Those Crows in Dumbo

I’ve been giving it some thought and the thing is that I’m just not sure that it’s that obvious to everyone that the crows in Dumbo are racist caricatures–especially because, looking at them now, they don’t seem to be particularly negative caricatures and I think we tend to think that since racism is bad and evil that everything that is racist will be obviously bad and evil.

And let’s be clear–it’s easy to see the crows in Dumbo as good because they are good; they are nice to Dumbo when few others are and they do help him learn to fly and their intervention directly results in him being reunited with his mother.  But there is a world of difference between being good characters within the context of the movie and being non-racist.

But also, I don’t want to get into a bunch of high-faluting theory because I believe this is an important point and important within the context of what happened to Nathan Vaughn, especially since I keep hearing people say “depicting a black man as a crow isn’t racist; the crows in Dumbo aren’t racist. See?” and I don’t want to get distracted.

But the crows in Dumbo are racist caricatures.

It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or racist or that you should never let your kids watch Dumbo.  I, honestly, don’t know what it means.  That’s the thing about our history.  We have all this good stuff that is brought to us by some really ugly stuff and it’s really hard to know how or if you can salvage the good stuff.

I, for one, would have liked to believe that you can watch Dumbo and see that it’s racist and still enjoy it as a piece of great art.  Maybe you can’t, though.  I don’t know.

I do know that denying that it’s racist is problematic.  It borders on delusionally problematic if we’re going to use the fact that we don’t see racism in the depiction of those crows to dismiss the legitimate anger people feel when Nathan Vaughn’s and Barack Obama’s heads are placed on crows and sent out in a political mailing, as if one depiction of black people as crows that can be seen as positive (and “non-racist”) means that all depictions of black people as crows are non-racist*.

So, the crows in Dumbo.

Ask yourself this: What race of human being are the crows?  How do you know that?

Just think about that for a second.

Isn’t it weird that you can tell what human race an animal is supposed to be?  And why is it that you know what race those crows are?

Because those crows are based on white stereotypes of black behavior.

How powerful are those stereotypes?  So powerful that you’re sitting here 67 years after that movie was made and you know what race those crows are.

And when that movie was made, a hundred years after Thomas Rice put on blackface and called himself “Jim Crow”–trading on the idea that, if he painted his face and danced and sang, everyone would know what race he was caricaturing–what was the main crow called in the script?

Do I even have to tell you?

(And what race was the man who voiced that crow?  I don’t guess I have to spell that out for you either.)

Thanks to Rice, by the middle of the 19th century “Jim Crow” was a common slur used in reference to black men.  Calling a black man a crow, depicting him as a crow, depicting a crow as him… that’s old, old common American stuff.

And the reason I think it’s so important to think about the fact that you can tell that the crows in Dumbo are racially black is because it shows that we all kind of subconsciously accrue this junk.  No one had to tell you; you just pick up that how those crows are depicted means “how a black man acts.”

Which brings us back to Nathan Vaughn.  Did the people who put together that mailer know that what they were doing was just the latest in almost 200 years worth of equating black men specifically with crows?

I’m going to be honest with you.  I’ve thought about this a lot since my last post and I kind of doubt it.  Which, frankly, really sucks.  I mean, I think–in the same way we all know that there’s something going on with race and those Dumbo crows even if we never gave too much thought to what it was–whoever designed that probably had a sense that it would be “just perfect” to design that with Vaughn’s head on a crow.  I don’t believe that that person necessarily had any sense of why he or she thought it would be perfect.

That person knew it would be perfect and probably had no idea why it would be perfect.  That’s my guess (though until he or she comes forward, we’ll probably never know).

But for everyone who knows the long history, it was shocking to see.  And upsetting.  I mean, it’s powerful.  It’s a powerful image.

But it’s as powerful as it is precisely because of a long and ugly history that runs right through Dumbo, too.


*Spare me the “But Nancy Pelosi’s head is on one of the crows!” argument.

Edited to add: A couple of links.  Here and here.


42 thoughts on “Those Crows in Dumbo

  1. Yeesh. I try to keep our home clear of all things Disney for this very reason. I would prefer that my daughter not be so young when exposed to such shiny, sugary bits of vile bigotry.

