Racist Imagery in Early American Animation

The piece, “Who dat say who dat: Racial masquerade, humor, and the rise of American animation” by Nicholas Sammond explains the common racist tropes of early animation in America. This is done through highlighting typical portrayals of black coded characters and raising the question – For what audience are cartoons like these laughable? One of the cartoons that Sammond analyzes is the Betty Boop short “I’ll be Glad When you’re Dead You Rascal You” in which Betty Boop and her companions are exploring a jungle and are captured by Ubangi-type natives that were common to the racist portrayal of black people as ‘other’ i.e. less intelligent, childlike, uncivilized and existing for white pleasure. In this short, Louis Armstrong and his band are performing while the cartoon continues. Intermittently, Armstrong and his band members are the focus of the camera, and slowly their motions and mannerisms are transformed into cartoon characters, creating the sense that the black band and Armstrong himself are the natives in the cartoon.

Sammond also discusses whether or not good people, who would say they are not racist, can laugh at racist cartoons and imagery. As Sammond touches on, I think that it is important to understand that those who are able to laugh at these cartoons are not directly impacted by the stereotypes and harmful characterization presented in the cartoons. Sammond wrote, “The racist stereotypes that inform this sort of cartoon emerged from a specific iconographic lexicon and have circulated as commonplace expressions of contempt that dismiss the harm they express as ultimately harmless: in cartoons no one bleeds and no one dies. It’s all good fun. The intense effect of racism, instead of evincing either vicious malice or utter horror, is turned aside into a joke, a double-take, a gag, a disavowal.” Laughing at cartoons with explicit or implicit racist tropes also serves to further normalize those assumptions in society. Cartoons that portray black people as unintelligent or Jewish people as greedy reaffirm already present stereotypes, which further deepens racial inequality in American society.

While cartoons today are not as blatantly stereotyped as in the early 20th century, is it fair to say that stereotypes still exist in cartoons today? Are they present in media meant for children, or has potentially racist content shifted towards an adult audience? What does this shift imply about racial attitudes – does it explain heightened tensions? When faced with racist or discriminatory content, does everyone get to laugh? Why or why not?

 

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