White Out: How Disney Discontinued Their Discussion on Race

I was recently listening to one of my new favorite podcasts, Another Round, and they started reminiscing about how The Proud Family was such a solid show for its time.

(Side note: if you don’t already listen to Another Round, you should check it out! Tracy and Heben will fill your earbuds with contagious laughter, as well as smart critiques revolving around race, gender, pop culture and media).

The Proud Family was a really empowering show, but thinking about it now, back when I was little and didn’t know anything about feminism, I realize that I took shows like this for granted. I started thinking more about the shows and the made-for-tv movies the Disney Channel had created when I was growing up. Many of these were empowering and diverse in a way that you just don’t see in mainstream media today. One movie that will always stand out in my memory is one called The Color of Friendship.

Set in 1977, the movie is loosely based on the short story “Simunye” by Piper Dellums, written about real events that occurred during apartheid South Africa. The movie portrays the story of how Mahree Bok, a white South African, and Piper, a black American from DC, form a strong bond despite their differences. Mahree decides to study abroad for a year but is met with surprise when she arrives in DC, as she is expecting to stay with a white family, while Piper’s family, the Dellums, who are black, expected to have a black student staying with them.

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Mahree arrives with a lot of assumptions and stereotypical views, mostly from her upbringing. She and her family benefit from the apartheid as a wealthy white family in South Africa. When Mahree arrives in the US, both she and Piper are taken aback by the disparity between their cultural norms and their expectations. Mahree doesn’t understand that there can be black politicians and Piper doesn’t understand that there are white South Africans.

After activist Steve Biko is killed, protests break out all over the world. Mahree makes an ignorant comment about Biko’s death and Piper rips her a new one, explaining how she has no idea of the racial struggle happening in South Africa. Piper’s father Ron, who is a very outspoken opponent of the apartheid, teaches Mahree about the book Roots. Both girls learn to put their judgements aside and figure out how to bridge the gap between them. Together, the Dellums help Mahree understand the damaging aspects of the apartheid. One of my favorite scenes is when Mahree tells Ron a story that her maid Flora told her, about a weaver bird which built communal nests that many other birds lived in, symbolizing the possibility of racial harmony. In the end, Mahree returns home, understanding the world a little better. She even sews a flag inside her jacket, showing it to Flora, as a way of rebelling against her family.

In terms of tv shows on Disney Channel, The Proud Family was one of the most empowering ones. Each character has a personality and there are few (if any) racially based stereotypes. If you didn’t grow up watching this show, it premiered in 2001 and tells the story of teenager Penny Proud, along with all the funny, difficult moments that come with trying to find her independence. Penny is a normal girl with a diverse set of friends, like Dijonay, Sticky, LaCienega, and Zoey (one of the few white people in the show). She comes from a middle class family and often has to take care of her twin siblings.

Shout out to Suga Mama, who is the most bad-ass grandma ever. She watches wrestling and is all about attracting the men, which defies ageist ideas about elderly ladies being less sexual than young women. There’s something for everyone in this show.

The Prouds star in ``The Proud Family'' Thursday on Family Channel.

One of the most personally memorable episodes was the one called, “She’s Got Game. ” During a game of boys vs girls football, Penny’s friend Frankie bets the girls can’t win. When Penny does, he doesn’t take it well. The next day, he teases Penny, saying he could have beat her if he wanted to. Feeling challenged, Penny decides to try out for the football team but isn’t allowed because she’s a girl. When Penny shows up for try outs, the coach is refuses to let her on the field, calling her “baby doll” and telling her to “go home and bake a cake.” Penny convinces him to let her try and she catches every throw (or something like that – I know nothing about football). However, at the end of the practice, the coach still won’t let her be on the team. Frankie approaches her and tells her to just accept it, since “girls can’t play.” Then he explains how he’s glad she didn’t make it since he wants to take her to homecoming and it would be “weird” to go to homecoming with a teammate.

With some help from Zoey’s lawyer aunt, Penny petitions the school to let her play and her petition is accepted. In her first game, the coach refuses to put her in the game until he is forced to after too many of their players get knocked out. Penny proves that she can play when she gets tackled by almost the entire opposing team, but gets right back up again, then catches ball after ball. In the last few minutes, she’s about to score a touchdown, but the ball slips out of her hand, causing them to lose the game. She’s understandably upset, but what’s so rewarding about the episode is that no one blames her for losing because she’s a girl. At the homecoming dance, everyone supports her, even her teammates. Her friend Frankie gets over his sexist ideas and they dance together at homecoming.

