Despite a reputation as the purveyor of “the happiest place on Earth,” Walt Disney was not a perfect individual. For decades now, the man has been accused of supporting various levels of racism and anti-Semitism, and while there’s no direct line between Disney himself and any particular hate groups, his movies alone may do more than enough to prove these claims. Granted, Disney died in 1966, so the movies released under his name since then that happen to be racist isn’t entirely his fault.
Regardless of the source, the fact of the matter is that a shocking number of Disney movies have contained quietly offensive imagery that the average viewer probably doesn’t notice. Of course, another way to describe this is by saying Disney films are rife with subliminal message that condition the children watching them to grow up into fully functional racists as they get older. Critics to these statements may argue the world is just too sensitive today. A character based entirely on a “humorous” racial stereotype was more or less okay with audiences back in the 1920s, ‘30s, or ‘40s, when Disney’s company was arguably at its peak.
That doesn’t mean they weren’t still shockingly offensive in retrospect or that an artist truly concerned with equality and love for all would have been more careful not to rely on them for cheap laughs. It’s also worth pointing out that at least three films in the list you’re about to read were released not half a century ago, but in the 1990s, proving this trend is hardly one for the distant past. For all the specifics, keep reading to learn about 15 Disney characters you didn’t realize are making kids racist.
15. Sunflower — Fantasia
Brilliantly and beautifully mixing music, bright colors, and everyone’s favorite anthropomorphic mouse, Fantasia will forever remain one of Disney’s most important creations. It was also one of the first to get publicly labeled racist, when several scenes were highly edited way back in the 1960s. Most fans probably just remember “The Sorcerer’s Apprentice” and “Night on Bald Mountain” sequences, but the offending moments took place during Beethoven’s “The Pastoral Symphony.” This is the part of the film borrowing heavily from Greco-Roman mythology, including centaurs, cupids, and the gods Bacchus and Zeus. Most of these “heavenly” figures are bright white, or at least somehow shiny, except for the long black centaur named Sunflower. Not coincidentally, this centaur also has the most outrageous hair, biggest lips, and is essentially a slave or servant to all the other centaurs. None of these characters say a word, yet the message was incredibly clear. Thankfully, Disney historians noticed and decided to cut all of Sunflower’s scenes from re-releases and rebroadcasts starting in 1969.
14. Tiger Lily And Her Tribe — Peter Pan
Offering Disney’s take on whether or not racism is inherited or something that children can be born with, it might be more accurate to call the Lost Boys the most offensive characters in Peter Pan. After all, it’s Peter’s orphan followers who are crass enough to walk up to a Native American chief and ask “What makes the red man red?” Then again, Big Chief’s answer, provided in song, is actually a whole lot worse. According to his jaunty dance tune, the skin of Native Americans results from centuries of embarrassment around women. Wait, what? Before that, he also explains through song that Natives are extremely unintelligent, only learning the ways of the world by repeatedly asking, “How?” It also doesn’t help that the chief, and just about everyone in his tribe, happily refer to themselves as “savages.” Even Marc Davis, a Disney animator from the very beginning, later admitted they probably should’ve cut out the Natives entirely, presumably because their sole purpose was to make illogical racist jokes.
13. Thursday — Mickey Mouse And The Boy Thursday
“Let me see…,” say Mickey Mouse, trying to understand this strange new character most Disney fans probably never heard of. “A genuine African native,” continues our favorite rodent, “Maybe I should start showing him off.” Quite frankly, that single line does a pretty good job at explaining everything that’s wrong with Mickey Mouse and the Boy Thursday, the comic storybook that details the (thankfully) lone appearance of said African native, Thursday. As if that’s not bad enough, the comic portrays Thursday, the “African native,” as being so ignorant and dumb, he doesn’t even understand human language, instead, he prefers to throw spears, shoot arrows, and otherwise attempt to attack just about everything that approaches him. Also, the lost child arrived at Mickey’s house in a box of bananas, because there was no need for subtlety when racism itself was the joke. If there’s any upside, it’s that this one never hit the big screen, mostly having been forgotten along with Disney comics in general.
12. Every Character In Cannibal Capers
It was racist enough when Disney took an “African native” away from home and dropped him off at Mickey Mouse’s doorstep. Imagine, then, just how bad it would be if they actually took viewers on a journey to their view of Africa. Oh wait, we don’t have to picture it ourselves, because the company did just that in Cannibal Capers released all the way back in 1930. As if Thursday wasn’t bad enough, the Africans in this short featured big hair and lips twice the size of their faces, with cannibalism so central to their nature, it was in the freaking title. The “humor” of the short focused entirely on the fact these Africans loved weird dances and weird music (mostly based on literal clicks and whistles), and didn’t seem to mind wandering around almost naked all day — all set to a quirky rendition of Franz Schubert. This time, the only positive aspect is that the production was so primitive, kids today would ignore it before these offensive messages got through.
