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Racist cartoons, revived on YouTube, offer teaching moments

Sat., Feb. 19, 2011

On YouTube, you can find thousands of racist cartoons, as well as animated film clips with racist themes.

They date from the 1930s to the 1960s.

For instance, in an episode from “The Flintstones,” a Japanese man teaches judo to Fred and Wilma, Barney and Betty.

“Is make for togetherness,” the thick-accented instructor says about the martial arts class.

The vintage cartoons, and clips from animated movies, portray African-Americans, Asian-Americans, women and other once-marginalized groups in ways that make you cringe.

For decades, these cartoons were hidden away. But now on YouTube – the video-sharing website launched in February 2005 – these “relics” are easily accessible.

Is that fact helpful or harmful to our country’s ongoing discussions about race?

Debating that question provides some interesting teaching moments.

The students

A Gonzaga University news reporting and writing class recently viewed racist cartoons on YouTube, as well as animated film excerpts found there, and wrote their reactions.

Most of the students were born in the late 1980s and early 1990s. The offensive cartoons had long been off the air.

Bridget Carrick, 20, found a 1940s Bugs Bunny cartoon where the hunter is a “black man with a high-pitched, drawling voice, dragging his feet and his gun, completely inept at hunting rabbits.”

Carrick’s reaction: “I grew up watching and loving Bugs Bunny. Seeing this video has, I’m embarrassed to say, scared me a little. It was just so offensive and cruel.”

Greg Andersen, 23, watched a 1960s Speedy Gonzales cartoon in which a group of mice look longingly across the Mexican border to an American cheese factory.

Andersen reported: “When we meet Speedy Gonzales, he is working at a carnival booth that says, ‘Win Beeg Prize.’ The mice repeatedly use the phrase ‘gotted an idea.’ Throughout the cartoon, the mice’s language and pronunciation are very degrading.”

The majority of students were in favor of YouTube posting the cartoons.

“Hiding history is a terrible thing to do,” Carrick said. “I’ll choose knowing over not knowing.”

Alyssa Crawford, 20, took exception, however. She watched a clip from the 1970 animated movie “The Aristocats” in which a Siamese cat plays the piano with chopsticks and rattles on about fortune cookies.

“I think it’s bad these are so easy to find,” she said.

The teachers

The racist cartoons on YouTube are popular. Some of them have been viewed more than 1 million times. Some have hundreds of comments beneath the videos.

Strangers argue back and forth about the ancient cartoons. Is it really that offensive when Popeye harasses a Japanese fisherman or Mickey Mouse finds an African “savage” in a crate of bananas?

Are the crows in Disney’s 1941 “Dumbo” reflecting offensive black stereotypes of the time or were they inspired by jazz artists?

Jim McPherson, a media history specialist who teaches at Whitworth University, uses popular culture in his classes, including videos.

“It’s important for students to see this, because it’s easy for them not to realize how far we’ve come,” he said.

He tells his students that racism was once so overt that, as late as the 1960s, some men’s civic groups put on blackface minstrel shows, and Mickey Rooney played a Japanese character, with makeup-yellowed skin, in the 1961 classic “Breakfast at Tiffany’s.”

But showing is always more powerful than telling. Now, McPherson has the proof of the past, often on YouTube, a virtual space where his students hang out.

Debbie Takami, a Spokane human resources professional, has been involved in diversity awareness and education for decades.

She recently watched, for the first time, a racist cartoon montage on YouTube.

“It’s kind of nauseating,” she said.

Takami was born in 1952, raised in Spokane by Japanese-American parents.

“I remember as a child going downtown, and Caucasian kids would see me and talk like an Asian person, or do the slant-eyed thing,” she said. “They had never met me, and the only way they formed their impressions, I’m sure, was through television.”

Takami sees value in young people viewing the offensive historic cartoons, but she hopes teachers provide the context.

Marion Sciachitano, who teaches in Washington State University’s critical culture, gender and race studies department, does just that.

She has studied the YouTube comments accompanying the racist cartoons. Many commenters wonder what all the fuss is about.

For instance, in one cartoon Bugs Bunny is shown in blackface pleading: “Don’t beat me, mastah!”

One commenter wrote: “Racist or not, it’s still funny.”

Sciachitano said: “They don’t know the historical context of these seemingly entertaining cartoons. They were a reflection of the times. They also don’t know the role of popular culture and media in reinforcing and perpetuating (stereotypes) about entire groups of people. It’s troubling.”

Racism and sexism still exist in popular media, it’s just more covert, she said.

In a recent class, Sciachitano and her students discussed the “Mammy” stereotype where big, black woman nurture white families.

The class discussed the Mammy character in the 1939 classic “Gone with the Wind.”

Then they watched a clip from the modern-day “Matrix” movie series which features “The Oracle,” an older African-American woman.

“The music is from the ’40s. The kitchen is vintage ’40s. She’s dressed as a domestic. She’s baking cookies,” Sciachitano pointed out.

“I said, ‘This is actually recycling of the old Mammy domestic. This is not accidental.’ ”

In McPherson’s class at Whitworth, students are discussing this year’s Super Bowl commercial for Pepsi Max titled “Love Hurts.” It contains what could be interpreted as black stereotypes.

One student told McPherson: “You are just looking for too many things. It’s just a short, funny ad.”

The students can watch it again and again. On YouTube. It’s already there, with 1,000 comments – and counting.

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