You Can’t Erase Mickey Mouse’s Racism

in Disney, Movies & TV

Mickey Mouse in a scene that many have said looks like racist minstrels where white people wear Blackface.

Credit: Walt Disney Animation Studios

Mickey Mouse isn’t just one of hundreds of famous cartoon characters–he changed American animation. Walt Disney created the now iconic Disney cartoon character after losing the rights to his first creation, Oswald the Lucky Rabbit. He had no idea that, a century later, a rough sketch of a rodent would eventually represent the most influential entertainment company in American culture. However, some scholars suggest that Mickey Mouse isn’t just a children’s TV character and brand icon but an example of the long-lasting effects of blackface minstrelsy on modern media.

The History of Blackface Minstrelsy

According to The Jim Crow Museum, minstrel shows originated in the antebellum period leading to the Civil War. In minstrel show routines, multiple white performers dressed in Blackface makeup performed musical numbers and skits.

The original minstrel shows contained two characters, a “Jim Crow” and a “Zip Coon.” It’s easy to see why it’s problematic that neither African-American minstrel character was played by a Black person. Later, the shows evolved into three vaudeville acts with numerous Blackface performers.

Two minstrel performers in Blackface.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Unknown photographer, public domain)

After The Civil War, Blackface minstrelsy evolved to compete with other forms of popular entertainment. The Encyclopedia of Arkansas explains that more complex, theatrical minstrel shows toured the United States and worldwide throughout the 19th and 20th centuries.

Shockingly, minstrel shows didn’t lose popularity until the 1960s when The Civil Rights Movement forced the end of societally acceptable Blackface. Though some edgy entertainers still don the offensive makeup, The Jim Crow Museum hasn’t found an actual minstrel show performing worldwide for decades.

A minstrel advertisement in an old newspaper.
Credit: Matt Morgan

One can’t discuss minstrel shows without noting the importance of Black minstrel troupes. Unlike the Blackface minstrelsy, performed for white audiences, Black minstrels entertained mostly Black audiences. The Encylopedia of Arkansas writes that they “stuck to more familiar elements, such as songs and jokes with which the audience was already familiar.”

Black minstrel troupes directly contributed to what eventually became blues music. A famous fiddle tune from a popular Black minstrel show evolved into the unofficial Arkansas state song, “The Arkansas Traveler.” Reclaiming minstrelsy gave Black performers the ability to tell their stories and preserve Black culture throughout a still segregated, racist United States.

Is Mickey Mouse Based on Blackface Minstrels?

Mickey Mouse didn’t always wear his iconic white gloves. Why were they added? Well, it’s easier to add details to a black-and-white cartoon character if their hands don’t look like what Vox describes as a “rubber hose and circle. But these only served to enhance his similarities with blackface minstrelsy.

Mickey Mouse poses inside EPCOT's Pixar Short Film Festival Building, his new meet & greet location.
Credit: Brittany DiCologero, Inside the Magic

“Mickey had a black body and head, large white eyeballs, and a white area around the mouth — all characteristic of African Americans as portrayed stereotypically in cartoons, illustrations, and advertising of the time and based on the image of minstrel show performers in black face,” writes “Mickey Mouse” essayist and professor M. Thomas Inge. “When white gloves were added, Mickey moved even closer to his sources.”

Walt Disney was inspired by vaudeville entertainers to glove his cherished cartoon characters, much like other American animation hits of the time like Felix the Cat and Bimbo. With their gloved hands and painted faces, early depictions of Mickey Mouse, Minnie Mouse, Goofy, and countless other classic cartoon characters look like they stepped off the stage of a minstrel show.

How do we know Disney was inspired by minstrelsy? In The Opry House (1929), Walt Disney Animation Studios depicted Mickey Mouse performing on a vaudeville minstrel show.

A blackface minstrel performer next to Mickey Mouse in a minstrel sketch animation.
Credit: Wikimedia Commons (Unknown photographer, public domain), Walt Disney Animation Studios

Nicholas Sammond, author of “Birth of an Industry: Blackface Minstrelsy and the Rise of American Animation,” questions why society refuses to reckon with the origins of its most beloved cartoon characters. The Walt Disney Company publicly condemned racism in films like Swiss Family Robinson (1960), The Aristocats (1970), Dumbo (1941), Peter Pan (1953), and, of course, Song of the South (1946). But why not admit to the Blackface that inspired Mickey Mouse?

“American animation, which had its origins and developed many of its enduring conventions on the vaudeville stage, is not merely one more in a succession of textual forms; it is also a performative tradition that is indebted to and imbricated in blackface minstrelsy and vaudeville,” Sammond wrote.

Peg Leg Pete and Mickey Mouse in Steamboat Willie 1928
Credit: Disney

“Commercial animation in the United States didn’t borrow from blackface minstrelsy, nor was it simply influenced by it. Rather, American animation is actually in many of its most enduring incarnations an integral part of the ongoing iconographic and performative traditions of Blackface. Mickey Mouse isn’t like a minstrel; he is a minstrel.”

There are fake accounts of the racism behind Mickey Mouse online. In 2019, Snopes debunked a viral post that suggested a racist character named “Jigaboo” directly inspired Walt Disney’s original drawing.

Mickey Mouse next to a hoax character wearing blackface that someone claimed inspired Walt Disney's drawing
Credit: Snopes

Still, a hoax shouldn’t stop us from examining the real history behind Mickey Mouse and other early cartoons. The only way to move forward as a society is to address the uncomfortable past fully so we can leave it behind for the future.

What do you think of scholars comparing Mickey Mouse to minstrel shows and other racist Blackface entertainment? Share your opinion with Inside the Magic in the comments.

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