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Thursday, March 7, 2013

Is This Racist? Could You Be Convinced It Is Racist? Would You Say It Was Racist to Gain Approval from Your Teacher? "Song of the South"

Norman Rockwell's Depiction of Uncle Remus
Br'er Rabbit and Uncle Remus from the 1946 Disney film "Song of the South" 
If the above images of Uncle Remus are racist, why isn't this image of Fifty Cent racist? Explain please. 

You are in a college classroom. The professor tells you that she is about to show you a film clip. After you finish viewing it, she wants you to write two paragraphs. The first paragraph will record the objective facts of what you just saw: the who, what, when, where, why, and how. The second paragraph will record your feelings about what you saw.

Something about the professor's attitude has you a bit scared. There is tension in the dark classroom. You are anxious. What are you about to see?

In fact, though, the film clip turns out to contain no sex or violence or sedition. It's a clip from a 1940's Disney film. It's set in the South, probably sometime in the late nineteenth century. A very cute little boy is running away from home. He happens across an elderly black man who takes the boy to his cabin and tells him a story about Br'er Rabbit. Br'er Rabbit runs away from home and almost falls into the clutches of Br'er Fox, but, through his wits, manages to escape at the last minute. The fable warns the boy that running away from home won't solve his problems. The old man sings a peppy song, "Zip a dee doo dah." The boy is delighted.

The film clip ends. The screen goes up; the classroom lights come back on.

You breathe a sigh of relief. That was a simple enough film clip. Nothing scary. It's easy enough to write up the two paragraphs. You liked the sweetness and sentimentality of the film, and think that it would be good for small children, but it's not your cup of tea.

The teacher tells students to put down their pens. She asks for student reactions.

Explosion.

An African American student is outraged. She hasn't spoken much all semester. Today she speaks rapidly, angrily and loudly. The film is racist, insulting and demeaning. It is part of white supremacy. Just watching the clip has poisoned the whole class.

The student holds her hand to her chest. She had been shy for most of the semester. Speaking has obviously cost her some effort. She glares at the class. Who will support her? Who will dare to disagree and support this racist film? Who are the racists in class? Her eyes seem to defy anyone to disagree.

A white student, an outspoken feminist and English major, joins in. She's heard about this evil film and denounces it roundly. "Disney banned 'Song of the South'!" She shouts. Not really. Disney has not released it on DVD. You can watch the film on youtube.

You were going to raise your hand and contribute to the discussion, but now you are nervous. "What's wrong with me?" you think. "Why didn't I realize that I was watching an evil film?" You shrug and wait for the discussion to boil over.

Some students, obviously flabbergasted, look to the teacher. What is the approved reaction? What reaction will earn the highest grade?

***

I've been showing this same clip from Walt Disney's 1946 film "Song of the South" for some years now.

Two aspects of this oft-repeated scenario frighten and educate me.

One: Many students don't know the difference between thoughts and feelings. Students produce meaningless sentences like: "I feel that this is good for children." "I think that I enjoyed this."

What's more troubling – much more troubling – the students who react most vehemently to "Song of the South" often can't describe the objective facts of what they saw.

Really. They cannot tell you what they saw. They cannot tell you what Disney put on the screen.

What can they say? "I am outraged. That is racist. I've been victimized. That is racist. I'm very hurt. That is racist."

"What? Tell me, what specific feature of 'Song of the South' is racist?"

"It's racist, I'm telling you. Don't tell me you like that movie. It's racist."

"What? What aspect of the film is racist?"

"It's racist! I'm hurt!"

"Okay. I get it that you are hurt. That's subjective. That's emotions. It's good that you can report that. Let's turn to the objective, to consensus reality. What specific aspect of the film is racist to you? Is it that Uncle Remus speaks in a Southern black dialect? Is it that he is wearing shabby clothes? What specific feature strikes you as racist, and why?"

"You are white! You cannot know how much that film hurts me! It's racist and we should not watch it!" I've had the conversation, described above.

I want to change it. I don't want to make students who don't like "Song of the South" like it. I want students, all students, to know how to differentiate thoughts from feelings. I want students to be able to say, with specificity, what feature of a work of art makes it a racist work of art, and why. I don't want anyone to use a sense of victimization as a weapon to intimidate, bully and silence others. "I am hurt and my people have been hurt; therefore, you must agree with me." That approach denigrates and circumvents thought, scholarship, and why we have college classrooms in the first place.

