Anti-Racist Kids Movies as a Tool for Parenting

. August 19, 2020.

RaShya Ghee is a Toledo attorney, lecturer and mom whose expertise is American racism.

American racism is at the forefront of our national discourse…again. International protests, the assertion that Black Lives Matter, and discussions about America’s racial history are on the lips of everyone from senator Mitt Romney to corporate giants like Amazon. This has prompted many parents to ask what more they could be doing to raise anti-racist children.

First, questioning yourself is a good start. Traditional learning environments do a terrible job of educating students accurately about America’s racial history. Most Baby Boomers and even some Gen X’ers were educated under these falsehoods and transmitted the beliefs these falsehoods formed to their children. Most Americans have an opinion about race but haven’t undergone any formal education on American racism. It is incumbent on those seeking to be anti-racist to do the work of re-educating yourself about this country’s racial climate, centering voices of color and those who study America’s racial trajectory, and seeking out diverse spaces. For a list of resources to assist in this endeavor, see here.

Second, your kids learn normal from you and learn a ton about race when you are not teaching. Be cognizant of that and make the effort. Who do you invite over to your house to entertain? Whose house do you go to for BBQs and birthday parties? What is the racial composition of their toys? Their friends? Is their doctor, teacher, or clergy person diverse? All of these encounters send implicit racial messages about who is valuable and which spaces are accessible and safe. Research shows that over 75% of white people have no friends of color. Do you fit into that majority percentage? How can you change that? 

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It’s impossible not to encounter racial stereotypes in society’s messaging because they’re everywhere. Accordingly, it’s incumbent on parents, especially white parents, to do two things: 1) talk through those representations with your child(ren) and explain what’s appropriate and inappropriate and 2) deliberately expose them to non-stereotypical representations. Research shows that children whose parents do not explicitly discuss race default to negative racial stereotypes. Folks have been compiling some great resources to help with this (here is an example) but increasing your racial IQ will empower your confidence to do this more often and more effectively (and maybe with more family than just your kids right? Who knows! Not trying to get too crazy but it could happen!) so lean in hard to the resources referenced earlier.

Some kid blockbusters have broached these issues with subtlety. Race organically arises in two recently released kid movies, utilizing animation on the big screen to create more racially conscious compassionate little humans.

Frozen II
I have a six-year-old, princess-loving daughter like many families around the country, and when Frozen II was released, we converged on our neighborhood movie theater, stood in line for tickets and slushies, then nestled in for Frozen II. I didn’t have high expectations; my assessment of the original Frozen was that it was just eehh…average.

About halfway through the film’s sequel, however, I realized something: I turned to my mom with the wide eyes of an American racism scholar and said, “So this is about America’s racial history!” Disney effortlessly tackled America’s racial history without explicitly saying so, and I started to think that maybe this has been the answer to our fundamentally flawed understanding of American racism all along!

In the film, Elsa is called upon to reckon with the truth of the past. She discovers a different people, who are ostensibly indigenous people, trapped under and within a mysterious fog, and she finds out that her grandfather perpetrated an injustice on these people that allows Arendelle (her magical kingdom) to thrive and is the genesis of the fog. She discovers that in order to “do the next right thing,” she must endanger and potentially destroy the only kingdom she’s ever known if she hopes to right the historical wrong and save the whole of them all.

That’s right. This white woman, whose nation is in peril, goes on a truth-seeking mission to confront the past and make wrongs right. She uncovers that her ancestor committed a great injustice – and here’s the most important part – that isn’t her fault but that is her responsibility. She realizes that “the next right thing” means possibly destroying all that she has come to know and love in the name of freeing people who remained trapped under the weight of her ancestor’s error.

The beginning of the movie parrots the early colonial interactions with America’s indigenous people. It also reveals how revisionist versions of history inform every subsequent decision by leaders and distorts our present understanding of the way our society evolved and is arranged. It highlights the way that history’s “winners” get to retell stories in a way that portrays them in a favorable light and minimizes or outright conceals their transgressions. In the film, the story that Elsa’s dad tells her as a child paints Elsa’s ancestors as innocent, well-meaning victims who were bombarded by savage natives. That’s the same story that has been repeated throughout history about American settlers’ encounters with Indians. We then immortalize the “heroism” of these historic settler winners through statutes, holidays, and street names.

