Dumbo Is Racist And Other Disney Truths That Murdered My Childhood

disneyWhen my twins were a few months old, I decided to watch a few of my favorite movies from my childhood, thinking that it wouldn’t be long before I would be sharing these classics with my children. Then I watched Dumbo and Lady and The Tramp, and learned that watching some of these movies was going to involve a whole lot more social commentary than I had anticipated.

I loved Dumbo as a kid. That was my jam. I watched it over and over again, drawn to the story of the little elephant with over-sized ears who proved everyone wrong. As a new mother, I thought this would be a great message for my kids. I couldn’t wait to watch it again, and relive some of that childhood magic. But very early on in the film came “The Song of The Roustabouts,” and I had myself a little moment. I backed it up and watched it again. Then a third time. Then I called my mom. “Mom, did you know that Dumbo is racist?!”

The roustabouts are blurry, large, and obviously African-American men. These are a few choice lyrics:

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We work all day, we work all night
We never learned to read or write

We’re happy-hearted roustabouts


Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!

When other folks have gone to bed
We slave until we’re almost dead
We’re happy-hearted roustabouts

Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike! Ugh! Hike!
We don’t know when we get our pay
And when we do, we throw our pay away

(When we get our pay, we throw our money all away)


Grab that rope, you hairy ape!

No one is happier than an illiterate slave, kids! Hurray!

I couldn’t believe it. It’s not even subtle racism. It’s overt racism in a Disney film. But I thought Dumbo was a more recent film — turns out it was released in 1941. Ahhhhhhhhh, we all say. That explains why this movie is considered a “classic” instead of “horrible racist propaganda.” Is that going too far? Nope. Remember the crows?


“But I be done seen ’bout everything when I see an elephant fly.” Right. Good. Thank you, Walt, for creating a literal interpretation of Jim Crow and making it foolish and silly. You’re right, racism is hilarious.

Can I still love Dumbo after learning that it’s racist? I don’t think I can. And how did I not recognize that when I was watching it as a kid in the 1980’s? That’s called “white privilege,” ladies and gentlemen.

But what about other Disney favorites? Like Lady and The Tramp? Hang on to your shame, white people. You’re going to need it:


Oh my God oh my God oh my God. That one is from 1955. And don’t think Disney forgot about Native Americans!


Holy shit, y’all.

So I’ve decided that when I show my kids these children’s movies, it will be when they can understand the horror of racism. Right now, at six-years-old, we’ve talked about it in the general way that white people are able to talk to their children about racism. They’ve learned about Martin Luther King at school. But the flippant and undeniable racism in these movies made for children, hasn’t yet been connected to murder, lynchings, and oppression. And it is that contrast that sends the most powerful message. I won’t get the experience of sharing a sweet piece of my childhood with my kids, but I will get a learning tool. Through these movies, I will show them that racism was still part of family entertainment in the 1980’s, and that these movies are, in fact, still marketed as classics without any reference to their racist elements.

It’s going to be a much different movie night than I imagined when my kids were babies, but a much, much more valuable one.

Have any of you had a similar experience with what you thought was a lovely childhood memory?

(Photo: s_bukley / Shutterstock.com)

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