An internet friend and I share a deep interest in a specific type of internet culture. Our correspondence is exclusively sending one another really bad illustrations of childhood cartoon characters in street wear and people in off-brand character suits dancing (this was all sparked by our mutual love of this Bugs Bunny meme). While searching for more memes, my friend sent me this screenshot.
I responded, "He's black, duh."
After thinking about it a bit more, I realized that, for many, this wasn't an inherent fact. Bugs Bunny is a rabbit, and while he is anthropomorphic, the suspension of disbelief only stretches so far for some people. It might not be a widely held understanding for white people, so immediately after talking to my friend about Bugs Bunny being black, I turned to my (admittedly, mostly white) colleagues and asked around.
"Do you think Bugs Bunny is black?" I asked, only for many to not really understand the question. "Is this a trick?" one suspicious white man asked. "No." I responded, "It's a very simple yes or no question."
After many conversations that involved white people trying very hard to not to say the wrong thing, someone finally asked how I knew—a question I couldn't really answer. I just knew. Once I explained my vague reasoning (he just is), some understood but I left most of these interactions realizing it wasn't so simple.
There's no doubt in my mind Bugs Bunny is a black man. To me, it's as obvious as anything I've always known. The sky? Blue. Grass? Green. Bugs Bunny? Very black. It doesn't end with Bugs Bunny, either. While Bugs is arguably one of the most widely recognizable cartoon characters of all time, I've known in my heart that many other anthropomorphic characters are black. The best way to describe it would be like a type of synesthesia but for race and cartoons. Soon, I began obsessively updating a memo on my phone of all the characters I felt were black. I now have a list of over 20 characters from my childhood that I'm still updating. Bob from Reboot, Brain from Arthur, the Pink Panther, Elmo—all black.
Spongebob (he's white passing)
Bob (from Reboot)
Cookie Monster (West Indies)
Brain (From Arthur)
Luigi (From Mario)
Jerry (Tom and Jerry)
Some Ninja Turtles (Michelangelo, maybe Raphael)
Woody the Woodpecker
The Pink Panther
In case you're not convinced and think I'm crazy, I'm not even close to the only one who thinks this way. In fact, I don't know a single black person in my life who hasn't attributed race to non-human characters. The only time a black person I talked to about this didn't understand what I was saying were times when we would disagree on which characters are black (Foghorn Leghorn is a major point of contention).
Earlier this year, Noisey published a piece stating A Goofy Movie was a black millennial classic. The piece argues that from an aesthetic point citing various indicators of the movie's blackness. "From the white female protagonist being a light skinned black girl named Roxanne, to the white boy named Bobby (voiced by Pauly Shore) getting in just as much trouble as Max, but somehow feeling way less worried about his parents finding out." It all makes so much sense.
It's also a much discussed topic online. On Twitter, Alyson, known as fillegrossiere, has tweeted extensively about the topic. After tweeting that Bugs Bunny was black, Alyson tells me, "Several men [tagged] me to let me know Bugs Bunny was a rabbit." Asking how she knew who was black (her characters, like many, include Skeeter from Doug, Goofy and Max) she said, "I'm not sure. It just seems obvious to me who's black."
Annoyed with white people around me not getting it, I put out a feeler on Twitter to speak to more black people about their reasoning and thoughts. While it's well established these feelings are so common and widely held, I needed to know why. Thinking about my own reasoning, I'm certain the general lack of racial diversity in children's entertainment plays a huge role.
Within minutes, my inbox was flooded with others wanting to talk about black cartoons — by the end of the day I received over 40 direct messages and emails from black people around the world. Some with subject lines, "Arthur was 100% black" and "Babar was black."
Brooklyn-based comedian Jaboukie Young-White emailed me with the highly intriguing subject line "Sandy Cheeks (SpongeBob) Piccolo (Dragonball Z) are Black." For Jaboukie, Piccolo's backstory was very black. "His homeland, Namek, was ravaged by colonizers, he always felt slightly out of place around his non-Namekian friends, single parent origin story. And he was always performing emotional labour for little reward." Many emails shared the same reasoning—characters they felt were black shared some similarities to traditionally black characteristics.
Speaking to Lisa Nakamura, a professor at the University of Michigan and author whose work focuses on race and how it's portrayed online, believes there are plenty of reasons why white people aren't familiar with the concept of racializing cartoons.
"White people don't want to see race anywhere," Nakamura told me. "They're discouraged externally and internally from noticing it because they're afraid they're going to get in trouble or they're straight up racist." Not only that, but Nakamura explained white people (as any person of colour can attest to) generally avoid conversations about race. "The risk of being shunned or seen as racist far outweighs the benefit of having [these] conversations," she added.
But also, why would they need to understand the need to identify with non-human characters by attributing them to a race? When it comes to entertainment, white people never have to imagine themselves as being the stars of movies or shows because they always already are.
In a Tumblr post, New York City-based artist Jayson Musson argues that Panthro from ThunderCats is an unsung African American hero. As a child in the 80s, Musson explains to me that alongside Panthro, Papa Smurf and ET (the alien) are also black. "I don't care what anyone says." For Papa Smurf, "He was just way more chill than the other smurfs, he's like their dad," he tells me. "I'm sure it has a lot to do with overtly black characters not being considered remotely marketable. In my childhood, it just wasn't on the table."
Another method of characterization most people I spoke to mentioned was that none of this was forced upon them—these characters weren't overtly coded as black. "It has to be embraced and not performed or shoved into the minds of kids," Musson tells me. "For me, it was something I had to understand myself."
Nakamura also believes a big part of finding these non-human characters black has to do with, "finding yourself in places where you're not supposed to be." It's almost an act of resistance. We didn't see ourselves reflected in what we loved to watch as a child, so we created our own narratives despite being showed our representation didn't matter.
For the last week, I've been thinking about Bugs Bunny and other characters being black almost non-stop. And while on the surface it's an extremely funny and silly thing to think about— there's also a layer of sadness that goes beyond silliness. Like Nakamura mentioned, it comes down to literally not seeing ourselves reflected in what we loved.
I have nine nieces and nephews and most of them are at the age where they now have their own favourite television shows and characters they love. When I watch TV or Netflix with them, it's obvious things are slowly getting better when it comes to diversity. I see more children of colour in movies and cartoons, though not as much as there should be. Still, as I become more aware of how affecting a lack of representation has been in my own childhood I make an effort to pick shows and movies that have overtly black or non-white characters. I want them to be able to see themselves on a screen.
Babysitting my niece one day recently, I wanted to put on a movie and scrolling through Netflix for kids was unbearable — there were about a dozen movies aimed at little girls starring blonde, white princesses. We put on Home, an animated film from Dreamworks about a girl named Gratuity "Tip" Tucci, who goes on the run after aliens invade Earth. Upon noticing the movie starred a young black girl, my niece was overjoyed.
"Wow!" she exclaimed, "She looks like me!"
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