Antiracist Activism for Teachers and Students/Arts/Movies

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Movies for Children: Disney[edit]

The movies that are chosen for young children to view are often saturated with covert racism. These can be seen most obviously in the comparison between the main character and the villain of the movie, but it stretches out to the supporting characters, especially the ones that are going to be remembered after the movie is over. Because of its impact in the film industry, Disney movies are important to analyze as they are marketed towards younger children. It may seem as though Disney has branched out by making movies portraying different ethnicities, however there is still racism present in these movies, such as Mulan and Aladdin.

In Mulan, though this story centers around a Chinese heroine, the portrayal of this young woman is very western. Unlike many of the supporting characters, Mulan has very little ethnic facial features; she is portrayed with a broad, symmetrical face with wide eyes and a small nose and mouth. Shang, her love interest, is also portrayed with more European features. All the other male characters have broad noses, slanted eyes, eye bags, and prominent cheekbones. This creates a contrast for beauty; children will learn from these contrasting portrayals that this is what a good person looks like. It also suggests that beautiful, Caucasian-looking people are smart and talented while more ethnic looking people aren't.

Similarly, Aladdin contains two main characters with the same western Caucasian features, big eyes, small noses and mouths, etc. They are also substantially lighter skinned than the other characters. Both the protagonists in Mulan as well as Aladdin have Americanized accents while the others around them speak with more ethnic accents.

These main characters are also contrasted with their villains. While the good guys are lighter and more even-featured, the bad guy are portrayed with exaggerated ethnic features and darker skin. Shan-Yu, the antagonist in Mulan, has very high cheekbones, a large hulking figure, and small, beady, slanted eyes that are almost slitted. All the other Huns are portrayed in a similar way. All the Huns are also substantially darker than the Chinese characters. They are an ashy brownish-gray color while the others are the orthodox “flesh-colored”. Jafar, the villain in Aladdin, has the same characteristics. He has large slanted eyes, a hooked nose, a curled beard, and wears a turban. He too is substantially darker than Aladdin and Jasmine. These characteristics though subtle still push the agenda of the “white savior” theory simply based on their apparent similarity to Caucasians. Not only this, but it also teaches children to be distrustful of those with exaggerated ethnic features. Some things to look out for:

Mulan[edit]

Huns have darker skin, more ethnic features, high cheekbones and extremely slanted eyes. Mulan and Shang are portrayed as very conventionally pretty, symmetrical faces, well proportioned features, Shang has broad shoulders with small waist and is very tall, Mulan is very short and thin and pretty. Mulan and Shang have very Americanized accents while the other characters have a more ethnic accent. Chien-Po as the spiritual stereotypical Chinese person looks a lot like Buddha. Huns as bad guys are more raggedy and disheveled looking. The good guys have more colorful clothes, very presentable, neatly assembled. During Mushu’s introduction to Mulan, gospel music commonly associated with black congregational churches is playing. Kids will pick up on the black voice and associate the stereotype. The sidekicks with the accents and the ethnic features are portrayed as dumber than the protagonist who has a very American accent with white Caucasian features that slightly resemble Asian features.

Aladdin[edit]

Jafar is much more ethnic looking with very high cheekbones, wears turban with mustache and beard • Narrator has accent, big turban, big nose, ethnic features, starts off as a vendor. Aladdin has American accent, big eyes, small nose, aesthetically pleasing to westerners. Aladdin doesn’t wear turban, rather has disheveled flowy hair, with lighter skin and proportioned symmetrical features. Jasmine is also portrayed as very western looking with American accent.

It is very important to facilitate discussion to bat down these stereotypes so that children don’t learn to label people based on how they look or talk. These questions can vary in terms of who or what are used as examples. Here are some questions to begin with: How does the bad guy look like? What color is his/her skin? How does the good guy look? What color is his/her skin? Do you think all people who look like the bad guy are bad? Why or why not? Do you think all people who like the good guy are good? Why or why not? Did everyone have an accent? Who did and who didn’t? Why do you think they had an accent? Where was this movie based, what place were they in? Which of the characters act like they are actually from this place?

