Roundtable: Disney Rethinks 'Frog Princess' The blogosphere is buzzing about coded racism. What is it? And why is it happening in the workplace? Plus, Disney rethinks its first black animated heroine amid accusations of racism. On today's bloggers roundtable, NPR's Tony Cox talks with Jay Anderson, Desmond Burton, and Aimee Laramore.

Roundtable: Disney Rethinks 'Frog Princess'

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TONY COX, host:

Now on to our Bloggers' Roundtable. The blogosphere is buzzing about coded racism. What is it, And why is it happening in the workplace? Plus, Disney rethinks its first black animated heroine amid accusations of racism. With us is Jay Anderson of Average Bro, freelance writer and nonprofit consultant Aimee Laramore of the blog Allyd's Work in Progress, she blogs with her husband at Political Season, and pop culture critic Desmond Burton of the blog Afronerd. He also hosts Afronerd radio on Blogtalk radio. Welcome everybody.

Mr. JAY ANDERSON (Blogger, Average Bro): What's up.

Mr. DESMOND BURTON (Blogger, Afronerd): Hello.

Ms. AIMEE LARAMORE (blogger, A Work in Progress): Hi.

COX: Listen, in the last decade, the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission has seen an influx of cases involving racially coded words. In one case, a black employee was repeatedly called Cornelius, in a reference to the ape character from the movie "Planet of the Apes." Another case involved a man of Chinese and Italian ancestry who was taunted daily by his foreman who referred to him as Bruce Lee. Let me begin with you, Jay, and ask this question. Do you think that racism has migrated into this weird gotcha strategy where people use slurs and epithets either openly by claiming they're ironic, or covertly by subbing an innocuous word for what they really wanted to say?

Mr. ANDERSON: I think it absolutely has. And you know, the examples that you brought up, you know, honestly, if somebody called me Cornelius, I wouldn't think "Planet of the Apes," I'd probably think Don Cornelius. I don't know if I would take that one as a, you know, a slur or what have you, but I do think, you know, if you look at - a good example would just be this year's presidential election, and the many things we've seen in terms of, you know, some of the covert messages with Obama winning South Carolina because he's just black, and then the whole terrorist fist-jab thing with Fox News, and then the other thing with Fox News with the baby mama drama. I mean, it's just, it's one thing after the other, and I think again, these sorts of instances, whether they're in the workplace or, you know, in the media, they do show that indeed, I don't know, racism has maybe taken a different form now. It is indeed more covert, it's not as in your face, but it is still there, and I think these sort of instances just show that that is still the case.

COX: Well, Aimee, he raises an interesting point. We were talking about Cornelius, and he was not thinking "Planet of the Apes," but thinking Don Cornelius, so that means, does it not, that it depends on your point of reference in terms of what people say to you and how you interpret it?

Ms. LARAMORE: It surely does depend on your point of reference, but what we know is that when you're calling somebody by a name other than their given name, that it's not meant to be uplifting. Until what we're talking about, the work force and what's happening when you're on your job, you know, we live in the U.S., people are free to think whatever they want to think. But the fact that people have to be subjected to that in the workplace and that employers or peers think that that is OK, has to be a notion that we take on and take on very vigorously.

COX: Well, Desmond, have you ever been subject to coded racism, or called something out of your name that you could repeat here?

Mr. BURTON: Not to my knowledge. I have to be frank about that. But I guess my main concern with this issue is, I'm more concerned with black folks being prepared for these kinds of things. I'm not really shocked. I mean, on my blog I'm more concerned with internal dysfunctionalism within our communities. And the racism thing, you know, that really gets many of our goats, I guess. It gets our blood boiling so we're able to make moves on these kinds of issues. But at the end of the day, I'm not really shocked, I just would hope that, I mean, listen, "The Dark Knight" has just been released, and I don't mean to be facetious...

COX: Yeah, that's interesting, yeah.

Mr. BURTON: But when you look at what he's able to do - and I am called Afronerd so. When you see what he's able to do as a character and able to do things covertly, I think it's time for black folk to do the same thing in reverse. Take copious notes, record keeping, you have your witnesses ready. Be prepared when something comes down the pipeline that, you know, something like this may happen. So I'm not really shocked about it, just be prepared for it.

