The Most Racist Moments in Disney Cartoons

Good old fashioned family entertainment and racism.

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Complex Original

Image via Complex Original

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Racism has always been a part of American history, and people who say we live in a post-racial America are so full of shit that it's easy to disregard anything they say from then on out. Awful things continue to happen to people of color here and it's been that way since the first white dude said he discovered a new land. 

Researching Disney's history is like that feeling you get when your mom says she's going to start looking into your family history. Like, "Oooh, please don't find out our ancestors were slave owners. Please don't find out grandpa was a Nazi." Except everything Disney has done is well documented in their cartoons.

Maybe you think Disney is getting better because we finally do have a black princess. Maybe you think it's just appeasing us because of how whitewashed Frozen turned out to be. Whatever you believe now, we can all agree on one thing: early Disney cartoons were racist as hell. They employed caricatures that helped educate children on how they expected other races to look and act. They slipped racists jokes easily into their scripts even into the '90s.

You can say we're reading too much into it but we're sure you'll agree:

Hope Schreiber is a freelance writer and moonlights in the removal of asbestos and certain molds. She tweets here

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The Depiction of African Natives in Cannibal Capers (1930)

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Cannibal Capers isn't something you'd see on your Saturday morning cartoon lineup, so you have to check out the video below. Its depiction of African natives is appalling. They're drawn with skinny limbs, round stomachs, and big lips, and they sing by clicking their mouths. Well, at least they're just accidentally cannibals in this cartoon (see: Trader Mickey and Mickey's Man Friday). Ugh, are we really trying to find a bright side here? This list is depressing.

The Sultan in Mickey in Arabia (1932)

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Mickey and Minnie are just taking a nice romantic vacation in Arabia, taking pictures with all the caricatures of locals, when a drooling sultan abducts Minnie and attempts to force himself on her. Wish we could say thank God time has changed all that, but we're pretty sure Jafar does the same thing to Jasmine in Aladdin by trying to force her hand in marriage, right?

The "Savages" in Trader Mickey (1932)

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Mickey is captured by African natives, once again depicted as cannibals, and thrown into a stew. Pluto's even roasting on his back like a pig. It isn't until he shows the "savages" how to play music with his cargo that he was intending to trade that they let him go. Oh, and they play a little number called "The Darktown Strutters' Ball," originally played by the Original Dixieland Jazz Band, a bunch of white dudes.

The Dolls in Santa's Workshop (1932)

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Santa's Workshop is one of those ancient cartoons that you can still catch on TV around the holidays. It's a family tradition for many people to sit in front of the TV set and watch this one, except when it's aired now, it's slightly edited. What's taken out? This scene: While Santa is working on baby dolls, a white, blonde-haired, blue-eyed doll comes down the chute and he teaches it how to say "Mama," before stamping her butt with "OK." But then a black doll flies down the chute, lands face first, gets up, and in a raspy voice yells, "Mammy!" and stamps her own butt—all while Santa has a chuckle at some good ol' fashion racism.

Blackface in Mickey's Mellerdrammer (1933)

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We could say this is the most racist thing we've ever seen, but maybe it's just made worse because Mickey is smiling throughout it. Mickey's Mellerdrammer follows Mickey and the gang as they put on a production of—gulp—Uncle Tom's Cabin. Sure, that already sounds like a recipe for racism. But then Mickey puts on blackface. Mickey the Mouse... wears... blackface.

Blackface in The Night Before Christmas (1933)

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A year after the popular Santa's Workshop was made, Disney released another Christmas classic, The Night Before Christmas. Santa delivers toys to all the good boys and girls of the world and makes a special stop to a household so poor that nine kids have to sleep in the same bed. We're not sure how Junior got on the "nice" list because, after trying to catch Santa up the chimney, he dances around in blackface.

The Big Bad Wolf's Disguise in The Three Little Pigs (1933)

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The Three Little Pigs, which won an Academy Award in 1934 for Best Animated Short Film, tells the classic tale of the three pigs, their houses of straw, twigs, and brick, and the big bad wolf. What could possibly be offensive about it? Well, the big bad wolf, while trying to trick his way into the brick house, dresses as a Jewish peddler.

To prove that the world is still awful, check out the YouTube comments defending the short. One woman claims that it's actually brilliant because Jewish people don't eat pork, so the pigs would feel safer around a Jewish person than a wolf. You can't make this stuff up.

Naming Friday in Mickey's Man Friday (1935)

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Five years after Mickey Mouse appeared in blackface (see: Mickey's Mellerdrammer), he befriends a native African. Well, we guess we should say he saves a character that Disney Wiki describes as "monkey face" from his brother who put him up for dinner that day, because they're cannibals. After Mickey saves him, and he bows down to Mickey to get a pat on the head and an "Okay big boy," Mickey names him, gives him a top hat, and says, "Hey, you be my man Friday. You Friday. Me Mickey." Thanks for the name, white man. Friday even gets to tap dance a little.

The "Black Birds" in Mother Goose Goes Hollywood (1938)

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This cartoon almost came out okay. It's really just making fun of the stars of Hollywood in 1938. It has Katherine Hepburn as Little Boy Peep, W. C. Fields as Humpty Dumpty, and even the Marx Brothers make an appearance. But then Eddie Cantor opens a scene by singing, "20 black birds baking a pie," and a number of unnamed African American jazz artists, crudely drawn, pop their heads out of the pie. One is Cab Calloway singing "Hi-de-ho." Feel free to skip forward to 5:00 to see the offending bit if you don't have enough patience to figure out all the old actors.