With each movie, the questions can get more specific. Try to ask the questions without leading the discussion if you can, so that the child will have a chance to pick up on these stereotypes themselves, and then afterwards, point out some that they may have missed. This is important because it encourages them to look for and pick out the stereotypes themselves when you may not be around to watch the movie with them.


Analyzing and Discussing Teen Movies[edit]

Creating a curriculum that includes helping students analyze movies from an antiracist perspective is crucial in forming part of a multicultural education. While it is wise and important to provide students with a historic background of antiracist activism as the book to which we’re theoretically contributing intends to do, racism is by no means a thing of the past.

Both institutionalized and cultural racism as well as learned stereotypes and prejudice exist today, and in the most prominent, and yet often overlooked, ways. The question and discussion of race is such an integral part of our society that children as young as age five start noticing and absorbing stereotypes and are in need of someone to explain to them with accuracy what the differences they see in peoples’ skin color and facial features signify. While creating a multicultural curriculum for young kids is definitely very important for the sake of integrating into their lives a multicultural analysis from the get go, it is also important to continue to do so throughout students’ lives up through their adolescence and even beyond.

Having focused on teen movies for our wiki project I will continue to focus on the importance of critiquing teen movies using an antiracist lens. Teenagers are typically independent of their parents (people who can intellectually challenge them and engage in discussion with them about race), and as part of their search for self-identity, are social butterflies who spend much of their time hanging out with friends at places such as the movies. For weekend entertainment, the movies are both a great option and a fun one. Yet while movies are undoubtedly fun they can also be poisonous if you lack the integrity and knowledge of how to analyze them and draw out their untold messages.

The media (particularly television and the movie industry) are very racially charged, in some ways subtly and in other ways obviously. While some may argue that any stereotypes in movies do not negatively affect its audience, I would argue otherwise. It can be easy for teens, for instance, to overlook the subtle racism in movies because they usually go with friends to have fun and to get their mind off school and are not planning to use it as an intellectual exercise. For these reasons it’s not uncommon for teenagers to miss out on the dialogue of evaluating movies with an antiracist lens because a) they are so independent from educators (like parents) who could segway into discussion, and b) it’s seen as socially “un-cool” to be the skunk at the dinner party and rip apart an otherwise entertaining film.

White Chicks: Stereotyping[edit]

For example, one of the films I analyzed, White Chicks, a satirical movie that includes a lot of stereotypes of African Americans despite the fact it was written by two African American men. More importantly than debunking stereotypes of African Americas, as the movie could be argued to do by using satire, it instead reinforces stereotypes of blacks. The behavior of the black FBI agents disguised under cover as white women, for example, grows suspicious due to their love for rap music and their violent tendencies (not to mention their large lips and their ‘acting black’). Satirical stereotype movies can be the most vicious precisely because its underlying message can be overlooked by its entertaining qualities. White Chicks further gives the impression that it is alright to stereotype African-Americans because writers and the producers are African-American themselves. After watching movies like this one, teenagers might think it's acceptable to reproduce these stereotypes in their own lives.

21: Race Replacement[edit]

The second movie I analyzed, 21, was based off a life story of an Asian American MIT student who was on a Blackjack team that made it successfully in Vegas by using their card counting technique. The movie, however, was cast all-white with the exception of two Asian Americans playing minor roles. Although the plot and the acting were great, lack of presence can be as offensive as overt racism. Perhaps if movies that include people of color did not include them for one or both these reasons: a) because the movie was about that group, or b) because they’re being stereotyped, a white cast wouldn’t be as offensive. It’s very reflective of our society when movies with all Asian Americans and other people of color cast (e.g. Memoirs of a Geisha, Joy Luck Club, The Namesake) rarely get the same attention as movies with a white cast.

For all these reasons it is extremely important for schools to take the initiative to create for their students a multicultural curriculum. While movies can be easily overlooked in designing a multicultural education since there are more pressing racism issues in the country and world, they are definitely very reflective of the values of our society and are the key into a doorway of great analysis including introducing students how to generate/facilitate dialogue/questions that can continue antiracist activism.