I fear, though, that previous teachers have rewarded students for that stance of public outrage. Whipping up outrage is a practice of political agitators; it is not the best strategy for real teachers. Too many teachers today are eager to whip up outrage, and resist actually supplying students with problem-solving skills.

Two: Students can be intimidated into saying what appears to be the most politically advantageous thing.

My students write down their reaction to "Song of the South" before they know what other students will say. The vast majority of students – over ninety percent – report that the film is a sentimental tale for children, a typical Disney cartoon. Only about ten percent, in their written work, allege that the film is racist.

When classroom discussion begins, those who object to "Song of the South" are often the most vocal. The majority of students who found the film sweet and old fashioned often look confused. Were we supposed to find this film racist?

I strive to remain neutral. When the students who object to the film speak, I write their points on the blackboard. It's frightening and depressing to me to view the facial expressions of many, but not all, of the students who liked the film. Some of them appear to be deciding that they, too, will find the film racist – not because they really believe that it is, but because that is the politically advantageous stance to take.

I fear that if I took a strong stance that "Song of the South" is a racist film, some students might parrot that stance – not because they really believe it, but because the teacher says so.

***

Me? I see both sides. I see why some object to "Song of the South." I see why others embrace it. I strive to present both sides to my students.

BUT the important thing is this – however students feel about "Song of the South," the best teachers, and the best education, will not indoctrinate them into parroting the teacher's stance. It will not browbeat them and bully them with others' suffering to adopt an opinion that is not their own.

Rather, the best teachers, and the best education will encourage students to separate facts from feelings. The best teachers, and the best education, will equip students to make their point using objective facts.

Good Soldier Svejk. Drunk, unshaven, sloppy, in jail, and singing a bawdy song.
I'm not black. I'm Slovak. We are also the oppressed. I told my students, who have never heard of Slovakia, that, historically, Slovaks have been peasants who are invaded and massacred and oppressed. I told them about Lidice, a village the Nazis wiped out. I told them about Soviet tanks rolling in to crush Prague Spring.

I told my students that we greatly admire a folk hero named Good Soldier Svejk. Svejk is fat, unshaven, and a slob. He gets drunk and behaves stupidly. And he is our hero.

Why?

My students totally understand. Of course people who are oppressed and massacred would want a hero who is a Wise Fool, a man who keeps his head down and displays his intelligence in ways that appear foolish, a charming subversive.

Can you understand, then, I ask, why Uncle Remus is a Wise Fool? And why some might admire him, even though his clothes are shabby and he does not speak Standard English?

Hmmm … maybe.

***

A couple of good scholarly articles about Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus:

"The Ultimate Irrelevance of Race: Joel Chandler Harris and Uncle Remus in Their Times" by Wayne Mixon, here.

"Black Father: The Subversive Achievement of Joel Chandler Harris" by Robert Cochran, here.



Uncle Remus telling one of his stories. 

6 comments:

  1. I watched the clip you mention in this post and a couple of thoughts come to mind:

    (1) Those who are offended by the clip and find it "racist" are expressing their feelings, for example when they use the word "offended" or "hurt." By using the word "racist" they are using a post civil rights concept to identify the cause of that feeling. It is undeniable that this clip and the entire movie for that matter, make extensive use of racial stereotypes, specific to Southern culture.

    I grew up in the South and to this day hear people say, usually when they have had one martini too many, that they believe blacks did better under slavery, they liked it, they had security, were treated like part of the family, etc. They actually believe that! I've never had an African-American of the same age ever say that, ever. Younger folks cringe when they see their ancestors depicted in such a stereotypical way in 1946, well after the Civil War ended and slavery was abolished. In an attempt to put a name to the feeling they have about the film it is not surprising they settle on the word "racist." They use that concept because after the Civil Rights movement that word became a powerful tool to wield against those who sought to diminish or deny the effects of slavery on modern blacks.

    How do I know this? I was born in the South in 1957 and went to high school in a large southern city that desegregated it's schools in the 1970s. Its a bitter life lesson when one watches people they love and admire utter ignorant and hateful things, even resort to violence, out of a sense of privilege and entitlement and of course fear. Watching the people you admire behave so shamefully weighs heavily on the heart and the truth stings: these people I love and trust are "racist," they lack integrity, they exhibit a true lack of morality and they are just plain wrong!