  2. That’s a good question and I don’t know. I don’t really remember Heckle and Jeckle all that well, but my first inclination, based on memory, is to say “no.”

  3. Lighten up, catpants, your blog is supposed to be humorous. I’m out of here – you just lost half your readership :)

  4. What if his head is on a raven? Those could easily be ravens, as far as I can tell. There’s no scale on the picture.

    Is there a history of racism associated with ravens too?

  5. Actually, yes, Heckle and Jeckle were also written as racial stereotypes. A guy in one of my writing classes many years ago wrote a very eloquent article on it. I wonder about the damage stereotypes, not just racial, but all the way around, do to those who are stereotyped? Gender identities, for instance. My daughter once said something about men being doctors and women being nurses that pissed me right off. This came from a child who wants to be an environmental oceanographer, a midwife or a race car driver, all while being a movie star (she’s six. Plenty of time to narrow it down or even expand the list a bit LOL). If anyone has ever avoided the boys versus girls thing, it’s this child. But “no, mama. Women are *nurses*!” still came out of her mouth.

    We have to see them to refute them, but how do we stop, even accidentally, perpetuating them?

  6. But the crows in Dumbo are racist caricatures.

    It doesn’t mean you’re a bad person or racist or that you should never let your kids watch Dumbo.

    I swear I’ll go to my grave trying to get this most simple of concepts though to people. Thank you for saying it, though.

    I, honestly, don’t know what it means. That’s the thing about our history. We have all this good stuff that is brought to us by some really ugly stuff and it’s really hard to know how or if you can salvage the good stuff.

    *Ding Ding Ding* Aunt B. for the win! Really, this is what we need to recognize more. Culture and history are so complex that it’s difficult, damn near impossible to separate out everything into a “good stuff” and “bad stuff” category. Sure, there are obvious instances of things that are unequivocally “bad” or “good,” but… I mean, really, what do you do with the fact that Birth of a Nation revolutionized film?

    I’d like to think that we can salvage the “good stuff,” though, while still critiquing and condemning the ugly bits.

  7. I’d like to think that we can salvage the “good stuff,” though, while still critiquing and condemning the ugly bits.

    …at the same time, I think it’s important to keep some of the “ugly bits” around – if only for the sole purpose to recognize it when/if it pops up again in the future.

    That whole “those who forget history are doomed to repeat it” bit…

  8. Pixie, as your question implies, I think there is no easy or simple answer. What B. has done here, what we’re doing here, is the solid foundation of an answer. Don’t let these things rest without analysis and, if necessary, opposition. Sure, my daughter will roll her eyes at me when I rail against the cultural pestilence peddled by Disney (and other corporate media). But by the time she gets done recoiling from my strident self-righteousness, she won’t be able to eradicate the education she’s received. Also, if she learns good critical thinking skills (including as such skills apply to the consumption of media), she won’t need to listen to my soapbox diatribes to see through the bullshit. If she can still enjoy the shiny, jingly bits of Disney (and other corporate media rubbish) while recognizing the danger of the poison ingredients, then I won’t have cause for complaint. As long as she isn’t internalizing any messages of self-hatred or bigotry, I’m cool.

  9. Also if we could scrap NCLB and instead institute some sort of training so that kids don’t get out of high school without being able to perceive both good and bad stuff at the same time. You know, recognizing that acknowledging the ugly bits doesn’t mean hating the good stuff.

  10. Pixie, I really think it depends. The thing that makes me mad about what happened to Vaughn (and for that matter, what happened to Cohen–though that was more easily condemnable for most people) is that both things pulled on really ancient slanders.

    Like i said in my last post, I do believe that the purpose of the Vaughn mailer was not necessarily to affect voters (though that was an intended side-effect). The purpose was to knock Vaughn off his game. And what better way to do it than with this imagery that basically–to him–would have been read as “We have not forgotten that you are not really a man.”?

    In other words, I don’t think we can stop accidentally perpetuating them unless we’re really ready to acknowledge how complicated it is.

    I was thinking, too, Kevin that it’s also hard to do that kind of sorting because people appropriate things to make their own meanings from. I mean, I can remember being slipped a copy of “License to Ill” and listening to that over and over and over again and how much I loved that album because to me, it sounded like freedom. Same with early GNR, maybe more so with Axl being from Indiana.

