What do you see in “Snow Black”?

Cocoa Puffs

As I was reading the two articles concerning the notion of race, I related the articles with my English learning experience. Now I would like to share with you the issue and images of race I identified in Disney films, and how those images shaped my view on race.

I grew up learning English with a variety of Disney films. I fell in love with the films since the images were well portrayed. Because of that, I learned English in a fun way. As I was learning English, I wish that I would be as charming as those beautiful princesses. The beautiful princesses, namely Snow White, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty, all fall into the same category: They are all white, with big eyes, tall nose and (most of them), with blond hair (Snow White has black hair).

As such, in the eye of a young second language learner, Disney demonstrated beauty and elegance using the images of white characters. For a long time, I thought that being white was the first step of becoming a “princess”. Whenever someone brought up the word “princess”, I always linked the word with the image of a white, big eyes, and blond girl. Likewise, when someone said “prince”, the image of a handsome white man came to my mind. Those images with white princesses and princes rooted in my mind that I never take any step further to investigate the void of images of Black or Asian characters. I never doubt that why the majority of the Disney images are focusing on white people. Although Disney has produced the film with Asian characters, such as Mulan, the images of white people still dominate the Disney movies.

Thinking back to Disney movies today and connecting them with the issue of race, I felt that Disney film makers were (kind of) racists. Maybe the film makers were not aware of the fact that they portrayed more white characters than Black or Asian characters in their cartoons. Or, they are white people and they might take it for granted that white people are doing better than Black people. Either case, it would be better if they were to include Black and Asian characters in the cartoons. Therefore, firstly, Black and Asian kids would feel more comfortable and inclusive when watching the film. Secondly, white kids would also gain a sense of equality because white characters are not the only images dominated the film.

Now I cannot help wondering what if I grew up watching movies such as “Snow Black”. For example, if Disney had portrayed “Snow Black” as a noble princess, telling me that the Queen was jealous of her beauty and thus attempted to kill her. In that case, I would have known since young that “Snow Black” is the representation of the beauty of Black people. I would have known that being white cannot make me a “princess”. In order to become a “princess”, for instance, I need to cultivate myself with knowledge, to read more books, and to articulate beautiful and smart sentences.

In summary, I believe that second language educators, either parents or teachers, should be really careful when selecting learning materials for young second language learners. When using the materials to facilitate second language learning, educators should try to avoid elements such as racism and sexism.

Above are my reflections on Disney films and the issue of race. What about you, my friends? What do you see in “Snow Black”?

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8 thoughts on “What do you see in “Snow Black”?”

  1. Hi Cocoa,

    What you wrote is so powerful. Indeed, it is so important for children to be able to recognize themselves in what they see and read and learn. Yet, this does not always happen in educational settings. This makes me think of Nigerian post-colonial activist and author Chinua Achebe’s responses to reading British (colonial) poems in Africa – reading about daffodils, when there are no daffodils in Nigeria. As teachers, we need to be very conscious of what messages we are sharing with our students.

    Racism is a complicated, and often very ingrained and institutionalized thing. So, Disney producers may not be overt racists, but they (as many other) have drawn on racialized hierarchies. We see this in the way certain accents are associated with certain types of characters, as well as images, in Disney films.

    This YouTube video might interest you: Disney Dialects https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5hCTI6JYtuo The video was inspired by Lippi-Green’s book “English with an accent” (1997).

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    1. Hi Alison,
      Thank you for your comment. I checked out the YouTube video, it’s very powerful and interesting! I haven’t paid much attention in terms of the accent aspect in Disney films. It seems to me now that racism embedded in the books we read, the movies we watched, and the music we listened. Thus, as teachers, we need to be mindful when conveying the message to students.

      -Cocoa Puffs

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  2. Melissa- Thank you for sharing your experience, Cocoa! I’ve read quite a few articles about racism and sexism in Disney–some of their older short films have incredibly racist portrayals of childlike and very tribal black people with “comically” exaggerated features, and in Peter Pan (1953), native Americans are given similar portrayals. Some of this was a product of the times to some extent (as Alison said–many of the older movies were made in a time period where racism was a widely-accepted norm), but I am sad to see how behind the times Disney has continued to be in advancing change in that regard. I have heard it argued that even though characters like Mulan and Pocahontas represent other races, they are very much “whitened” versions of their race and cultures. I think Disney has improved a lot more in recent years, but it would be preferrable if a franchise with that much global presence was in fact leading the charge for equality.

    Disney is not the only culprit, though. I used a lot of clipart in my vocabulary class back home, and I tried to be extremely conscious of the race and gender norms I was presenting to my students, especially on our occupations unit. I felt it was important, because many of my students still used terms like “policeMAN,” “fireMAN,” and “mailMAN,” and they automatically used “he” to talk about a person in some professions and “she” for others. As a result, I spent many extra hours trying to find pictures of doctors, police officers, and firefighters that weren’t Caucasian males, searching for non-female depictions of nurses and teachers, and trying to ensure equal representation from different races. Sadly, it is difficult to find images that don’t reflect stereotyped race and gender roles. I agree that it is important to be conscious about what perceptions of beauty, race, and gender language learners have already been exposed to and intentional about what perceptions we encourage or try to steer away from in the classroom.

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  3. (Dean)
    Hey great insights, Coco! For sure, those earlier Disney films, (and many of the recent ones as well), are very white-centric. There is a lot of discussion these days on intersectionality and ideas of ‘whiteness’. We, as a North American culture, are just beginning to wake up to the ways we represent ‘otherness’ in our media and other forms of expression. To many, whiteness has been the default mode, a non-race. OTHER people had races, not white people. White people, their appearance, their way of speaking and thinking, were automatically seen as the ‘ideal’, and it hasn’t really been questioned until relatively recently. Finally, we are coming to a point in our public discourse where we can openly question these values and move beyond such problematic ways of reflecting the world back at people. I hope this in turn can shift social consciousness in new generations towards ideals that move away from such simplistic and destructive notions of ‘normal’.