Sunflower in Fantasia (1940)

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Fantasia is a magical and fantastical world where centaurs exist but black centaurs are still the handmaidens of the blonde ones. Are you kidding? Sunflower smiles happily while she braids white centaur's hair and shines their hooves. What makes Sunflower's story worse is that she's forgotten. She wasn't included in the 1960's re-release of Fantasia.

The Crows in Dumbo (1941)

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Jive-talking black crows, smoking while singing, "I'd be done see'n about everything, when I see an elephant fly" is already super offensive. Except it gets worse. The main crow's name is Jim Crow, hilariously named after the racial segregation laws. Additionally, the actors are all white men putting on their best black man voice. Yes, the beloved story of an elephant who learns to fly is just a dressed-up minstrel show. The defense Disney super-fans give the characters is that they were the only ones who helped Dumbo. But just because they're nice doesn't mean it's not racist.

The Germans in Education for Death (1943)

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Disney's most infamous war propaganda, Education for Death successfully dehumanizes the Germans by showing how all of them grow up to become Nazis. We're, of course, not defending Nazis, but it's important to note that not all Germans agreed with Hitler's views.

The Axis Leaders in Der Fuehrer's Face (1943)

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Donald Duck's first and only Oscar is thanks to appearing as a German citizen in the propaganda film Der Fuehrer's Face. Axis leaders, all in a marching band—Hirohito on sousaphone, Göring on piccolo, Goebbels on trombone, and Mussolini on bass drum—get Donald out of bed, give him a measly breakfast, and force him to work in a weapons factory all day.

The depictions of the Axis leaders are, without a doubt, offensive to their race and character, namely Hirohito's buck teeth, yellow skin, and squinting eyes, and Göring's flamboyant nature. Donald wakes up to realize it was all a nightmare and is thankful he lives in the land of the free.

The Japanese Soldiers in Commando Duck (1944)

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Donald Duck was Disney's star, moreso than Mickey Mouse. The angry little duck was easily the most popular character Disney had going for a long time, especially during the war. Commando Duck, one of Disney's numerous war propaganda cartoons, followed Donald through basic training in the Army and right into his first mission: he's to single-handedly take out a Japanese base.

Enter: the Japanese caricatures. They first appear hidden in a tree and behind a bush as two snipers who get into each other's way, and then, because of the belief that Japanese people were overly polite, continually apologize to each other in English. Once Donald turns around, a sniper informs his crew that it's "Japanese custom to always shoot a man in the back." 

Uncle Remus in Songs of the South (1946)

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We just don't get why Songs of the South has never been re-released (unless you don't mind watching a Japanese laserdisc). What's so racist about a former slave happily telling white children stories, singing Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah while still living on the plantation that enslaved him? Oh, that's right, everything.

Songs of the South is so racist that most people haven't even seen a clip, let alone the whole movie. We're sure it exists somewhere in its entirety on the Internet, but watching it would just enrage us. As if pretending to be an overly happy black man singing to animated birds wasn't enough, James Baskett wasn't even allowed to attend the movie's premiere in Atlanta because the city was still racially segregated. Icing on top of the vanilla cake.

The Indians in Peter Pan (1953)

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OMG fat kid in the bear costume of the Lost Boys, you can't just ask people "What Makes the Red Man Red?" Oh, in 1953 you could? You could even have a full musical number about it? Jeez, you racists little monsters, no wonder you're orphans.

While passing the peace pipe to children, we learn why the "red man" says "how," when they first said "ugg," and ultimately, what made the red man red. Spoiler alert: it was because the first Native American prince blushed from kissing a girl and they, as a people, have been blushing ever since. 

Siamese Cats in Lady and the Tramp (1955), Aristocats (1977), and Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers (1989)

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Siamese cats in Disney productions are basically the Mickey Rooney of Breakfast at Tiffany's—beyond offensive. Disney loves to portray Siamese cats with buck teeth, slanted eyes, and an evil nature, all while speaking butchered "Engrish." What kid doesn't remember watching Lady and the Tramp and thinking, "Wow, this is very distasteful," even when they were four.

In Aristocats, the Siamese cat plays the drums and piano with chop sticks and slams the drum symbol on his head to make it look like he's wearing a conical hat. His lyrics are literally, "Shanghai, Hong Kong, egg foo young / Fortune cookie always wrong." In Chip n' Dale's Rescue Rangers, the Siamese Twin Gang own a laundromat and run an illegal gambling operation.

King Louie in The Jungle Book (1967)

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Does anyone else find it really weird that all the jungle animals talk in dapper-as-heck English accents but all the monkeys talk jive and are all voiced by black actors? Like, no one else finds that weird? What about King Louie's desire to be a "real person?" He's wanting equality that the viewer knows he'll never get because he's just an ape.

Maybe we're reading too much into it, but we'll just leave you on this note: the guy who wrote The Jungle Book, Rudyard Kipling, is the same guy who penned the famous poem, "The White Man's Burden." 'Kay, bye.

The Song "Under the Sea" in The Little Mermaid (1989)

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As if Sebastian wasn't already bad enough as a Jamaican stereotype in "Under the Sea," where he sings he doesn't want to live in the human world because they work all day while he can devote all his time to floating, at 2:06 in the clip, you'll get a very racist, and quick, view of a black fish.

The Merchant in Aladdin (1992)

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Aladdin is far from perfect. Aladdin, as a character, is super white-washed, while the evil Jafar's character design had no problem looking more Arabian. What's that say? According to Disney, apparently, white is right. But beyond that little blip on the racist radar, you've got the opening number, sung by a merchant. He sings, "Where they cut off your ear if they don't like your face / It's barbaric but, hey, it's home."

If you have the DVD copy of the movie, this line is changed a little, thanks to Arab-American groups protesting.

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