King Louie: The Greatest Racist of Them All?

One thing that's come into fashion lately has been people's tendency to mock Disney characters for being "racist."  Nobody questions whether the crows in Dumbo might have been modeled after real musicians of the era, and nobody questions whether there really were (at some point in a bygone era) Indians like the ones in Peter Pan.  Apparently nobody has ever ridden the Washington State ferry system and seen old pictures of actual Indians.  It's almost enough to make you wonder what Millennials think when they go to an Americanized Chinese restaurant.  Is it more racist to call Chinese what they aren't actually, or more racist to call them what they are?  Or is it racist to pretend that Chinese people have certain kinds of food at all?  Maybe someday we'll live in a world where all the different races act completely the same way, so that everyone can pretend be more diverse without any stereotypes.  But I don't see how this could help us find good food.

Maybe if we were more sensible, we would realize that it is the stereotypes themselves that make racial diversity actually diverse.  Without ethnic differences, there would never have been any need to promote racial harmony – because there would never have been any reason to be anything other than harmonious.  We would have already been the same.  What people do not like to mention is that it's the things that are similar that keep us apart.  Our tendency to rape, steal, and murder made us divide in the first place; the fact that others have a sin tendency makes us wary of everyone different from the people we already trust – even if that difference is only the color of our skin.

The king of all anti-racist Disney complaints, though, concerns a king himself – a king named Louie, to be exact.  Louie is a monkey, which is fine in and of itself; the fact that he's taken as a devious black monkey is the point of contention.  The fact that he's voiced by a white jazz musician is maybe the most interesting thing about the complaint.  Had monkey never been a racial slur in the first place, and jazz musicians not been historically black, perhaps nobody would have noticed.  That everyone believes that the monkey was black, when he's being played by a white man who spent a lifetime aping the black men of his day, makes the accusation extremely ironic.  If we really believe that imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, then King Louie's existence is less of an insult and more of a compliment.  What is perhaps more interesting is that there were other animals in the film, each with particular ethnicities, and nobody even bothered to noticed them.

The Americans got the best of it, however unflattering, in the form of Baloo -- a fat, lazy Californian bear who wants everything the jungle has to offer except a job.  Maybe people might have been mad because as a stereotype, Baloo doesn't fit; although it could be argued, from any seat at a football game, that fat and irresponsible certainly does.  But if the fat and lazy badge doesn't really fit the Americans, what are we to think about the British?  Because right in the middle of an Indian jungle we have several very English characters, four of whom are vultures, and the other character a tiger.  Or in other words, we have a list of scavengers and a murderer – the people who profit from others' misery, and the ones who make us miserable.  It's enough to make someone jealous of being a monkey.

However ugly the beginning of last century was, if there's any badge that doesn't fit the English these days, it's the imperialist.  Yet it's the badge he was given in The Jungle Book, and the badge that everyone refuses to notice.  The Indian of Peter Pan has outgrown a teepee, which was a symbol of his indigence; the Englishman has outgrown his safari hat, which was a symbol of his violence.  Notice that none of the English characters in The Jungle Book were even the archetype of the brutal old British soldier, whom a British Lord once referred to as "the scum of the earth, enlisted for drink."  They have an evil British mastermind – which is very common amongst all villains on big screens and small – and unmanly scavengers.  The only well-adjusted person in the whole film, aside from the cross but noble Bagheera, is Mowgli, an Indian child; and he's well-adjusted only because he hasn't had time to adjust to the jungle.  It has yet to be proved what the Indians ever made of him.

If there are any two things we can take from this, it would be first, that our ideological upbringing is an ideological upbringing – meaning, we know it by rote memorization, and not moral inquiry.  We recognize an "insult" against one man and completely ignore it in another, because we've only been trained to look at the man and not at the injustice.  Secondly, we should learn from this the incredible patience of all white men in general, who've been not only willing to admit to the sins that only their grandparents committed, but have been willing to turn the other cheek when those accusations are misdirected toward those currently living.  It speaks of a certain magnanimity of heart, an innocence and softness in a world where everyone else is angry (for good reasons or bad).  It's the kind of thing that – believe it or not – keeps black racists in business, and instead of throwing a fit and suing when it's unfairly portrayed, asks, How should I then behave?  The common Englishman is willing to call everyone innocent except himself.  Many others, especially those who profit from the race game, make their business of doing the opposite.  And although it is always better to judge correctly than to believe too highly or too lowly of ourselves and others, I will leave it to the reader to decide which is more honorable.

When the rest of the world is passionately arguing against the white stereotypes entirely unfounded and outdated, and allows white men to make the same racial observations everyone else does for business and pleasure, then we'll have reached a state of racial harmony.  For magnanimity of heart, if any relationship is to last, must be multilateral: there is no friendship without a common generosity.  Voltaire said that you always know your masters when you find you can't criticize them.  When two men can take a jab for the quirks and sins of their families, then we'll be dealing not with "minorities" and the "privileged," but with social equals.

Jeremy Egerer is the editor of the philosophical websites Letters to Hannah and American Clarity. American Clarity welcomes friend requests on Facebook.

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