    (2) The old South is not an ancient place. It is alive and well, even today. I know this to be a fact and base this fact only on personal observation. Brown and black people experience a place very differently than I do. There is no disputing that. I've been told that over and over again and in many cases witnessed that difference first hand. So, I assume that some of your students experience this clip very differently than you do. If you insinuate that they call it "racist" because they have been convinced to call it that without having anything behind that, you run the risk of denying the legitimacy of people's true feelings. It may be popular to use the term "political correctness" to diminish these stated feelings or objections, but doing that will never right legitimate wrongs that were committed to real people and their descendents. After all, the depiction of life for recently freed blacks in the film is based on romantic white Southern myths that slavery was really a noble institution that benefited blacks in many ways. There may have been wonderful slaveholders who treated their slaves with compassion and dignity, but they were few and far between. People in the South who believe the myth will twist their logic in knots defending a system that was immoral. Post Civil War was no better for many blacks who stayed in the South and essentially became sharecroppers on master's land. When I was a child many descendents of slaves, still highly exploited under the sharecropper system.

    This movie could be seen by some as nothing more than propaganda wrapped up in a nice children's tale, produced by Disney. As the Civil Rights movement heated up, Disney put this one in the vault as it did not want to be misunderstood or misrepresented, and the executives were not willing to take that risk. Perhaps they saw the writing on the wall: one day blacks would be consumers with economic clout and they could not afford to alienate or offend them and their social progressive allies.

    (Part 1 of 2)

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  2. So, to answer some of the question you posed to some of your students:

    Why do you find it racist?

    Because it is based on nothing more than stereotypes and it's target audience is children. The movie glosses over slavery, post civil war violence throughout the south, and depicts grown adults as little more than dependent, children. All in all the movie perpetuates the myth that I grew up hearing from Southern relatives that "old southern culture was noble and moral" and that slaves were "willing partners in their relationship with whites because they got so much out of that relationship."

    At the heart of slavery, of course, is a highly exploitive economic relationship from which white farmers and industrialists benefited greatly and blacks, very little. Abolishing slavery did not change the hearts and minds of many Americans regarding the stereotypical view based on myths that blacks were less intelligent, lazy, incapable of taking care of themselves and their descendents, in need of a great white father/mother and so on. In order to justify slavery you had to diminish the capability of the group you believed you had the right to own and control and that was effectively done through stereotyping.

    Had the movie depicted the black characters as fully formed human beings, I suspect that black and white viewers alike would experience this as a sweet children's tale with wonderfully talented actors. I think it is the underlying offensive stereotypes wrapped up a seemingly harmless children's story with animation and catchy songs that your students are really objecting to. I could be wrong of course, as I can only speak for myself.

    With all due respect to your personal experience as a Polish woman in America and elsewhere, you can not equate what happened to blacks in this country with what happened to other groups in other places and expect your black students to accept that. Slaves were not only owned, they could not amass and pass down wealth, they could not control any part of their destiny, and they were never properly compensated for their generations of losses after the civil war. They were bought and sold as property throughout the south until 1865, in many states could not effectively exercise their right to vote until 1965 and could not attend equal schools in many places until the 1970s! I would love to find an example of another group that has been systematically disenfranchised for such a long period of time. That might be a more honest comparison.

    (Part 2 of 3)

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  3. Lastly, as a teacher, I am always pleased when my students show growth. The fact that most students do not write that the film is "racist" but begin using that word once the classroom discussion gets going it not at all surprising and in fact suggests that allowing a diversity of people to express their feelings enhances the analysis and does in fact lead to growth. I do find it surprising that your students don't know what it is about the film that feels "racist." As I suggested above, there are many reasons why the film would make a lot of people uncomfortable, especially a person of color. A Southern white person might call it "romantic," harkening back to the good ole days, expressing their legitimate feelings. One calls it "romantic" another "racist" and letting those two communicate about why they see it that way is how growth and racial healing can occur in my humble opinion based on direct experience, also teaching college students.

    You may be using this clip to illustrate "political correctness" so the discussion may be guided in that direction. If that is so, I suspect that students may be reacting out of defensiveness and therefore can not express sound thinking about what is behind their feelings. You are creating a teachable moment. So, what do your students purport to have learned by watching the clip and engaging in the class exercise? You seem to indicate that some are "convinced" or "intimidated" into accepting the film as "racist." I read the comments you attributed to students and had a very different impression about what was behind their reactions.

