Ask LH: Are The Crows In Dumbo Racist?

Image: Disney

Dear Lifehacker, One of my favourite animated movies growing up was Disney's Dumbo. My daughter just turned four and I want her to have the same magical experience watching it that I did. However, as an adult, I'm not entirely comfortable with the somewhat racist depiction of the anthropomorphised crows. Do you think I'm overacting, or should I censor this type of stuff from an impressionable child? Thanks, Inclusive Parent

Dear IP,

For those who somehow missed this film growing up, we've included one of the offending clips below:

So are the silly cartoon hi-jinks above racist? Yeah, probably.

The group of crows that assist the titular elephant in Dumbo are certainly controversial. When the movie was made in 1942 racism was still running rampant in the US and African Americans were strictly segregated from whites via the deeply discriminatory Jim Crow laws.

Meanwhile, the main crow character in Dumbo is literally called Jim Crow and was voiced by a white man (Cliff Edwards) "talkin' jive". This is basically the animated equivalent of a minstrel show. If that's not racist we don't know what is.

On the other hand, the crows are among the few decent and intelligent characters that Dumbo meets on his journey. They genuinely care about Dumbo's plight, engage in witty wordplay and make their own decisions throughout the movie. There's certainly no hint of the servile Man Friday or "magical negro" in these characters. They walk to the beat of their own drum and don't get pushed around by anybody.

Plus, the rest of the crow gang were actually voiced by African Americans which was exceedingly rare for the time. Their memorable song When I See an Elephant Fly was performed by the all-black Hall Johnson Choir. Mind you, this could have been an early attempt at preemptive damage control to ward off criticisms of racism.

In any event, it can't be denied that the crows in Dumbo are problematic. They're also a product of their time which is something we shouldn't shy away from or pretend didn't happen.

Our advice is to watch Dumbo with your little one and enjoy it. When she's a bit older, gently explain why the crows might be deemed offensive by some people and why. In most cases, communication is vastly preferable to censorship. Also, you might want to skip the whole Pink Elephant bit. That shit was designed to give kids nightmares.

Further Reading:

Cheers Lifehacker

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    I guess they could have made them white, but then they wouldn't be crows would they. Pointless article if you ask me.

    People cant be tried on laws that did not exist when the crime was committed. Why would movies be tried by standards which did not exist when they were created.

    Leave classics as classics. We do not want to be a nanny state

    I look at it this way: I grew up with books filled with golliwogs and never once connected them with black people. They looked nothing like the black people I saw in picture books or in real life. Mind you, most of the non-black characters in children's books are pretty unusual in their appearance, dress, speech etc.

    I think kids will start differentiating between fantasy and reality, especially if we provide them a healthy dose of real positive models. They will be exposed to this sooner or later. Start them young, and be ready to answer their questions.

    Yeah, you really need to pay attention to the advice on the Pink Elephant scene.
    That shit definitely freaked me out as a kid.

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