Movies with a Topic of Race[edit]

People of all ages, from young children to adults, fail to think critically when watching movies and ultimately accept what is portrayed as truths. Our goal is to analyze racial imagery and challenge the portrayal of reality in the movies using an antiracist lens. Using movies that focus on race as tools for educating students, I have created questions regarding the racial messages in movies and how they can contribute to important discussions about race. There are many movies perceived to be eye opening by exposing racism, but actually maintain stereotypes. The movies I examined appear to be educational but perpetuate racism by including a White Savior character, stereotypes, and the isolated incident illusion. For this project I analyzed the movies Crash and Freedom Writers for subtle ways in which they perpetuate racism. I have supplied an analysis and questions that teachers and parents can use to facilitate discussions with their students, children, or peers.

Freedom Writers: White Savior[edit]

I’ll admit I was excited to watch Freedom Writers after it was recommended by a friend. It is based on a true story about a white woman who found a way to connect with and teach a group of high schoolers who were deemed "unteachable and at-risk". Despite personal obstacles and sacrifices, she dedicated herself to giving them the education they deserved. In doing so, she went beyond the textbook teacher stereotype by recognizing the students' potential; what they needed was someone to believe in them. While White Savior movies can be inspirational, they continue to perpetuate the stereotype that people of color always need a white person to save the day. This is a common enough theme to be a sub-genre, and has been criticized frequently by anti-racists. One might wonder why there is such a large market for "white savior" stories instead of for movies like Stand and Deliver, in which the teacher was a person of color himself. These ideas challenge why movies that seem well intentioned can actually perpetuate racism.

What does Freedom Writers suggest about the American Dream? This movie portrays life success as irrelevant of circumstance, but rather a result of hard work. The American Dream is based on the idea of meritocracy and individualism; consequently this movie maintains these ignorant beliefs and deny the reality of racialization in the United States.

Consider these questions: Did the film simplify or ignore the origin behind the students’ situations? WHY are they homeless? WHY are they involved in gangs? WHY the “snitches get stiches” policy? WHY are they sexually and emotionally abused? WHY were they bussed to Wilson?

What role does the Black administrator play? Most “White Savior” movies have a character of color whose character devalues the students. Their general attitude is: These people are so problematic, even their own have given up on them… but not us! White Man’s Burden lives on!

Recall when a Latino student draws a caricature of one of the black students: profile, bulging eyes, huge lips…a common racist caricature. The black student sits utterly humiliated and crying. Gruwell takes the picture, and she asks the class if they knew that Jewish people faced similarly racist caricatures during the holocaust? She asked each group that if the others did not exist, would they feel better off? Does Gruwell’s strategy of drawing the following connection and creating empathy work?

Recall when a black sophomore switches from the honors class to Gruwell’s classroom. This student chose to move to a regular English class after her honors teacher asked her to share "the black perspective" on The Color Purple, and she hated being tokenized. The English department head argued with the student, but she wasn’t willing to sacrifice her identity and self-respect for sitting in an honors classroom. Have you ever been in or witnessed a similar situation? What did you do? If not, how would you feel and respond in the situation?

Crash[edit]

Isolated Incidents of Racism[edit]

Does Crash challenge racism and encourage activism? It's arguable, but either way the movie Crash is an effective teaching tool to use for students to learn about race. However, to use this movie as a resource we must be critical of its positive and negative aspects. This film was intended to tackle issues of race and racism; but did it? What might people say after seeing this movie? What messages are sent to the audience? Crash won Best Picture at the 2006 Academy Awards so it is tempting to assume many believed it accomplished its goal to get students and others to take the problem of racism in the U.S. seriously. Merely screening the film will not be enough. Without discussion about the movie, its usefulness as an educational or conscious-raising tool is flawed.

Does this film portray racism as a “persistent social phenomenon” (Wise)? No. This film perpetuates many white peoples' ingrained notion that racism occurs only in isolated incidents. This ultimately minimizes the reality of racism in the U.S. and does not motivate students to join the larger struggle for racial equity and social justice. Consider the history of white denial in our country. In the 1960s racism was legal. During this time public opinion surveys revealed that racism was not a major social problem in need of being addressed. The majority of white people polled expressed their belief in meritocracy. Polls today have not shown much change. For example, after blatant racial disparities were exposed in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, whites did not believe that race mattered (Wise).