    And that was some sexist shit. But it never occurred to me in junior high to identify with the girls they were singing about. Never. I always identified with the singer and wanted to feel that kind of power and bravado and freedom.

    I just ignored that they were talking about girls like me.

    Yeah, now I wonder what that does to a girl to spend her formative years listening to songs about killing women or raping them with wiffle ball bats.

    But at the time, that music blew my mind and told me that there were whole lives out there I could lead that might suit me better than where I was.

    So, are those albums still some misogynistic bullshit? Hell yeah.

    But I will still sing along to every song, if I get the chance.

    So, things escape their makers and people do with it what they will.

    You have to keep hold of both threads–what it was intended for and what you can do with it anyway. You let one of those drop, with anything in American history, and you’re going to get into trouble.

  11. Is there a difference between portrayal of a racial stereotype and a racist portrayal? It might be semantics, but I think the tone is important.

    I do believe that many stereotypes (not myths or urban legends) do have a foundation of some kind of truth or shared experience. It just feels ugly when it’s applied to race (there are all kinds of stereotypes eg. the midlife crisis, the crooked politician, the preacher’s daughter). But there are often logical or cultural reasons why something becomes a stereotype or at least common enough to be recognizable. I don’t necessarily think that it’s wrong to notice it and take it at face value without taking offense.

    Not all country artists are white, not all rappers are black but I would feel silly to try sincerely say that either music is without some kind of racial identity.

    I have no problem seeing the Dumbo crows as a product of their time, and not unfairly. They may be a racial caricature, but in my opinion, not a racist one.

  12. I have no problem seeing the Dumbo crows as a product of their time, and not unfairly.

    That’s an interesting perspective, HBT, but if you look at the time in question, you can see clearly that it was a time where deeply vile racism (and racist caricature) was more widely acceptable. So to the people who made it and to most who watched, it may not have seemed as harmful as it would if someone were to make something similar today. So I see your point about putting it in context, but I fail to see how the context makes it any less racist. That said, I’m in full agreement with B.:

    You have to keep hold of both threads–what it was intended for and what you can do with it anyway. You let one of those drop, with anything in American history, and you’re going to get into trouble.

    I can’t find enjoyment from entertainment that sells such vile imagery, but I can find educational value in it, HBT, for exactly the reason you touch on. It is a glimpse into a very recent time where large portions of the population saw African-Americans through a very distorted and demeaning lens, and thought nothing of it. I don’t think it too much of a stretch to look at such denigrating imagery being a staple of popular entertainment and see just how vital was the confrontation and activism of the Civil Rights Movement.

    Put another way, I also see the Dumbo crows as “a product of their time,” but that isn’t so much to excuse them as to put them into an educational context. We’ve come a long way, but let’s not forget why we had to.

  13. Okay, let me admit that I am going only by the clip I see here because the last time I saw Dumbo I was probably 5 yeras old. And I’m sure I’m walking on thin ice here, but I don’t actually see or hear anything “vile” except for poor grammar which is logical since blacks of the day weren’t allowed to be educated.

    I think the only problem with Racial stereotypes is that the depiction has been used to discriminate a whole race of people. If the depiction is not used for an evil purpose, the depiction itself is harmless in my opinion.

    I actually see the crows as song and dance man in a great tradition – like Gregory Hines or Cab Calloway – it’s only when black people were not allowed to be anything OTHER than great song & dance men that there was a problem with with them BEING song and dance men.

    (Dear god, I hope that made sense in print – it made sense in my *brain*.)

  14. I think it is important to remember the bad stuff for what it is. Some religions have annual rituals and ceremonies to remind themselves how bad things were so that the adherents won’t forget “the bad” and be more appreciative of “the good”.

    (I hope this is not off-topic, it seems related to me) This is why I think trying to eradicate hurtful images (eg. confederate flag) is more harmful in the long run. That is why I see most “political correctness” as trying to create a utopia where we only pay attention to the good stuff while ignoring all the bad stuff that got us to the good stuff (to use B’s terms). Living a life acting as if some things never happened or don’t exist is not the answer. There has to be some way to point to things like the crow image, acknowledge it for being racist, and moving on in a world where Barack Obama is the President-elect.

