney mentions “negative depictions” and “mistreatment” in their advisory statement that appears before certain films, they never once mention racism or white supremacy. Instead, it seems like they are trying to walk a fine line of appeasing new voices critical of not-so-hidden racism and a consumer base that is unwilling to believe that such a thing as white supremacy still exists in the U.S., or believe children are old enough to read its signs. Considering both the enormous fan base and amount of content made by Disney that children consume, they should be more aggressive in their policies towards rooting out their white supremacist past by using educational tools on their streaming platform.

Realistically, there are two different types of education regarding race that happen in America. For white children, race is evidently something that they notice at an early age, and then they begin to unknowingly recognize, learn, and perpetuate racism, perhaps without even noticing what they are doing. For children of color in America, especially black children, race is something that they become aware of through macro- and microaggressions they experience as a result of the white supremacy that encumbers and constructs life in America. When students of color start their schooling, they are immediately placed in an environment that is built against them.

If Disney is willing to acknowledge that stories matter, then they perhaps need more than just an alert regarding “negative depictions” in order to address the problematic actions and behaviors shown in their films. By recognizing stories matter, they must also recognize the influence they have in teaching children, often without any parental interference, as Disney is a most often considered a kid-friendly source. They owe the children of color watching these films more than an acknowledgement of the harm that they perpetuated for so long. They could use their platform as an educational opportunity to spread anti-racist awareness to the millions of children and even adults using this platform.

Starting these conversations is a helpful step, but Disney has both the money and influence to be able to help spread awareness and education through a far more extensive system. It is important to remember that it is not Disney’s sole burden to undo the racist history that is perpetuated in history books and through word of mouth, nor would it even be possible for them to do so as that is a task people have struggled with and will be struggling with for decades. Ideally, schools and parents would be able to have truthful and as unbiased as possible conversations about the racist history of America, but realistically this does not seem to be possible for most American children. As can be seen from the protests and politics of 2020, white adults struggle to talk about race or even accept that racism is systemically ingrained in life in America. If adults struggle to talk about racism with each other, how can they be expected to have productive conversations with their children?

If talking about racism in America is normalized for this generation of children, then perhaps a productive cycle can begin for future generations about reckoning with a white supremacist past. This is not yet the reality, therefore, Disney has such a reach and connection with families that they might have a better opportunity to recount accurate histories of peoples in America. And they may have a moral obligation to do so given their not insignificant contribution to the problem.

Dungeons, Dragons, and Du Bois’ Race Problem

photograph of D&D figurines and dice

This article has a set of discussion questions tailored for classroom use. Click here to download them. To see a full list of articles with discussion questions and other resources, visit our “Educational Resources” page.

On June 17th, Wizards of the Coast — the company that owns and manages the role-playing game Dungeons and Dragonsreleased a statement about its plans to update the official rule sets and materials describing the fictional worlds of D&D. In addition to hiring new staff (including sensitivity readers) and altering the canonical depictions of some fictional people groups that “echoed some stereotypes” of real-world cultures, Wizards of the Coast is intentionally working to eliminate the role of racial attributes and cultural essentialism within the fantasy game. Specifically, this will mean shifting character-creation techniques to center individualized player choices about a character’s background (rather than making certain features dependent on the character’s race) and, most notably, recasting the two “evil” races within D&D as people groups that are “just as morally and culturally complex as other peoples.”

If you’re not already familiar with Dungeons and Dragons, much of that last paragraph probably sounds pretty odd. First published in the 1970s, D&D is a tabletop role-playing game (RPG) that offers a basic set of rules for players to follow as they collectively tell a make-believe story about heroes and villains in a fantasy world. Perhaps most famously, these sorts of RPGs use dice rolls to randomize the outcomes of various in-game events, allowing players opportunities to cooperatively and creatively react to unexpected elements of the imaginary scene. Often, those dice rolls are modified by various attributes of your player-character and, to date, at least some of those modifications have been pre-set based on which of the several fictional races (like elves, tieflings, and dragonborn) your character represents. And, while the story of each game of D&D is unique to the group of people (or “party”) playing, Wizards of the Coast regularly publishes a wealth of materials to help parties create the worlds of their stories.

