Do We Have a Right—or an Obligation—to Embrace Our Racist History?

By | November 12, 2020

Is the Confederate battle flag a symbol for people who tried to hold on to slavery and seceded from the Union? Or is it merely a show of Southern heritage and pride? After decades of debate, it may no longer matter: 

But as the country continues working to remove the Confederate flag from our government spaces and sports venues, it’s proving just as difficult getting racism out of other aspects of American life, specifically entertainment. 

And now, more than ever, we’re looking to entertainment to fill a void. The days are getting shorter and temperatures are getting lower. There’s no indication that COVID-19 is going to magically disappear and we can return to “normal” anytime soon. So as we curl up with a good book or snuggle up with the remote and think of a simpler time, it’s worth it to remember that there’s a lot of systemic racism in some of our most beloved nostalgia (Peter Pan’s pal Tiger Lily, anyone?).  

But efforts are being made to confront this history. When Disney+ launched over a year ago, it included a warning on certain titles for “outdated cultural depictions.” More recently, it has updated that warning to include stronger language and a link to a website that contextualizes the content:

Looney Tunes has taken a similar path when it releases its “classics,” including a written warning (below), and an introduction by Whoopi Goldberg that talks about the importance of acknowledging our past instead of ignoring it. (Of course, there’s always the revisionist history path: Speedy Gonzalez had his eye on the big screen five years ago, which one hopes would have rebranded the Mexican mouse as less of a racist caricature…though that movie never actually materialized.)

And what about other beloved cultural Americana? As a film, Gone with the Wind was removed from HBO Max, but will eventually return “with a discussion of its historical context.” As a book, it joins a growing list of many other notable and problematic American Classics, including favorite children’s books Huckleberry Finn and the Little House on the Prairie series. But removing those books entirely from the canon of American literature means that canon is incomplete. Instead, we can try “Countering the Classics,” recognizing what’s valuable in problematic texts, and then pivoting to a different text to challenge what needs challenging. 

Is displaying the Confederate flag a racist symbol or a display of Southern pride? Is watching Jim “Crow” sing to Dumbo legitimizing offensive stereotypes or viewing a piece of animation history? There will always be people on both sides of these issues; what brings each side together is the debate and discussion. That is why it is so important that we consistently engage our kids, teach them to name what they see and feel, and to get them comfortable with the uncomfortable. Maybe that will free the next generation to thoughtfully engage in discourse about race and justice in ways our generation hasn’t been able to.