Another important episode, called “I Had a Dream” focuses on Black History Month. Penny’s history class is learning about Black History Month and are each assigned someone important to black history.  Penny and many of our classmates don’t see the point of learning about the past. In an effort to make it more interesting, their teacher, Mr Webb has them dress up as their assignment. Penny dresses as Angela Davis, activist, teacher and writer. Big plus, Zoey dresses as Madame Walker, the first black millionaire and inventor of the world’s first hair straightening product. No black face in sight whatsoever.

Penny slips and gets knocked out, then is transported back to the year 1955. She comes face-to-face with segregation and a time before Black History Month, before many inventions were created (like dishwashers), as well as a time before many black people got recognition for their inventions, such as Garrett Morgan, inventor of the traffic light. She sees her fellow black classmates placed at the black of the classroom with textbooks that are falling apart. Her friend Zoey refuses to talk to her because white kids and black kids “can’t be friends.” The white janitor and Mr. Webb (a black man) have swapped places. When Penny tries to explain that Mr. Webb was their teacher, the idea of a black teacher is laughed at. Penny manages to unite her fellow classmates and defy racial barriers. She gets up in front of the press, her fellow students, her family and friends, repeating Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous speech, “I Had a Dream.” She realizes how important this was to the civil rights movement. Penny comes to appreciate why the past is so important to understand and how it’s relevant to her present life. She learns, as her teacher says, that a person who doesn’t understand their past, doesn’t have a future.

The reason shows and movies like are so important is because when you’re growing up, the media you consume  makes you reflect on yourself and others (whether subconsciously or not). The Proud Family, The Color of Friendship, and other series or movies like these show young people of color that they should be treated equally to white people, their entire race should not stereotyped in media. Yes, they are black, but they are so much more than that. By showing intelligent black figures in media, it empowers black teenagers. There’s a lot of good media out today combating racial prejudices, yet in a way, media for children and teenagers isn’t as varied and outspoken as channels like Disney used to be. We need more movies that talk about important issues like race, apartheids and gender discrimination. We can all stand to learn something from them.

Scanning through a list of current Disney shows, the lack of diversity is almost painful. There’s Girl Meets World, a throwback to Boy Meets World. Though it was one of my faves, it had a predominately white cast, until Angela entered the show in season five. Girl Meets World seems to following the same trend.

Jesse is a about a small town Texas girl who moves to New York City to try to become an actress, but ends up being a nanny instead to a wealthy family. The mother, Christina, is a supermodel and her husband is a movie director. They have four children: Emma, Luke, Ravi and Zuri. Zuri is adopted from Uganda and is sweet, but sometimes very sarcastic. Luke is a white boy adopted from Michigan. He’s a good athlete but doesn’t get good grades. Ravi is a fifteen year old boy from India who was also adopted by the Ross family. Hindi is his primary language but he can also speak English. So, basically if Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt had a Disney show. Even though it has some secondary characters of color, the main protagonist is still a white girl. This is yet another example of how people of color, whether children or adults, are only used in media to support and empower the main role, often played by a white person. Roles for people of color are used to push the plot forward, but are no more than that. By having a rich white family adopt children from places like Uganda and India, it screams, “Look at us, we’re so charitable, we’re ‘helping’ people who aren’t white.”

The only potential for diversity that I found was a show called K.C. Undercover, starring Zendaya, who is currently one of the most famous black female teenagers in the media and recently appeared in Beyoncé’s Lemonade visual album. Zendaya has been in the spotlight for a while.  In addition to appearing in Lemonade and writing a book about tween style, she is also an ambassador for Convoy of Hope, a nonprofit organization that works on children’s feeding initiatives, community outreach and disaster response. Talk about a great teen role model. She was also in another Disney show previously from 2010 to 2013 called Shake It Up. K.C. Undercover is about K.C., a  high school student who is training to be a spy. She is a math genius who discovers her parents are undercover spies and is recruited to become one as well.