  15. I see where you’re coming from, HBT. Let me give you another example, at the risk of straying far and wide. If I describe to you a snarling red man with horns and a tail carrying a pitchfork, what comes to your mind? If someone described this to me, I’d think “Devil.” But where did the Devil (at least the one from Christian mythology) get this appearance? I mean, assuming that, according to the Biblical record, the Devil is a spirit being with no physical form, where did that image come from? Most people don’t think of it, because they know what the image is supposed to represent. Now, there are some historically inclined people who regularly visit this space, and they could give you a far better explanation of the possible origins of the Devil imagery.

    My point is that the more you learn about the origins of the imagery, you find that the imagery has an historical context that involves political, cultural, and religious developments. The more you know about that context, the more you understand about the power of the imagery (and perhaps you learn a thing or two about how certain contemporary religious beliefs have evolved).

    So it is with the Dumbo crows. The depictions may seem harmless when taken out of context, which can happen when you view the images today. But consider that a couple of generations of little white children likely internalized these images– and other stereotypical images of African-American culture– and it was part of an education that formed their sensibilities toward black people (with whom they may or may not have had significant first-hand contact). And if you put that facet of cultural education into the context of our national culture’s historical assignment of crow imagery (as described by Aunt B.)– a context of which most of the children might not have been consciously aware– then you’ve got a potentially ugly cultural dynamic, even if it largely exists under the surface.

    So this statement–

    If the depiction is not used for an evil purpose, the depiction itself is harmless in my opinion.

    –looks a little fishy in that light. The intent of the imagery’s use can have no bearing at all on its effects. People frequently do all sorts of horrible things to each other– often unwittingly, and often through intermediaries– without any direct malevolent intent.

  16. DB, that’s a whole other thing it seems to me, because the people who want to display the Confederate Battle flag sure as heck seem like they want to argue that they should get to fly it whereever and when ever they want and that we all have to pretend that they mean heritage not hate by it. How is that any different than what you’re accusing the overly pc people of? People react negatively to the Stars and Bars because a subset of the people who like it are still doing harm to others under its banner.

    I just don’t see that as a past thing at all.

    Heartbreaktown, I see what you’re saying but I think you’re still thinking of the clip in terms of the movie. Like I said, in the movie, the crows are good guys. So, yeah, it’s easy to see it as a positive portrayal and thus not problematic.

    But why are the crows any obvious race at all? That’s part of the problem. Here we are, discussing a children’s movie, in which the creators could not, when faced with characters who were birds, pass up the chance to make sure we all got that they were racially black birds.

    It’s like the white guy who can’t resist the chance to call a black guy “boy” or “son.”

    Well, no, actually, it’s worse than that. First, you have the fact that Jim Crow was a racial slur like coon or nigger or jigaboo, so having racially black characters in a movie depicted as crows is essentially like saying “Oh, well, yes, we made a movie staring a guy named Nigger Dan and he sings and dances and does all that stuff our white audience loves, but he’s a great guy.”

    You see what I’m saying? The fact that the character is great doesn’t undo or neutralize the insult of how the character was conceived or that he was intended to exaggerate “typical” black characteristics for the pleasure of a white viewing audience.

    But also, this gets back to what I was saying. It’s never so simple as we’d like it to be, because black people themselves also have a long history of conceiving of public personas that exaggerate “typical” black characteristics for the pleasure of a white viewing audience. Rappers still play that game.

    I’m droning on, I know.

    But here’s my last point. We have a case here right now, where you can see exactly how those Dumbo crows are harmful to black people–because when the Republicans send out a flyer depicting black politicians as crows, the cover they get is that people are saying “Depicting a black man as a crow isn’t racist; the crows in Dumbo aren’t racist.”

    And that is harmful–to find that your complaints are being dismissed because of what was in a movie half a century ago.

    And weird, too, if you think about it–that somehow Dumbo should be some trump card, like it’s a documentary or something. Ha, well, yeah, it’s weird.