The announced changes to D&D amount to a shift away from an essentialistic approach to race or culture within the game — an approach long-criticized in both Dungeons and Dragons and the fantasy genre writ large. Such a story-telling technique treats a character’s biology or social origin as necessarily constraining their personality, worldview, or moral compass, such as when Rowling’s giants or Tolkien’s trolls are treated as hopelessly evil enemies for the heroes to simply eliminate. According to the most recent Dungeons and Dragons Player’s Handbook, the drow (or “dark elves”) are a “depraved” race of people who are “universally reviled” after their ancestors followed a path “to evil and corruption;” players who choose to role-play as a drow are encouraged to treat their characters as unusual individuals who have “develop[ed] a conscience.” Similarly, D&D presents the orc race as a monstrous, violent culture bent on waging “an endless war against humans, elves, dwarves, and other folk.” If players choose to create a half-orc character to role-play (full orcs are not officially valid options), the Handbook advises that evil impulses and desires will necessarily “lurk within them, whether they embrace it or rebel against it.” Although it remains to be seen how Wizards of the Coast exactly plans on presenting the orcs and drow “in a new light” going forward, the way they have presented these races to this point is plain.

While the response to Wizards of the Coast’s announcement seems to have been largely positive, it has not escaped criticism. Most detractors argue that these rule shifts are unnecessary, either because they will do little to prevent actual racism in the real world or because the classic presentation of orcs in D&D isn’t racist in the first place. Some have suggested that the publishers of D&D have actually been fooled by supposedly-disingenuous protestors interested more in social control than social justice. One need only look to the responses on Wizards of the Coast’s Twitter thread or the comments on, for example, Breitbart’s coverage of the story to see such attitudes.

But these critiques fall flat. Even if used simply to promote seemingly-innocent story-telling tropes or to simplify morality narratives for easier digestion, any reliance on cultural or racial essentialism — even just narratively — is ethically perilous (and, incidentally, aesthetically lazy). The point is not that “racists portrayal of these fictional peoples will promote racist treatment of non-fictional peoples,” but rather that employing racial essentialism of any stripe legitimates — even unconsciously — an unavoidably immoral way of viewing the world (regardless of whether that world is Abeir-Toril, Arda, or Earth).

It is a way of viewing the world which W.E.B. Du Bois describes as “a vast veil” that shuts people out from the worlds in which they belong. Speaking from his own experience as a Black man at the turn of the 20th century, Du Bois traces how his personal experiences of racism in post-Reconstruction America mirrored wider social policies designed to maintain the cultural homogeneity of the United States in the wake of Emancipation. Time and again, Du Bois recounts stories of how relatively mundane — and, perhaps, unintentional, in some cases — choices led to him being routinely set apart from the people around him. Consider this anecdote from when Du Bois was a college student looking for work as a teacher in Tennessee:

“I remember the day I rode horseback out to the commissioner’s house with a pleasant young white fellow who wanted the white school. The road ran down the bed of a stream; the sun laughed and the water jingled, and we rode on. ‘Come in,’ said the commissioner,—’come in. Have a seat. Yes, that certificate will do. Stay to dinner. What do you want a month?’ ‘Oh,’ thought I, ‘this is lucky’; but even then fell the awful shadow of the Veil, for they ate first, then I—alone.” (The Souls of Black Folk, ch. IV)

The Veil comes from the often-unspoken set of assumptions about what counts as “normal” in matters of race and culture against which everything, including even relatively small and otherwise-unimportant actions, is tacitly judged. The Veil is also a manifestation of one form of racial essentialism that judges (even implicitly) individuals in virtue of their biology, rather than their unique personalities and histories.