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  4. By Jia Pu
    Hi Cocoa, thank you for bringing such a thoughtful perspective, which I think many parents haven’t yet realized. Actually, in addition to racism and sexism you mentioned in your post, I also see what can be referred to as lookism in Disney movies. Most of the time, children can tell wether certain characters are evil or kindhearted in terms of their appearances since villains are often not good-looking, even with scars on their faces. For me, that’s a kind of lookism because the image shown in those Disney movies may influence children’s judgement about the people they meet in real life. For example, sometimes they just take for granted that those who do not look nice and kind are bad people.Thus I’m in support of your idea that parents and teachers should be extremely cautious when choosing learning materials for L2ers.

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  5. I enjoyed reading your post. However, I might interpret why we do not have “Snow Black” differently.

    To begin with, these stories (e.g., Snow White, Cinderella, etc.) are traditional European fairy tales or folk tales. Hence, as the Europeans had few contacts with people in other continents, they simply depicted their stories in white characters at that time. When westerners started to colonize outside Europe centuries ago, their languages (e.g., Spanish, Portuguese, French, English, etc.) and their cultures were widely spreading out in the colonial environment. As time went by, people have gradually communicated with others in these colonial languages and they also learned and accepted their cultures, customs, etc. As a result, from the historical perspective, I think it is reasonable to accept these facts that we only have Snow White.

    However, here comes an important issue. Considering the people who have been colonized, do they have their own fairy tales or folk tales like Snow White, or Cinderella? I should confidently say yes! For example, in Han dynasty, we Chinese have two stories that are as legendary as the story of Cinderella. Yifang Dou, empress of Wen Emperor, was a poor rural girl and lived a miserable life when she was young. However, she was even more successful as compared to Cinderella not merely because she married Wen Emperor, she also owned a much larger empire 2000 years ago. Furthermore, she gave birth to Jing Emperor and became the grandmother of Wu Emperor. Not to mention her granddaughter-in-law, who was a servant in the royal palace but later she was the empress of Wu Emperor. From these two stories, we conclude that in China we have similar Cinderella story.

    But why do we Chinese never mention these two stories and only know Cinderella? Personally speaking, I believe that these stories were initially for people who were able to read. When China was colonized by westerners, we failed to protect our own culture and accepted Cinderella. I thereby assume that similar situations might also occur in other parts of the colonized world. Hence, as more and more people realize the importance of cultural diversity, they begin to protect different cultures, languages, and customs. As long as these stories are discovered and then read by more and more people, we will finally have many wonderful stories like Cinderella. For example, Dae Jang Geum is a representative of Cinderella in Korean culture and Pocahontas represents for Indian culture in North America. However, these different versions of Cinderella stories are still limited because of less protection. If people keep exploring local and indigenous cultures, they will find many fabulous stories, which thus provide us various Cinderella stories! Therefore, more Cinderella stories can be adapting by film makers and we can therefore enjoy them in cinemas.

    I do believe Disney film makes were (kind of) racists as you do; however, I might interpret it differently. In those Disney animations, they seemed to portray every bad character in black. For example, the Queen wears a black cloak in Snow White, Uncle Scar is a black lion in The Lion King, and even Shan Yu looks blacker than Mulan in Mulan (though Mulan is Asian). They really depict bad characters in black, but good characters are always in white or bright color(s)! Consequently, kids who watch these films may gradually believe that black means bad.

    In conclusion, as we ESL teachers or potential ESL educators in the future, I propose that when we teach English in different cultural contexts, we should also tell our students that we need to protect different local cultures at the same time. In addition, as you mentioned, we need to be really careful when we select materials for our students.

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  6. Hi Coco Puffs,

    Thank you for talking about this topic. I really enjoyed reading your blog post. In fact, not only Disney movies associate nobility and the good manners to White people, but also they are accused for reinforcing some negative stereotypes about many other nations such as Latinos, Asian, Arabs, American Indians and people of color. And I totally agree with you that we should think about the content of the materials we might as a teachers (or as parents) use to facilitate language teaching. However, I think it is also important for such content to be presented in classrooms in order to create discussion in addition to raising learners’ awareness regarding such issues (racism in this case) and breaking such negative stereotypes, as well as promoting students’ critical thinking about content they are exposed to from the media or any other sources.

    When I was a student in an ESL school, I remember that one of my teachers brought up this topic in the class and showed us some parts of different Disney movies and asked us to discuss the content and the stereotypes presented in them. I think it was very helpful for me as a student to break free of some stereotypes and to question the content I was exposed to through the media.

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  7. Hey,
    I found this an incredibly interesting and intriguing post! I agree with one of the previous comments written about why we don’t have “Snow Black”, with the fact that many of the original stories that disney chose to adapt to the big screen were written by a white man living in a predominately white culture. Like the previous post said, for many this was the fairytale that had been passed down from generation to generation. Due to the fact, that when the movies were created people in power were predominantly white European men, the movies are skewed to their backgrounds. This is why “Snow Black” would not have worked. However, in today’s society where we are much more diverse in cultures and accepting of all different cultures Disney movies are trying to reflect this. They are even trying to portray princess differently, by being strong individual women, who don’t need a prince.
    I grew up watching these movies, and yes many of them portray terrible inaccuracies, but I will still show my kids these movies. I will let them enjoy them when they are young and as they get older, I will explain it is just a story and that society doesn’t work that way. I think so long as we educate people then it is not a problem. If Disney were not changing its content today, then I would say there is a problem.

    Sophia

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