Yesterday, I was racist.
I had found a meme I thought was both funny and socially aware: a drawing of the non-white Disney Princesses advocating for social causes. I posted it to my Facebook page, and many of my (white) friends shared it. Then the comments started:
“Why is it only the black princess cursing?”
I hadn’t noticed that, out of the four non-white princesses, only the black one uses profanity. My black friends, who have to deal with issues like this every single day, had to point it out to me. I write about race all the time; I first went viral with a post on the Michael Brown tragedy. I consider myself an ally. I do my best to kick and scream at the world to wake up to the issues facing non-whites in a whitewashed world.
And I still didn’t notice, because I have the luxury not to. I’m even a rhetorician by trade, which means I’m supposed to notice stuff like this.
Set Tiana aside for a moment and look at the picture. Mulan and Jasmine speak about one-on-one social issues. They point to serious cultural problems, but they speak about “you” and “white boys”, emphasizing the personal response. Only Pocahontas and Tiana speak in hashtags. This ties them not to the personal, but to larger social issues – larger, closer, more North American social issues. The uncomfortable ones.
All the women emphasize their particular cultural stereotypes. Jasmine is coy. Mulan’s an extra in a Tarantino film. Pocahontas gazes regally, because Native American/First Nations people always gaze regally off into the distance. Shunted off to the side, Tiana simpers a tight grin. Her pearls contrast with her ugly two-word response. You can dress a black girl up, but you can’t take her out.
Yes, someone needs to be on the side, composition-wise. But Tiana’s placement suggests an afterthought; Mulan’s words partially cover her. And while Pocahontas speaks before her hashtag, the only original word Tiana says is “motherfuckers.” In both placement and ideology, Tiana’s ghettoized.
All this paints Disney’s sole black princess as aggressive. She’s a threat; she’s radicalized. Despite her pearls, she isn’t fit for polite company. If all of the Disney princesses are others, she’s the most othered, the farthest outlier, the least sympathetic.
I’m trained to notice this stuff. And it blew right past me.
To my black friends, I’m sorry.
To my white friends, I know you didn’t notice this either. These racial stereotypes have become so ingrained we accept them without thinking. We accept that the black girl speaks the least; that she speaks in profanity; that she’s radicalized and dangerous. We don’t question it.
And we need to start.
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