Now, don’t misunderstand me: my point is not that a fictional orc is necessarily wronged by a Dungeons and Dragons player treating it like a monster (nor is it that a player who doesn’t care about orcs will also not care about flesh-and-blood humans). Instead, my point is that carefully considering both the intentional and unintentional messages of our cultural artifacts (like D&D) is an important part of being responsible people who care about our fellow citizens; this is precisely what Wizards of the Coast has started to do. Suggesting that the kinds of racial and cultural essentialism long-incorporated into Dungeons and Dragons is valid somewhere, even just in a fictional context, requires us to say (or at least operate on the assumption) that it is not inherently unethical — that is a morally indefensible position.

Echoing Fredrick Douglas before him, Du Bois famously wrote that “the problem of the twentieth century is the problem of the color-line — the relation of the darker to the lighter races of men in Asia and Africa, in America and the islands of the sea.” In this regard, the twenty-first century is no different: what Du Bois called the “race problem” remains, both in explicit, intentional acts of racist oppression and, far more frequently, in the unthinking assumptions that lead many to uphold the Veil, however accidentally. Defenses of racial essentialism, wherever they may appear, contribute to this in their own way by tacitly legitimating a fundamental component of the Veil’s operation.

(It’s also worth pointing out that the stereotypical depiction of orcs and “dark elves” likewise demonstrates Du Bois’ separate point about a curiously European theory of human culture wherein “Everything great, good, efficient, fair, and honorable is ‘white’; everything mean, bad, blundering, cheating, and dishonorable is ‘yellow’; a bad taste is ‘brown’; and the devil is ‘black.’” Considering the potential contributions of such imagery to the contemporary real-world Veil is an exercise left to the reader.)

Given both the inherent customizability of the game and its five-decade-long history, it is not possible for Wizards of the Coast to simply change by fiat how all parties will play D&D, but the company is taking visible steps to improve how racial diversity will be officially represented going forward. Given that the popularity of Dungeons and Dragons has skyrocketed in recent years (including being prominently featured in Netflix’s hit series Stranger Things) and the lockdowns resulting from the COVID-19 pandemic have only spurred greater interest, it is good to see Wizards of the Coast clearly demonstrate that it wants “everyone to feel at home around the game table and to see positive reflections of themselves within our products.” Analyzing how the Veil might nevertheless affect both the worlds and the players of Dungeons and Dragons, even unintentionally, is an important part of engaging with this sliver of our culture’s much larger race problem.

“Chinese Virus”? On the Ethics of Coronavirus Nicknames

image of World Health Organization emblem

The recent Coronavirus outbreak has undoubtedly affected the physical and economic well-being of many Americans and people across the world. With total Coronavirus cases over 300,000 and counting, economies have plunged and hospitals are overloaded with patients. However, amid this crisis, a new controversy has emerged concerning the various Coronavirus nicknames.

Recently, President Trump referred to the Coronavirus as the “Chinese Virus.” Other nicknames for the virus have emerged such as “Wuhan Virus” and “Kung Flu.” These nicknames have drawn criticism from the left, mainstream media, and Asian Americans while the right has called these nicknames appropriate and has criticized the political correctness of the left. To determine the morality of Coronavirus nicknames, it is first necessary to see the current context of Asian discrimination.

Without a doubt, Coronavirus has furthered racist discrimination toward Asians and Asian Americans. In schools, Asian students face xenophobic comments like “stop eating bats” and the infamous “go back to your country.” Additionally, Asian businesses, particularly restaurants, had seen significant drops in sales even before the quarantine happened. There have also been countless cases where Asians are harassed due to Coronavirus. In the media, Fox News commentator, Jesse Walters, went as far as to say, “I’ll tell you why it started in China. They have these markets where they eat raw bats and snakes. They are a very hungry people.” Not only are these blatantly racist generalizations of Chinese people, it is a myth that diseases come only from so called exotic animals. Diseases come from all animals such as pigs (swine flu), cows (mad cow disease), and chickens (bird flu), and two of those diseases had their first cases in the Western world. But these facts have held little sway as Asian discrimination has been widespread on social media with many comments seizing on Walters’ (and even Senator John Cornyn’s) words that all Asians eat bat soup and snakes.