The past is not what it seems. A wrong demands to be righted. Arendelle is not safe. The truth must be found. Without it I see no future. When one sees no future, all one can do is the next right thing.” -Grand Pabbie in Frozen II

The fog surrounding the enchanted forest functions as a fantastic analogy for the social barriers erected by racism. Race and racism in America is foggy. It’s constantly shapeshifting, from genocide to enslavement to Jim Crow to mass incarceration. Racism is amorphous and hard to capture but perceptible just like fog. The fog traps the indigenous people and even some of Elsa’s citizens in the forest with no way out. This parallels how many describe our country as a tale of two nations where those surrounded by racism are trapped within insurmountable barriers.

This is the story of America. White people like Elsa and Anna are the living beneficiaries of their ancestors’ wrongdoing. This country exists because of the genocide and theft of Native American people and lands. It was built on the backs and continued oppression of enslaved Africans and their descendants. Our nation is currently in a state of peril. White people must go on their own journey through the past and discover these truths. We all have a direct connection to these wrongdoings. Uncovering these connections, ascertaining the next right thing, then actually doing the next right thing, even if it means risking everything, might be the only thing that saves us all. 

Applying the film to parenting
Here’s how you could introduce all this to your kids in a way that doesn’t traumatize them: 

  • For the story of colonial encounters with Indians: “This is similar to what happened when British colonists arrived in America and met the Native Americans and we have been dealing with the repercussions of those encounters ever since. Colonists wanted Indian land and often used deceit or violence to get it. Then they made up stories afterwards to make themselves seem less guilty just like Elsa’s grandpa.” 
  • For the analogy of fog and racism: “Racism is all over our society and it works just like fog! It stops people from reaching their destination and even when they do, they usually have to work much harder than someone who did not have to navigate the fog. As good people and good citizens, we must work daily to help get rid of the fog of racism.” 
  • It would also be helpful to learn more about indigenous nations. This will help you identify other components of different cultures that the film got right. For example, the indigenous people in Frozen II mention “listening to nature” to inform leadership. This dovetails well with many Native American cultures that place inherent value on nature. 

Trolls World Tour
Unlike Frozen II, I was BIG geeked about Trolls: World Tour. Now this was more our speed. An entire film dedicated to singing & dancing had my family’s name written all over it. When I realized the messaging embedded in the storyline, Trolls: World Tour soared to my all-time top 3 kids’ movies easily.

In the film, Poppy gets an invitation from a troll royal she never knew existed. Her father instinctively and irrationally warns her that different is dangerous. He recounts an inaccurate version of their history, the crux of which is that different trolls must live separately for the sake of harmony. Poppy rejects this reasoning as outdated and flawed, defies her father’s admonitions, and sets out on her own to unite the separate troll kingdoms. Though well-intentioned in her efforts, Poppy insists that all trolls are the same and that differences don’t matter. When Poppy reaches the funk/soul/hip-hop trolls (ostensibly representative of Black Americans), they edify her understanding with three important truths.

First, they explain that differences are attached to varied histories and cultures and that it’s hurtful and harmful to disregard them. Secondly, she learns that her understanding of history is inaccurate and that her father is blameworthy for the events that caused the different trolls to separate. Finally, the rap used to explain all of this to Poppy touches on cultural appropriation and the way that the contributions of Black Americans to the arts have been concealed, exploited, and profited from without giving the true artists credit. This scene also highlights the role of hip-hop as a device of storytelling and healing within disenfranchised spaces. Recurring themes throughout the film are assimilation, diversity, revisionist history, colorblindness, and cultural appropriation.

Breaking down the message in Trolls: World Tour
First, the idea that different is dangerous is as American as apple pie. The lack of exposure Poppy had to different troll genres throughout her life mirrors how many white people live most of their lives in insular communities with only people who look like them from similar backgrounds. Many white Americans remain substantively unaware of the breadth of difference and what those differences mean outside of their insular space. Studies have found that communities are more segregated today than before the civil rights legislation. Historically, white people have touted that this segregation is necessary for their safety, which is another way of saying that “difference is dangerous.” Many whites live most of their lives never having their racial worldview challenged in any substantive way. The reaction of her father to the prospect of different trolls in the Pop Troll Kingdom mirrors the irrational fear that many white people have about racial minorities moving into “their” communities and neighborhoods.