COX: Well, you know, one of the things that keeps coming up with regard to how black folks react to these kinds of coded and uncoded and sometimes not so subtle messages is, people think we have thin skin, we can't take a joke, and we can't get beyond certain things that we should be able to get beyond at this stage. Jay, I'm interested in your reaction and response to that. Are we too sensitive, are we hypersensitive to what people are saying to us now?

Mr. ANDERSON: You know, sometimes we are. Nut you know, even - every joke has, I guess, some bit of truth to it. I'm probably paraphrasing that cliche the wrong way, but a good example of, you know, whether you should take something the wrong way or not. In my office a couple of weeks ago, we had an incident in which afterhours a bunch of laptops were stolen. The next day at work, you know, the administrative assistant just happened to only ask the black males in the office, you know, how late they worked the night before. Now, I mean, you could take that as, you know, the office administrator inferring certain things about who might have stolen the laptops, even though it doesn't really make any sense, or you could just look at it as her, you know, doing due diligence based on, I don't know, someone's eye witness accounts of who was in the building at that time. I mean, again, do we have thin skin? In some cases, yes, but we wouldn't have thin skin if there weren't enough documented example of things that actually do happen. I think, you know, the reality is, black people, to some degree, you know, walk in some level of paranoia every day. And, I mean, a lot of that is learned behavior, a lot of that is again, things that could be perceived as being offensive or not.

COX: One more question on this topic, and it's for you, Aimee, before we move on. And it has to do with this. Whether or not as a female you find that the coded words that you get are often sexist or gender-based as much as racially based.

Ms. LARAMORE: Well, I think black women in particular, we get it dual fold. But I think the point of it goes back to something that was said earlier about, you know, is it thin skin? I think what we have to really be prepared to do at any given level is just say - you know, people are not going to come at you correctly in many instances, and what is my response? How do I deal with it? What is the precedent that I set? Because I think sometimes it gets just way too much conversation and communication, when what we need to be doing is teaching a new generation to how to deal with this level of racism as it exists.

COX: Teaching a new generation how to deal with racism. That's a perfect lead-in to my next topic, which is this. Disney is fending off accusations of racial stereotyping in its forthcoming animated film "The Princess and the Frog: An American Fairy Tale," which features its first black princess. The original heroine was Maddy, a chambermaid for a cruel white debutante of the 1920s New Orleans. Maddy's fairy godmother reportedly was a voodoo priestess who would help her win the heart of a white prince after he rescued her from the clutches of a voodoo magician.

Now, after word of that plot got out, Disney began making some changes. First to its title, "The Frog Princess," which some interpreted as a slur. Also, the heroine has been recast as 19-year-old Tiana, and the race of the villain has also reportedly been revised. I don't know if you are parents or not, but I'm going to start with you, Jay, and here it is. Many are asking why did it take Disney so long to make a story with a black princess, and now that it's here, people are complaining about the way that she's being depicted. What's your take on this?

Mr. ANDERSON: Well, you know, I have a two-year-old son, and I happen to agree. I mean, I would find this movie offensive. I mean, as parents, we are responsible for making sure that our kids are taking in images, you know, that are going to make sense to them. And in this case, you know, if you have a villain who happens to be black, you have the knight in shining armor who happens to be white, you know, that's just too much going on again for a movie about a princess. And I think, again, the criticism of Disney is valid.

I think what this does point out, though, is that unfortunately, when we as black people do not - when we don't control our media, these sorts of things are bound to happen. I mean, a good example would be really from my two-year-old son. The only thing that he can watch on television that really affirms him is "Little Bill." You know, it's a cartoon that comes on Nickelodeon that happens to be put together by Bill Cosby. There's really no other equivalent unfortunately. I mean, there's nothing else that affirms him as a two-year-old black boy in terms of cartoons. And that's unfortunate, but again, it's a byproduct of the fact that we as black people do not control our own media enough, and movies would be one offshoot of that.

COX: Are you finding, Desmond, that this is a big topic on the blogosphere these days?