  17. I tend to look at this type of stuff as history. I would hate to see stuff like this outlawed (I know that’s not the point nor really a threat, but just saying). To me, removing the crows from Dumbo, or any other number of similar situations, would be like removing the fact that the Nazis gassed the Jews in the concentration camps from the World War II sections of history books. If that makes sense.

  18. (Thread derailment alert)
    Lynnster, I’m with you. I don’t think anyone here (or anyone elsewhere) is seriously advocating the removal of the crows from Dumbo. I think it is far more important to leave it out there as an educational artifact, if nothing else.

    But I have another analogy that’s related to the Nazi one you give, and it’s something that is already done regularly. One of the worst things that can be done to the history of the Holocaust (indeed, of WWII in general) is to remove the German people from the equation. In pop history, news reports, and just about anything else referring to German role in the war the Germans are usually referred to either as “Nazis” or “Nazi Germans.” In truth, a relatively small percentage of Germans– including both the Wehrmacht and the special police squads who carried out much of the extermination duties– were members of the Nazi Party. I’m not suggesting that all these non-Nazis had serious difficulties with Nazi philosophy or Nazi policies, but the semantic trick that sort of absolves the German people of their support for the Third Reich (until its bitter end) does a serious disservice to any lessons that might be learned from that horrible episode. We aren’t doing the Germans any favors by trying to absolve them with the memory hole; God knows the Germans don’t bother cutting themselves that kind of slack, and I deeply respect that.

  19. One of the biggest expenses in state campaigns is mailers. They almost always come at the end of the campaign, almost always funded by the party, and almost always viewed as the last weapon used to scare up votes. Their impact is undeniably engrained in the way states run campaigns across the country.

    Despite having funded several disgusting mailers for candidates across the state, Bill Hobbs now claims mailers have virtually no impact and hope novices don’t see the double talk. That might be news to the people he asked to help fund the costs associated with creating them.

    Perhaps they need to see and understand Bill’s new view on what a waste mailers are before they are asked for another penny. Or perhaps Bill Hobbs is just trying desparately to stop people from talking about them outside the context of a campaign. Afterall, they are designed to target the uneducated and parties that create them hope they end up in the trash after the votes are counted. Maybe Bill is upset that the party’s message intended for the trash can is finding a new audience that is educated and holds politicians and partys accountable.

  20. Ya know, though, Lynnster, your analogy really isn’t all that accurate. IMO, erasing the crows from Dumbo (if that was what anyone involved in this thread was advocating, which it isn’t), is nothing like erasing the Holocaust from history books. It’s more like not showing the popular German films made under from 1933 to 1945, many of which are full of terrible antisemitic caricatures. Or like not reissuing Der Sturmer and its hateful cartoons and ravings. I mean, we cover slavery and Jim Crow laws in history books, just as we cover the Holocaust; they aren’t ignored or left out. But consuming the popular culture created during those periods is a lot more difficult and iffy. Yes, it’s important not to erase the realities of the past — but I don’t see how we can straightforwardly enjoy them, either.

    And I consider putting an African-American politician’s head on the body of a crow in a party mailer the same as putting a Jewish politician’s head on the body of one of Philipp Rupprecht’s cartoons — and even Nikki Tinker didn’t stoop to that.

  21. I don’t know why you are continually making the crows human. They are talking birds – THE END!

    Surely we need to discuss why the donkey in Shrek has a black man’s voice and why the big ugly ogre has a Scottish accent and stinks. Or why the geese in Charlotte’s Web are voiced by Cedric and Oprah?

    Quite a stretch and I don’t think I am willing to make it, sorry…

  22. For once in our dumb lives why can’t we just try to enjoy a cartoon show and think normally that Crows are crows they are not human…. Dumbo are for children not for grown ups whose heads are so fucked up with racism…THE END!

  23. Because it’s historically unprecedented to tell stories about animals that instruct us about human behavior and discuss human mores…except for Aristophanes, Aesop, and about forty million other tale-tellers, including Disney.

    Lame and intellectually lazy. THE END!

  24. I don’t know. Maybe we are overthinking things. Maybe you CAN just say something and have it be true all evidence that there’s more going on to the contrary and make strangers on the internet change their minds.

    Let’s try.

    Send me $5,000. THE END.