In this context of widespread Asian racism, many people have started to call nicknames such as “Chinese Virus” and “Wuhan Virus” racist. However, critics say there is an established record of naming diseases based on their original location. Just to name a few, there is Ebola fever (Ebola River), Lyme disease (Lyme, Connecticut), West Nile virus, Lassa fever (Lassa, Uganda), and St. Louis encephalitis. Diseases have also been tied to nationality such as German measles, Japanese encephalitis, and the Spanish flu (though the Spanish flu started in Kansas). Therefore, many conservatives have argued that President Trump’s comments only follow an established pattern of naming diseases.

Even though we’ve had a trend of naming diseases based on their origin, it is important to recognize that popularity does not equate to morality; just because we have named diseases by origin in the past, doesn’t mean that we should continue doing so. In fact, the naming of diseases by origin is actually now frowned upon by the medical community. The World Health Organization has set guidelines in which they state, “Terms that should be avoided in disease names include geographic locations.” This guideline was made in 2015 before the Coronavirus pandemic. Unlike critics’ claims as a common scientific practice, geographic locations are now not used by medical organizations. The morality of the nickname “Chinese Virus” can’t be based on the popularity of past disease naming customs, but must instead be considered according to the negative impact it has for society at large. Calling Coronavirus “Chinese Virus” for the sake of accuracy of original location can’t outweigh the potential further perpetuation of Asian discrimination. Given the fact that Chinese and Asian people are unfairly associated with Coronavirus and other negative stereotypes, associating “Chinese” with the Coronavirus would be a dangerous path to take.

To see this it might be helpful to consider the shift in attitude if a virus were to be named “America Virus” in the midst of a global pandemic where Americans were discriminated against while dying by the thousands. It wouldn’t be well-received by the many Americans who are doing everything they can to save fellow American lives. This is what is happening in China: selfless doctors tirelessly work overtime and overwhelmed nurses rush from bed to bed; all of them giving their heart and soul to save human lives. The doctors and nurses sacrifice their time to save their fellow countrymen, all just for the US to slap their Chinese nationality on the virus they are fighting to save their fellow Chinese people. Using the term “Chinese Virus” not only risks further Asian discrimination, it is disrespectful to the Chinese nurses and doctors risking their lives to save their fellow countrymen.

From Blackface to Homophobic Tweets: Prioritizing Deontology over Consequentialism?

Governor Ralph Northam delivers a speech

Though 2019 has only just begun, several politicians and celebrities have already become embroiled in scandals concerning their past conduct, with proof of racism, homophobia, and sexism coming to light online through social media. The most recent debate has centered newly elected Virginia governor Ralph Northam, who appears in a racist photo circulated online from his 1984 medical school yearbook on February 1. The picture, which features Northam, shows two people standing side-by side, one in blackface and one in a Klu Klux Klan outfit. It is unclear which person is Northam, but he has admitted that one of the people in the photo is him. Democrats and Republicans alike over the past weekend have called for Northam to resign over the photo, as well as the NAACP. It seems as though everyone is in agreement that Northam’s actions were unacceptable and call for a resignation. However, in an opinion article in The Guardian, Shanita Hubbard points out the clear disconnect that many have between racist actions and racist policies. Hubbard does not intend to undermine the seriousness of blackface, but rather contends that “Policies that harm black bodies deserve the same outrage as blackface.” Is Hubbard right that actions that lead to racist ends deserve the same moral weight as those that treat people as a means for entertainment? Is one worse than the other? And how can we interpret the societal reaction, or lack thereof, in response to racism through the lens of moral philosophy?