Mr. BURTON: Not as big as I would like it to be. I mean, I think I did mention this on my blog also. But my problems with this particular issue is that, what would happen if we did control this particular issue or particular topic? Sometimes we can be our own masters of stereotyping. I mean, just go to BET or TV One. So, you know, and also, I mean, I had a problem with the fact that the name was changed from Maddy to Tiana, because I thought Maddy is a quality name, but because of the over-sensitivity portion of this thing, Maddy sounded like mammy, which is ridiculous to me.

And this kind of goes back to the whole niggardly versus the N word debate, or recently the black hole thing. So I think, to be blunt, sometimes African-Americans are confused. I mean, you know.

Mr. ANDERSON: Really?

Mr. BURTON: In some respects. I mean, it's 1920s Louisiana, and there's got to be some degree of accuracy as to what that time period meant. So now we're making her Tiana in 1929. I don't know any Tianas in 1929.

COX: That's an interesting point. Aimee, you have kids?

Ms. LARAMORE: I do. And I have a eight-year-old daughter, and I have to say that I think we're just not looking at Disney for Disney. If you look at Pocahontas, Belle, Snow White, Jasmine, they all have issues. And so I think we need to spend less time talking about the first African-American princess, and talk about what happens to get the next prince. And three princesses down the road, my daughter's peers don't have to look to one princess to help her create her image. And I'm not looking to Disney, master of killing off mothers in their show, to affirm my daughter.

I agree, when I think about the name and the sensitivity, Tiana doesn't relate to my daughter any more than Maddy did. And I think that when we try to influence a story, we lose some of the original aspects of the fact that they're going back to original art. With a mother who's a graphic artist, I have a great interest in seeing them using original artwork and not just computer-generated art. So I think there are aspects that we can look to, but we need to ask the question of ourselves, where are all the other princess stories? What are we doing?

COX: Do you think that these films really do have an impact on your children? And to what extent?

Ms. LARAMORE: I do, because I see what happens with the mass media and the birthday parties and the costumes and the attire. You know, we're talking about just a billion-dollar business of making little girls feel worthy and making them feel happy. And I don't have a problem with that, I just think we have to have more than one image and not rely on Disney to create the ideal.

COX: That's an interesting point that all three of you made, and we have just enough time for one other topic that deals with image, and it's sort of on the other end, if you will, of what we are talking about. This involves Ebony magazine, which is a black publication, choosing eight of the coolest black men to grace the covers of their upcoming issues. Barack Obama, Jay Z, Billy Dee Williams, just three of those who made the list. So is this sort of the flip of what we were just talking about, very briefly, Jay, and is this a good thing to have, cool black images like this selected by a magazine?

Mr. ANDERSON: I think I'm honestly indifferent. I don't think it's anything that hurts or necessarily improves, you know, the image of black men. I think if nothing else, it's good to hear Ebony being talked about again. I mean, they went through a re-vamping of the format of the magazine a few months ago, and it looks like maybe they're picking up some traction. You know, which is good. I mean, it's good. I mean, I'm used to Ebony just being that magazine you read when you're at your grandmother's house. You know, so to see them being relevant again, that's a good thing.

Mr. BURTON: That doesn't bother you?

COX: What about you, Desmond? Really quickly.

Mr. BURTON: Well, just incidentally, I collect vintage Ebonys back from the '40s and the '50s. And it's interesting to see how they promoted their heroes. It was a different time back then. And I think that this particular - what they're doing now, it's a pretty good thing. But I've critiqued Ebony in the past, so I think for this particular situation, it's a pretty good one.

COX: All right. We've been talking with Jay Anderson of the blog Average Bro. He was at NPR's headquarters in Washington, D.C. Pop culture critic Desmond Burton of the blog Afronerd. He also hosts Afronerd Radio on Blogtalk Radio. He was at our New York studios. Plus, freelance writer and non-profit consultant Aimee Laramore of the blogs Allyd's Work in Progress and Political Season. She was at member station WFYI in Indianapolis, Indiana.

Now, you can find links to their blogs and ours at nprnewsandnotes.org, and the conversation doesn't stop here. Our online series Speak Your Mind gives you a chance to sound off on the issues that you care about. To find out how, go to our blog, nprnewsandviews.org, and click on Speak Your Mind. Thanks, everybody.

Mr. ANDERSON: Thank you.

Mr. BURTON: Thank you.

Ms. LARAMORE: Thank you.

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