11. Sebastian, The Duke, And Blackfish — The Little Mermaid
Before we even get into Sebastian, we need to take a second and point out that racist or not, The Little Mermaid is without question the most misogynistic cartoon ever made. It takes all of 5 seconds for Ariel to decide she should change everything about herself, abandon her family, and never talk again just to be with some dude she doesn’t know but finds attractive. The point of this list is racism, though, so let’s move on to everyone’s favorite song from the movie, “Under the Sea.” It’s catchy, it’s fun, and just about anyone who hears the opening marimba will sing along to at least a few words detailing how things are much better down where it’s wetter. The thing is, the whole reason the Jamaican-accented Sebastian and his band of fish, including a “Duke,” clearly fashioned after Ellington, and a “Blackfish” that doesn’t even try to hide the fact its entire existence is a play on blackface, are all so happy is that in the water, there’s no need for hard work. In reality, people of all creeds, cultures, and colors would probably agree with that, but it can’t be ignored that Disney had all the black-looking characters say it.
10. Jim Crow — Dumbo
Tim Burton and an all-star cast are currently filming a live action remake of Dumbo as this article is being written. Obviously, we’re not sure how that’s going to turn out yet, but there’s a good chance at least one character from the classic Disney version won’t be included in the new one — Jim Crow, leader of the wise-cracking, jive-talking crows who initially mock and then support the large-eared pachyderm on his journey. Critics have debated for years whether or not all of the crows were racist, as they all talk the same stereotypical way, but there’s a distinction to be made in the fact the others were voiced and sang by black actors, a relatively rare concept for animation at the time. Also, the crows are amongst the few characters in the film not to be total jerks to Dumbo the entire time, actually coming to help and support the poor guy, so it’s not all bad. Still, the fact Jim Crow specifically was named after racist Southern segregation laws intentionally designed to subjugate black people kind of does away any good will on his part.
9. Uncle Remus — Song of the South
To put it bluntly, it’s hard to imagine any black men in the Southern United Stated happily chanting “Zip-a-Dee-Doo-Dah” to all the rich white kids who continued treating them like servants mere months after slavery ended. Song of the South literally takes place in a plantation. Its main character, Uncle Remus, presumably receives barely any money to continue working for the same woman who kept him as a slave up until she was literally forced to stop doing so by a Civil War. And yet, there he is, with a big smile on his face, waxing nostalgic about good times he couldn’t have possibly experienced, singing songs with imaginary bluebirds on his shoulder like nothing was wrong about what happened to his people. This was made worse by the fact at no point in the movie is it actually made clear the Civil War was over, with many contemporary audiences in the 1940s actually believing Uncle Remus was still a slave as he had a grand old time with all those white children.
8. King Louie — The Jungle Book
Rumor has it, producers of The Jungle Book wanted legendary jazz musician Louis Armstrong to play the role of King Louie, but changed their minds because they were worried having a black character play such a racist stereotype might make it a little too obvious. Apparently, they didn’t realize what essentially amounted to blackface wasn’t just as bad. In fact, they probably should’ve backed up a bit and realized making a movie out of a story by the same guy who wrote “The White Man’s Burden” was going to ring warning bells no matter what they did. For some reason, instead of trying to make a racist’s racist story less racist, Disney made it more racist, entirely inventing the King Louie character by mashing together a bunch of African stereotypes, putting him in a jungle filled with British accents, and having him sing about how he wished he was normal. Letting a white guy sing it while masking his voice didn’t exactly hide the underlying message.
7. Countless Japanese Characters In Propaganda Films
Quite a few of the early Disney examples featuring on this list might feel like borderline propaganda. For this next one, there’s no “maybe” about it, as Disney was actually hired by the United States government during World War II to create actual advertisements about how Japanese soldiers were all obviously evil. Most of these shorts focused on Donald Duck joining the army, starting with Donald Gets Drafted and culminating in Commando Duck, the source of the above image. The iconic pantless duck faced combat in both Japan and Europe during this time, with the former in particular taking an especially racist turn whenever enemy soldiers were on camera. Asians were always depicted as conniving monsters with squinted eyes and gigantic yellow teeth, and absolutely no distinction was noted between regular Japanese people and “the enemy.” That same attitude was rampant in Japanese internment camps, which we bet Disney and Donald would have strongly supported.
6. Every Character In Pocahontas
This entry has nothing to do with a certain amateur politician using “Pocahontas” as a racial slur against a senator in 2017, yet the two are indeed related. Regardless of the specifics related to that current event, or really anything about the 1995 film Pocahontas in general, the fact is that media has been (almost intentionally) getting the details about Native Americans wrong for centuries. Digressing to the film specifically, the gal’s name wasn’t even Pocahontas, which is actually a racial slur meaning she was a “naughty, spoiled child.” Her real name was Matoaka, and her preferred nickname was Amonute. Not that this really compares to the fact that the movie isn’t even remotely close to what actually happened to her. The reality is, Matoaka was an 11-year-old girl when she met John Smith, who actually hated Natives his entire life. He proved as much by waging war against the Powhatan tribe after “Pocahontas” rejected him, then made up a story about how she was “the one good Indian” in an otherwise “treacherous” tribe. Of course, Disney isn’t alone in this whitewashing of our history with Native Americans, as there’s still an entire holiday for that.
