Let’s Not Shelve “Tom and Jerry,” but Use It to Educate Our Kids on Race

Questions about Race in Tom and JerryWhen it comes to disclosures and warnings before children’s movies or TV shows, I welcome as much as the producers will provide. I have a kid who is smack dab in the middle of the fantastic “question asking” phase (a phase I hope will continue for many, many years) so the more information I can load up on in advance, the better off we both are.

The goal is to be ready for the conversation, because the conversation afterwards is the best part of watching something together.

Last week The Wrap reported the iconic Tom and Jerry cartoons were now “slapped with a racist warning” on Amazon Prime and iTunes. It’s a bit misleading, as “slapped with” makes it sound like the warning is a punishment created by the media players, and it’s not. It’s a disclaimer, a heads up, a, “HEY! PEOPLE! PAY ATTENTION” nudge and reminder.

This is good. This is very good.

Questions about Race on Tom and Jerry

The disclaimer reads:

“These animated shorts are products of their time. Some of them may depict some of the ethnic and racial prejudices that were commonplace in American society. These depictions were wrong then and are wrong today. While the following does not represent the Warner Bros. view of today’s society, these animated shorts are being presented as they were originally created, because to do otherwise would be the same as claiming these prejudices never existed.”

This is the kind of statement that makes me think of the larger conversations to be had with our kids.

Yes, race conversations.

How do you talk to your kids about race-related issues happening in the world and national news? If you don’t start the conversation, someone else will, and you can’t be certain it will be started with kindness. Is a Tom and Jerry cartoon the place you want to start? Probably not. But by providing this messaging before the cartoon, you now know the questions could arise, and you can be prepared.

One of the reasons Tom and Jerry comes with a disclaimer now is because of a character named Mammy Two-Shoes. Some of us may have never known about this character when we were growing up. In the reruns of our youth, she was either edited out or she was completely traced over with a white woman. The AV Club reports more reasons for the disclaimer can be attributed to scenes in the shorts that “involved gags such as characters suffering burns or mud splatters that turn them into black caricatures.” So if you’ve been stuck in a loop of asking yourself if the cartoon is racist — you can stop. It is. It’s a nuanced animation written in a different era and the media reflected the values of that time. It’s violent, most of the characters smoke and drink, and I think we can all agree the episode where Tom and Jerry commit suicide is pretty messed up.

As Whoopie Goldberg stated in a message in the 2011 “golden collection” edition of 37 remastered Tom and Jerry shorts for adult fans:

“The Tom and Jerry episodes included in this collection … comes to us from a time when racial and ethnic differences were caricatured in the name of entertainment. Now while humor may have been the intent of such caricatures, they also had the effect of revealing society’s unfair and hurtful representations of people of color, women, and ethnic groups …”

So why shouldn’t these episodes be scrubbed from history? Goldberg elaborates, “Removing Mammy Two-Shoes from this collection would be the same as pretending she never existed. The same is true for the other images and jokes that we wouldn’t normally include in a mainstream cartoon today.”

We can’t turn our backs on history and we can’t withhold history from our children. The answer will never be to hide away these older cartoons or have people stop watching them. What we need to do is talk about them.

Studies have found that talking about race and racism leads to less prejudice in children. The Leadership Conference, an organization that helps people around the world with civil and human rights, shares, “Between [the ages of] 5 and 8, children are old enough to begin to think about social issues and young enough to remain flexible in their beliefs. By the fourth grade, children’s racial attitudes start to grow more rigid.”

Putting old cartoons on the shelf doesn’t help our kids or even our generation. Bring them all out and let’s talk. Let’s discuss the era in which the cartoons were made, what was going on in the world. Let’s talk about why the imagery or characters are considered offensive or flat out wrong now. Seeing the evolution of the representation of culture in media is not something we should dismiss or run from.

We can’t hide the racist cartoons from our kids, but we can educate with them.

I applaud Amazon and iTunes for their sensitivity messaging, and I wouldn’t mind seeing more stuff like this before children’s programming. Not a warning message; a prep message. As parents we need as many tools as we can get!

Image Credit: Wikipedia

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