So if most whites don’t see race as an important issue why did white movie-goers, white critics, and ultimately the disproportionately white Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences praise this movie? There is no news coverage of the appalling studies done on housing segregation, or black mortality rates due to being denied healthcare. Perhaps the answer is the movie confirmed that racism occurs in isolated incidents, rather than institutionally. In the film, racism is manifested between individuals not institutions. Perhaps the fact that Crash portrays racism as an equal opportunity pathology reminds white viewers that racism is not THEIR problem but a societal problem that exists for everyone.

How does this misunderstanding of racism benefit White people? By not recognizing the profound structural consequences of racism in society, white people separate themselves from the issue. If racists are only a select population, it isn’t that big of a problem AND there is nothing we can do about it because you can’t expect to change a few bigoted people. There is no responsibility on whites if we define racism as such.

How does Sandra Bullocks character perpetuate this incomplete definition of racism? Is her prejudice justified by the fact that she was carjacked by black criminals in the previous scene? Crash plays into many White people’s fears and insecurities about black crime and so-called reverse discrimination.

Racism as an Equal Opportunity Pathology[edit]

What do you think of the title of the film? The metaphor shown at the start and end of the movie compares racial conflict to the inevitability of fender bender accidents. Are racial tensions accidental and unavoidable? The problem with this metaphor is that a “driver” hitting another car has more power in society. When the “driver” hits someone more damage is done compared to when a person of color “hits” the white person. The metaphor ignores the reason that Black people cannot be called racist- they do not benefit from the system of advantage, they suffer.

Crash presents racism as an equal opportunity pathology, in which all races are equally likely to be a victim. The movie reinforces white sentiments of being victimized and emphasizes the fact that everyone can be racist. This is seen when all the characters, of all different races express biases. The problem with this message in the movie is that the correct definition of racism is a system of advantage based on race. Thus, when a black person stereotypes a white person or is prejudiced he or she does not maintain power or benefit from the system. Unlike, “every structure of American society which continues to treat people of color as inferiors: be it in housing, employment, education or criminal justice.” Therefore, every person does not benefit from the system so racism is not an issue for all groups, “not all groups have had, or have now, anywhere near the equal ability to put their prejudices into action, via systemic policy.” A single line or scene in the movie can reflect these significant messages. For example, the office manager Shaniqua Johnson (black) yells at an Asian driver with whom she's had a car accident, that unless the driver speaks "American," she doesn't want to hear any excuses for the fender bender. In other words, everyone can be racist no matter; racial bias’ are shared by all.

By focusing on racism as individual acts, and making it seem like everyone is equally inclined to be victims, viewers of this movie are unable to see the power differentials which determine who the victims of racism are disproportionately.

What does Crash suggest the solution is? Color blindness, but anti racism requires deliberate efforts to undo the system of advantage. In other words, to challenge racism we MUST consider race- not be blind to it.

Whites, according to the available evidence are far more likely to believe in reverse discrimination, than they are to believe that discrimination against people of color still exists (Pincus, 2003). Officer Ryan goes on a diatribe against affirmative action, and there is no alternative side presented, thus reinforcing the ignorant belief too many whites already stand by. Perhaps this scene pertaining to institutional racism could have been an opportunity for the film writers to challenge racism.

Some of the ways movies can perpetuate racism[edit]

Tokenism[edit]

A movie that illustrates the concept of tokenism contains one character of color. This character is often a supporting character and is portrayed in a stereotypical manner. This perpetuates the stereotypes of a group and implies that the character has a lesser role because s/he is different. A prime example of tokenism can be seen in the movie The Incredibles. The character “Frozone” is the only character of color and he plays a minor supporting role. The name “Frozone” is also questionable as it contains the word ‘fro’, short for afro, which is a hairstyle that is stereotypically African American and black. View the cover for the movie The Incredibles here. As you can see, the character “Frozone” is the only person of color depicted. He is also one of the smallest characters in size, indicating his minor role.