Blackface is undoubtedly racist, both in its origins and in its function as in act in the modern day. Blackface in the United States was used as a way to mock, denigrate, and perpetuate racial stereotypes about black people throughout and following the history of slavery, with white actors and “comedians” impersonating black people during minstrel shows throughout the mid-19th century into the 20th. Though many caught wearing blackface in the modern day claim ignorance to its racist history, the essential function of blackface is to use black bodies as a means to an end — usually comedy, the perpetuation of stereotypes or the reinforcement of white supremacy.

The use of a person or group of people and their skin color as a means to an end can be interpreted most clearly as morally abhorrent under a deontological moral philosophy. In deontological ethics, actions are good or bad “because of some characteristic of the action itself” rather than the outcome of the action. Immanuel Kant is one of the most renowned deontological ethical philosophers. He believed in a supreme principle of morality which could be used to justify all other moral obligations. Kant’s Categorical Imperative includes the idea that it is immoral to use someone merely as a means to an end, and that all people regardless of the circumstances must be treated as an end in themselves. The action of blackface clearly violates this principle, and it might in part be that for this reason people across many political and philosophical ideologies react strongly in condemnation, while failing to assign the same condemnation to other racist actions which lead to racist outcomes.

Hubbard addresses this problem in her article, arguing that “If the litmus test for accountability is transparent racism, then this same vigor must be applied to policies and practices and the politicians who impose them.” Why is it that many are willing to condemn an action which uses a person or group as a means, but aren’t as eager to condemn actions that harm people based on these same identities?

One stark example that Hubbard gives is the issue of voter suppression, which often impacts people of color, specifically African-Americans, more than any other group. Politicians such as Brian Kemp, who have been responsible for the widespread implementation of voter suppression, have not been met with the call to resign as strongly as politicians such as Northam. Hubbard chalks up the difference in reaction to racist actions and racist policies to a difference in the blatancy, and the ability of politicians to hide behind the supposed amorality of their policies. However, Hubbard’s frustration can also be directly linked to a moral system which condemns on the basis of the consequences of one’s actions. This type of moral philosophy is known as consequentialism, and it gives no bearing to the intention of an actor, but rather the harm caused by their actions. While Hubbard is not calling for such a moral philosophy to take precedent, she is pointing out the clear lack of support for using this doctrine as a standard when it comes to racism.

One might also interpret this problem to arise from the moral doctrines society believes to be fundamental in combination with which groups are included within these moral philosophies. Another example of outrage over the use of a group as a means to an end is the controversy which surrounded Kevin Hart in December concerning tweets and comments from his past which were blatantly homophobic. Hart used homophobia for comedy and also social status, which was met with public outrage strong enough to have him removed from hosting the 2019 Oscars. However, similar backlash and condemnation is not always met with politicians or celebrities who implement or donate to causes which perpetuate the marginalization of LGBTQ+ folks. In this situation, which mirrors that of Northam, it seems that it is more mainstream to condemn a person for using a person or group as a means but not to condemn a person for causing substantial harm to a person or a group.

The application of these moral principles to both these situations is not to imply that the unified condemnation comes out of a place of genuine concern from all those doing the condemning. In fact, the concern about the racist actions of Governor Northam from the right may very well be, as Chauncey Devega argues “an opportunity to score political points by distracting public attention” from the wrongs committed by the Republican party when it comes to issues of racial justice. Without giving credit to those making the argument as being ‘moral’ ones, we can still assess the basic function of the argument in its appeal to the public’s ethos. Further still, incidences of blackface may not represent just one morally wrong action, but be a symptom of a larger moral problem within society. It is also important to note that while these philosophies may be used as guiding principles for how one assesses moral blame, they do not always necessarily, or have historically, extended to all people in society. However, it is important for us to truly assess why we believe an action or a person is immoral so that we understand the moral values present or lacking in our society.