  25. I’m seeing a revolution in the way scholarship in this country is done. “My dissertation: I read all this stuff by all these other guys, yes, even Foucault, and it’s all shit. None of that means any of what they said. Give me my PhD. THE END.”

  26. It would have sure saved me some time. Besides, it’s kind of fun to hit caps lock and shout THE END!

  27. I’m about to go in and try it on my brother. You will clean up this house, even though most of the mess is mine, and you will go grocery shopping, and you will make me some cookies. THE END.

  28. But Foucault is full of shit. THE END

    I don’t understand how anyone who knows the history of movies in the US can write seriously that race and race relations weren’t constantly in the moviemakers’ heads in the 1930s and ’40s. This was a time, after all, when black actors were still, in most films, relegated to self-contained scenes so that they could be cut out completely for screenings in the south. It wasn’t even that long that black characters had been played by black actors; less than a generation earlier, they were played by white actors in blackface, with all the elements of minstrelsy that implies. So how could the people making Dumbo have failed to be making the choices they made deliberately?

    Oh, right, THE FLIPPING END

  29. What race of human beings are the CLOWNS in Dumbo, and how do you know that? They’re physically chaotic, cruel, alcoholic, fumbling representations of white guys, but nobody considers THEM racist.

    The crows on the other hand are empathetic, musically sublime, and physically agile. How rude!

    The fat, prissy, judgemental old-ladies’ club of elephants… What race do they represent?

    What race is represented by most or possibly all of the offended commenters here? Viking?

  30. Ahhhh…… gotta love the google drive-by. I wonder what he was searching to end up on this post.

  31. Seen Disney Channel’s “The Proud Family” or “That’s So Raven”? Over the top black characters of the past are racist stereotypes. Over the top black characters of today are accurate representations of the culture.

  32. The crows were heros and I still have a fondness for them. They started the journey of me pulling away from the racist ideas and opposing my German-American family’s racist activities. The crows were why I started sitting at the black kids tables at school in 1970’s, eating hidden pomegranates at my school desk, and watching Soul Train on Saturdays. It was their sympathetic portrayal of black Americans that subversively pulled many of us white kids away from the racist ideas of our parents. The crows were supremely cool and in their contrast to the horrible drunken white clowns and old biddy elitist white elephants we could find a place of comfort amongst black Americans. So where you see racism I see a use of imagery to widen the comfort level of whites for blacks; imagery to subtly say to whites that instead of being feared and hated blacks were to be trusted and whose friendship was desirable.

    1940’s America… these crows were intensely progressive characters. The worst thing about the crows were they glorified smoking.
    And to this day I still think crows are amazing birds. The most intelligent bird in north America; able to use twigs as tools to get grubs. You could pick a much more insulting bird to portray a race of people with.
    ‘Race’ itself is a dying term. If you are going to classify it’s by DNA and along ethnic mapped DNA groups. Even then, Americans and most the rest of the world is marrying (getting pregnant) by choice of attraction and so ethnic lines are melting. These days, how can you be a proud American if you can’t call yourself a genetic mutt from several ethnic groups? I’m proud to be a mutt and wish there were some recent African blood somewhere in my past.

    Honestly, the Dumbo crows had me wishing my skin was darker the whole 3rd grade…

  33. Late to this party I know… I have a client who is interested in having me publish a children’s story with two “jive talking crows” who speak in rhymes and teach the main character to sing and dance. My husband and I think it is racial stereotyping, not to mention highly derivative of the crows in Dumbo. But the author’s message in his story is ultimately about acceptance, and he was flabbergasted that I would think there was any kind of profiling taking place in his story. My predicament reminds me of how deeply racial profiling can be embedded, that we don’t even notice ourselves doing it.

    In animation school once we had a whole class devoted to cartoons that were banned because of their racism. (Like “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarves,” and “Who Killed Cock Robin?”) It’s history; a place we’ve already been, but don’t need to repeat or re-create.

    Maybe I’m just trying to talk myself out of a gig, (and hey – I might already be fired!) but I’m glad I stumbled onto this site. If I can get any one of my five cats to wear a pair of tiny pants, I will surely forward a picture to you.


  34. I still don’t get how this is racist – the definition of “racist” is that someone believes their race to be superior to another and this is clearly not the case here.

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