5. Various Siamese Cats — Lady And The Tramp, The Aristocats, Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers
Long before cat videos were the main purpose of the Internet, adorable felines understandably appeared in a whole bunch of cartoons, including those made by Disney. There’s nothing wrong with a movie about a bunch of diverse kitties on its own, but the problem was that virtually every time Disney decided to put a bunch of them together in the same movie, at least one was bound to be racist. It usually involved Siamese cats, starting with Lady and the Tramp, which introduced two of them with the booming sound of an Asian gong. From there, the twins Si and Am, are presented as sneaky, evil, and plotting a slow takeover of Lady’s new home. The typical giant teeth and slanted eyes are also naturally part of the deal. Siamese cats had it even worse in The Aristocats, with only one appearing and playing an outrageously racist song on a piano using chopsticks — its lyrics was literally a list of offensive stereotypes. All that changed with Chip ‘n Dale: Rescue Rangers when the Siamese cats’ evil operations expanded and were seen as owners of an illegal gambling ring.
4. The Peddler (And Agrabah In General) – Aladdin
“Can an Arab-American child feel good after seeing Aladdin? The answer is no.” So said a member of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee to Variety around the time Aladdin was released. The New York Times was a little bit more cutting, releasing an article titled, “It’s Racist, But Hey, It’s Disney.” Both comments were made in direct reference to a certain lyric from the film’s very popular song “Arabian Nights,” where the Peddler first sang in Agrabah, “they cut off your ear if they don’t like your face,” then finished, “it’s barbaric, but hey, it’s home.” The first part of the song was so bad, it’s since been censored, but Disney re-releases to this day still cast off all of Agrabah, the film’s stand-in for all Arab dominant countries, as “barbaric.” Also, it’s not like cutting the line means anything when there’s still a character in the film who tries stabbing Aladdin for petty theft where it once appeared.
3. The Hyenas — The Lion King
Thankfully, Disney’s depictions of Africa came an immensely long way in between Cannibal Capers and The Lion King. Unfortunately, taking the plot of “Hamlet” and characters from Kimba the White Lion didn’t negate Disney’s influence enough that the result wouldn’t still manage to be extremely racist. Since we just mentioned Kimba, first of all, it’s worth noting that even after changing his name to Simba, Disney kept the titular Lion King very light furred in comparison to his evil uncle, Scar. In fact, all the good lions are pretty light, and the only dark complexion characters are Scar and his hyenas. Of course, there’s a whole lot worse with the hyenas than just their color, as actors Whoopi Goldberg, and Cheech Marin were more than happy to dig into every stereotypical inflection they were aware of when voicing them. Then there’s the fact the only reason Mufasa and company don’t care for the hyenas is that they’re “lazy scavengers,” basically sounding like a racist, furious that they were on welfare. This isn’t a problem we’re willing to simply wasp away “Hakuna Matada” style.
2. Mickey Mouse – Mickey’s Mellerdrammer
Oh, come on now, Disney. Sure, throw in a racist caricature or two as a side character, and maybe kids won’t notice. But Mickey Mouse in blackface? It’s like they were openly admitting that everyone working for the company when it began was a total bigot. The sad part is that there’s reason to believe Disney genuinely thought they were being racially progressive when creating Mickey’s Mellerdrammer, as it details the Mouse and his friends as they attempt to stage a dramatic retelling of “Uncle Tom’s Cabin.” The thing is, if they couldn’t find any black actors to play the important roles, they shouldn’t have bothered doing it. Okay, the fact it’s animated means they probably should’ve just drawn the characters in a less racist way. Think about it — Mickey, a mouse, is actually black already. So why did Disney feel the need to give him big nappy hair and cover him in shoe polish, except around his now-giant lips? If that’s not racist, we don’t know what is.
1. Santa Claus — Santa’s Workshop
If there’s any enduring pop-culture icon even more beloved than Mickey Mouse, it has to be the man bringing presents to children each year on Christmas — Jolly Old Saint Nick. Naturally, Disney decided to make him a total racist, as well. Not only that, but all of Santa’s elves working at his toy factory are also rife with prejudice, happily producing offensive toys for children of the world with big smiles on their face. Although the racial comment might be subtle, those who recognize it can never forget it. After the elves toil away for hours, they start sending their products to Kris Kringle for his stamp of approval. First, Santa sees a cute, proper, well-dressed white doll that coos adorably, “Mama!” Aw, how sweet — approved. Next up, a black doll with giant nappy hair and even bigger lips, wearing a shabby dress and screeching out, “Mammy!” It stamps its own butt “approved” as Santa lets out a big, racist belly laugh. Sorry, but we don’t get the joke. Wonder how Disney would try and explain it.