The family works together to continuously fight against a criminal organization called The Other Side. Besides being a spy, K.C. is a basketball player and skilled in karate. Her brother Ernie is a computer genius, who is often ignored by his parents. It’s refreshing to see a show for younger audiences that features black families that are intelligent and play powerful roles. Another bonus is K.C.’s ex-boyfriend Brett, who is an enemy spy, played by Asian-American actor, Ross Butler. Interracial topics are another issue that doesn’t get explored enough in media. It’s nice to see a show that features this. The fact that they’re enemies has a lot of potential. Here’s hoping Disney uses it.  

Lastly, there’s A.N.T Farm, a show about Chyna Parks, an 11-year old musical prodigy who has just become the newest A.N.T, a high school program in California for gifted students. This is really hopeful, as the star of the show Chyna, is played by 18-year-old African-American, China Anne McClain. Her best friend in the show, Olive, has an eidetic memory, meaning she can remember images, sounds or objects after only a few seconds of exposure. Her other friends include Fletcher Quimby (weirdest name ever) who in love with her (more interracial relationships!) Other stars include Gibson, the counselor, tutor and therapist at A.N.T. Farm, who is a strange, goofy guy that isn’t very bright. The “it” girl (is that what kids are calling them these days?) is Lexi Reed who considers the A.N.Ts students to be immature.

Disney seems to have gone backwards in many ways. There just isn’t the range of shows that I remember growing up with. However, kids and teenagers these days have an advantage I didn’t. In an age where Netflix is producing better shows than cable tv and anyone can become a Youtube star, there’s access to better shows in other places. If you look, you can find media that represents you and makes you feel appreciated and heard. If only channels like Disney was willing to feature more content like this, maybe we would all grow up more aware.

Other 90s/2000s Disney shows and movies worth mentioning are:

  • The Famous Jett Jackson: Jett Jackson is an actor playing a secret agent who decides he wants to move back to North Carolina from LA to have a normal life
  • That’s So Raven: Raven is able to see the future, complications ensue. Need I say more?
  • Up, Up and Away: Scott Marshall is the only one in his family without any superpowers until he has to save his parents’ from an evil genius
  • Gotta Kick It Up!: Starring a pre-Traveling Pants America Ferrera, the movie tells the story of a teacher who helps a group of girls start a dance team at their school
  • Smart Guy: Ten-year-old boy genius Taj Mowhry has skipped six grades and is now in high school, battling the idea that white people are the only one who can be smart
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3 thoughts on “White Out: How Disney Discontinued Their Discussion on Race

  1. Having grown up during the 70’s, I’m intrigued by current interest in that era. I lived in Little Rock, AR when schools were desegregated by court ordered bussing of the public schools. This was met with violent resistance from both sides of the equation. The differences are identified as racial, yet the true source is cultural in nature. This conversation seems to get overlooked by the media, and those producing podcasts?

  2. First off Disney is my literal jam so I could write a novel about this topic! I LOVE The color of friendship and I admit I didn’t totally “get” what I was watching until I was a little older. Then I realized how deep of a movie it was and I still sing it’s praises to this day. Some comments on current disney diversity: I think it was severely lacking lately but it has actually picked up recently. There actually is a black character on GMW (Zay) who is similar to Angela…part of the friend group yet not a main character. KC undercover is obviously great because it shows a whole black FAMILY as opposed to just one character (like Zendaya’s former show Shake It Up). NOW there is a show called Stuck in the Middle which is about a hispanic family with 7 kids. I have only caught a few episodes but it doesn’t seem to be relying on stereotypes which is great. (unless you count the 7 kids thing). There is also a new show called Backstage that has several characters of color (it’s like degrassi in that it has MANY main characters)…and one last thing Jessie isn’t on anymore but there is a spinoff with Zuri, Ravi, and Emma at summer camp. There are also 2 more main characters that are POC as well. Unfortunately that show does rely on stereotypes a lot similarly to how Jessie was. Not a fan. So yeah!! They could obviously always use way more representation!! But it’s better now than it was, say, 2 years ago. Also a side note that shows like Girl Meets world and Live and Maddie actively have feminist themes (not as intersectional as they should be, but it’s a start for a children’s program) and even openly call themselves feminists. PHEW Sorry for the long novel I really like this topic and could talk on and on about it!!
    p.s. love all the extras at the end…and FYI Up up and away is available on demand for free right now!

  3. oh and I forgot to mention on Liv and Maddie the main character Liv is in an interracial relationship so that’s cool too. There needs to be WAY more focus I absolutely agree…but if you look there IS stuff there…just not as obvious as you might think (and not as obvious as it should be)

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