Her father’s words and actions are rooted in fear. Fear has been America’s currency, and historically, white femininity was frequently proffered as the basis which required protection through segregation. Many white parents, especially white fathers, had an extreme fear of interracial relationships. Her father also blames both sides in his version of the past circumstances that led to the troll separation, saying stuff like “both sides were wrong,” which fails to acknowledge the power dynamics inherent in the positions of each side. Asking for equality is not the same as asking people to stop asking for equality.

Poppy’s rejection of this is also consistent with recent trends where white youth are more accepting and racially-conscious than previous generations. It is important to recognize that both Poppy and her father are exhibiting racist proclivities just in opposite ways. It’s true that Poppy’s impact is racist even though her intentions are well-meaning. It is possible to be well-meaning and still be racist. Crazy, right? Attempting to neutralize differences and make everyone the same is dangerously racist. It’s also an inextricable part of the American way. America, both its populace and its government, have frequently expected and even demanded that racial and ethnic minorities abandon their cultural variation to adopt and perform more white-centric norms.

Throughout America’s history, white people have not only demanded that Blacks, Hispanics, Native Americans, and Asians present as “American” (Californians even attempted to ban speaking Spanish) but have also communicated, both explicitly and implicitly, that their way is superior to all others. “Differences don’t matter,” said Poppy. This is animated colorblindness, which is dangerous. This is an important point that many white people who indulge in fantasies of a “post-racial” America continue to overlook: racial neutrality is not synonymous with equality. Neither Poppy nor her father value diversity, but in different ways. Poppy the Pop troll doesn’t value it because she doesn’t believe the differences are important. Her father doesn’t value it because he’s afraid of it. Sound like anyone you know? 

Denying our differences is denying the truth of who we are.” -Queen Essence of the Funk Trolls in Trolls: World Tour 

Bringing the themes to your children
Here’s how you could introduce all of this to your kids in a way that doesn’t traumatize them:

  1. To quell the equivocation of danger with difference, say something like: “There are so many differences in the world. Beautiful differences, vibrant differences, meaningful differences. Poppy’s dad was missing out on all that beauty and vibrance when he was too afraid to welcome different trolls. Understanding differences is so important to how we understand and empathize with our fellow humans especially our friends of color. That’s why we _____________________ (took that trip to the African American Museum in DC last year).” 
  2. For the discussion about colorblindness and diversity: “Differences make us all beautiful and it’s important we try to understand how those differences impact our world. For a long time, many grown-ups made the mistake of trying to ignore differences, especially race. That’s what Poppy was doing when she kept saying ‘We’re all the same.’ That was a mistake and has only perpetuated racism. As a family, I want us to work on increasing our racial awareness so that we can help eliminate racism for good.” 
  3. To address revisionist history: “For a long time, white people like us were very uncomfortable discussing race and racism because most white people have not been good helpers to Black and brown neighbors, and that made people feel shameful. I want us to work hard at being good helpers in the fight to end racism and that means telling the truth about race and racism even when it makes us uncomfortable, just like the Funk trolls did when they told Poppy the truth. It’s a privilege that we only have to be uncomfortable by choice and that discomfort won’t mean jail or death like it often does for our friends of color.” 

Trolls II also highlighted the fear of white fathers about their daughters having interactions with the “other.” White women have played the supporting role in American racism for entirely too long. Having Elsa and Ana and Poppy lead this charge largely on their own was a fantastic pushback against the narrative that white women are fragile beings who lack agency and must be protected. It also accentuated a lesser known point that turning the tide on American racism will require direct action from white women. Both require a reconciliation with the past and honest confrontation with the lies that have been told about history and who those lies affect.

If you watch these movies unremarked, your children/family will miss out on valuable teaching moments that will make them more compassionate/informed humans as they navigate our American society. It’s important for you, their parents, to do the heavy lifting of re-educating yourself using the wealth of resources available on the internets. Confused about where to start? Check out my website for further information and advice in raising anti-racist children. 

RaShya Ghee

RaShya Ghee