I’ve spent a lot of time over the past year educating myself about privilege, especially my own privilege as a white cis woman. There’s still a lot I need to do to branch out and keep learning, but I feel like I do an alright job of checking my privilege.
I’m not often presented with opportunities to discuss privilege with other white people, so when such situations do arise I try to take advantage of them. I’d be lying if I said it turns out well most or even some of the time. It’s a rare person who accepts challenge gracefully. I am certainly not one of those people myself–I usually need an hour or two, sometimes longer, before I’m able to admit that the other person was right.
To the story. On Facebook the other day, an acquaintance shared a link to this image:
For those who can’t see it, it’s a screenshot of a Tumblr post with Disney’s Rapunzel, Anna, Merida, and Elsa, with the caption “Spring, Summer, Autumn and Winter represented by the Princesses (and a Queen).” Another user responded by asking, “Are you sure they don’t all represent winter because everything looks pretty white.” Another user–the usernames were cropped out of the shot, so it’s unclear whether this was the OP or not–responded with several paragraphs explaining that these princesses are all white because all the people from their countries of origin (Germany, Denmark, and Scotland respectively) are white. It asserts that “there are plenty of ethnic disney ladies” and culminates in this bolded, all-caps paragraph:
DISNEY DOES NOT WHITEWASH. WHITEWASHING WOULD BE IF THEY TOOK PRINCESS JASMINE FROM A STORY BASED ON ARABIAN NIGHTS AND GAVE HER BLOND [sic] HAIR AND WHITE SKIN AND NAMED HER JESSICA.
The whole thing is titled “Brilliant Comeback,” and yes, they are referring to the user who believes Disney does not whitewash. Unfortunately, they do, and that’s a post unto itself; if you’re interested, check out blogs like Feminist Disney, Racebent Disney, and Disney Diversity for examples and discussion.
With the goal of keeping this post short, here is a screenshot of the Facebook exchange I had with the acquaintance who shared the image:
I shared a link to one of my favorite Tumblr blogs, Medieval POC, because it works very hard to dispel the notion that people of color didn’t exist in “white” countries in the past by using art from those places and time periods. See them and Feminist Disney do an extended take-down of the very logic employed by the Tumblr user (that POC didn’t exist in Europe) here.
I then tried to explain (and I’m just quoting myself here) that whitewashing “isn’t just about taking a character of color and replacing them with a white character. It’s also about positioning white as default, which is what happens when you look at the Disney princess line-up.” Read more about the specific relationship between whitewashing and Hollywood/Disney here.
All this has been to get to what I really want to talk about here: the response of “Except I really don’t care.”
Ding ding ding–white privilege is in the house.
Being able to not care about media representation is the distinct province of ‘attractive’, white, heterosexual, cisgender people. Nothing against them; it’s not about tearing them down. It’s about realizing that there are so many different kinds of people in America (and I am speaking specifically of the US here), and that representation matters. If we think it’s bad that white girls can’t see themselves in traditionally male occupations because there are no visible women, imagine what it’s like for POC girls who hardly see women like them anywhere in their kid’s movies and TV shows.
“Whoopi Goldberg looked like me, she had hair like mine, she was dark like me. I’d been starved for images of myself. I’d grown up watching a lot of American TV.”
-Lupita Nyong’o on The Color Purple in The Independent
I’ll be the first to admit that I got passive aggressive after my acquaintance responded to me; I felt free to do that because my connection to this person is not strong enough that I’m compelled to sugar-coat things.
It sucks to be personally challenged, and it sucks to have something you love, like Disney, challenged. But this isn’t about seeing Disney et al go down in flames. It’s about getting companies like Disney to expand their construction of the Disney Princess™ line to include more characters from different backgrounds, characters that better match the incredibly broad demographic they enjoy.
There’s a lot of important work going on in this area, but activists still face an overwhelmingly white presence in media (and audiences) and therefore a passive, privileged resistance to including more POC, QUILTBAG, disabled, and neurodiverse characters. We can’t keep hiding behind our privilege to not care and refusing to acknowledge these voices.