Blinded by the White[edit]

This title describes the effect of a movie that contains an all-white cast. An extra who is a person of color might be seen in the background of a movie, but all of the main and supporting characters are white. In other words, as the audience leaves the theater, the characters that have made an impression will all be white. This leaves Americans of color with fewer characters with which they can identify and relate. It also suggests that the positions held by the characters in movies with an all-white cast are only available to or for white Americans. Movies that have all-white casts also fail to provide actors and actresses of color with jobs and the publicity they would receive from those roles. One example of a movie that leaves its audience “blinded by the white” is the movie 13 going on 30.

White Savior[edit]

A “white savior” character is a white person who saves the day for people of color. In many instances the “white savior” is a teacher, coach, or other figure in young peoples’ lives who helps their students pass a standardized exam or a sports team win a championship. Plots such as these focuses the attention on the selfless acts of the “white savior” character rather than on the issues such as race or socioeconomic status at hand. Often this is well illustrated by the advertisement for the movie that pictures the “white savior” as the largest, most prominent figure with their students or players huddled in a group behind them. One great example of a “white savior” movie, Freedom Writers, has already been discussed above. Other examples are the movie Dangerous Minds and Hardball.

Isolated Incident Illusion[edit]

This term refers to the illusion some movies create when they present racism as an isolated incident. Such a movie depicts an obvious incident of racism that is often historical (from before or around the Civil War or Civil Rights Era). The illusion created by such a depiction can lead the audience to conclude that racism is an issue of the past or only occurs today in isolated incidents. These movies do not address the “new racism” that is subtle and institutionalized (Bonilla-Silva). One example of a recent movie that creates the isolated incident illusion is Hairspray, which deals with the issue of segregation in the 1960’s, perpetuating the illusion that segregation is an issue of the past. http://www.hairspraymovie.com/

Stereotyping[edit]

Portraying people of color stereotypically is another way in which movies can perpetuate racism. This might seem obvious, but often portraying someone stereotypically is considered acceptable because it is done humorously. This is dangerous because it can cause the stereotyped group pain, perpetuate stereotypes, and imply that stereotyping others is not only an acceptable form of behavior, but also a valued behavior because it creates humor. A link to a clip from the movie JUNO, which portrays a character stereotypically, is available here. In this scene, Su-Chin, an Asian American character, says, “All babies want to get borned!” This perpetuates the stereotype that Asians and Asian Americans have poor grammar.

These are just some of the many ways that movies can perpetuate racism. Below is a list of websites that include more information and tools for facilitating discussion:

Conclusion[edit]

All movies can perpetuate racism. Does that mean that we should never watch another movie? No! We should, however, be aware of the ways in which movies can perpetuate racism. From now on, view movies, and other media, with a critical anti-racist lens. After watching a movie, initiate discussions about the movie in relation to race and racism. It is important that parents and teachers facilitate discussions with their children and students that reveal the racism within movies that they have just viewed. From now on, view all movies as valuable tools for creating dialogue about issues of race. One can also take direct action to decrease the ways in which movies perpetuate racism. If you observe that a particular company produces movies that always contain an all-white cast for example, write to that company asking them to include main and supporting characters of color in their future movies. The links listed above provide some great information and resources for discussing race and movies. Take action by striking up conversations about movies and race with your colleagues over lunch, your friends at dinner, or even planning a roundtable event in your town. Be aware and spread that awareness to others. That way you can still enjoy your favorite movies guilt-free!

Similar Projects[edit]

We decided on our project topic long before we learned that an actual group exists that shares the same goals as us. The Minority Reporter created a tool designed to analyze racial imagery in movies to develop dialogue.

Interesting information I learned from the Minority Reporters:

  • Average cost of Hollywood movies are $100 million
  • Minimizing financial risk by making formulaic films
  • Minorities are consistently marginalized as characters in films
  • Many movies have Black characters saying dumb comments that a White actor/actress would not say

Resources[edit]

References[edit]

    • Bonilla – Silva, E. (2006). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the U. S. (chapters 1 & 2). Landham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield.
  • Pincus, F. (2003). Reverse discrimination: dismantling the myth. Lynne Rienner Publishers.