    What I know about racism is this: whites are very defensive about using that word because they feel true guilt and shame, not only for allowing the enslavement of blacks for over 200 years in this country, but also because we never made adequate reparations to descendants of slaves (remember 40 Acres and a Mule?). Black people know that and they use the word so that white's can not brush away what happened to their ancestors, family members, neighbors and colleagues. You can not separate out American black experience from the history of slavery; those who try to do that run the risk of providing only part of the story, thereby making the thesis that people only experience the film as "racist" because of "political correctness" impossible to prove. From what you describe I learned that your students experience the film differently, many do not have well thought out reasons for their feelings, and you believe that the best explanation for why they begin to experience it as racist, after hearing others say so, is because they were "intimated" or "convinced" to feel that way by people who don't know what "racist" is. I suspect that if I were in the room I'd have a very different impression about what you describe.

    You asked us to respond after reading and I am doing so in an attempt to honestly address your questions. Diversity of opinion and an equal playing field for expressing those opinions are one mark of a great society, in my humble opinion. Thank you for providing such a forum.

    (Danusha, Sorry for the long post. You can ignore it if you find it too long or repetitive.)

    (Part 3 of 3)

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    Replies
    1. Interesting blogpost - as always - and interesting reply Nancy. I am not American and have never seen "Song of the South", but it seems that it may be context more than content that is causing the problem here. The film (movie) would be harmless if a bit sentimental, and with a rather catchy song (although I can't bear "pep"), but it is perceived to be putting a sugar-coated gloss on the horrors of slavery in the American south.

      And perhaps students are not as able to articulate that as they might be?

      This reminded me a little of Tennessee Williams "Streetcar" - which depicts a culture clash in which the incoming immigrants - "barbarians" from Eastern Europe, specifically from Poland - are depicted as brutal ignorant animals as compared to the cultured Southerner Blanche.

      The slave owning South is there depicted as "uber" - a lost Paradise - being swamped by the coarse ignorance of these "unter" immigrants.

      Then there is the book "Maus" which depicts Poles as pigs/swine - and is much taught, and generally lauded, awarded and applauded.

      I don't know if you have read Dr.Goska's "Bieganski"? She has a blog of the same name which furthers the discussion of the issues raised in the book. In it, she briefly summarises what happened to Bob Lamming, a teacher at a Catholic American College who, politely, protested the teaching of a book that depicted his fellow Catholics as "swine".

      He lost his job and his career. And I think the book is still a perfectly acceptable teaching aid within Academe.

      So - and bearing in mind I am talking about a film I have not seen - I think I can understand why some people may see "Song of the South" as putting an unacceptable rosy glow over the horrors of slavery. Yet I also feel that this is an area awash with troubling academic politics - which confuse everything.

      And that is as far as I have got. Perhaps we will be able to talk about it some more?

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    2. Sue, thanks for mentioning Bieganski. :-)

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  4. Nancy, I'm put off by your posts, for obvious reasons. You imply that I'm denying others' experience. Not so. And it's wrong of you to imply that. It's a tactic of silencing by intimidation, and you know it.

    Unless I missed it, you never say anything about the film itself. You talk about the sick creeps you know who celebrate slavery. Those people are beyond contempt.

    You are attempting to stir up legitimate hatred and disgust against your wacko friends who celebrate slavery, and to conflate that hatred and disgust with a film that has nothing to do with your friends. I don't respect that rhetorical tactic.

    Unless I missed it, you never say anything about the movie itself!

    You never say anything about the impact of the film on its audience!

    Your posts exemplify what I'm troubled by. Rousing disgust, intimidation, and sidestepping, if not outright rejecting, appropriate scholarly processes.

    Now let's say something real and honest about the film itself.

    IT DOES NOT TAKE PLACE DURING SLAVERY

    and it does not glamorize or celebrate slavery.

    It *undermines* white supremacy!

    Uncle Remus is the smartest, wisest, most likable character in the film. His culture -- his traditional African trickster tales -- are depicted as the antidote to stiff, cold, white American culture.

    A white boy runs away from the white world and finds his spiritual and emotional treasure with a black father figure!

    This honorable and valuable black man is shown living in poverty, and oppressed by the white man. For heaven's sake!

    You never mention that -- facts are not the stock in trade of your posts here.

    Love you. But am not on board with your posts here.

    You want to talk about the movie and its reception? Harness some facts.


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