ISSUE 732: Disney’s Zootopia - A powerful lesson on bias and bigotry

Updated: May 22

Written by Fredia Lucas and Edited by Alana Anderson


STEREOTYPES COME FROM A REAL PLACE


From the sixth to the eighth grade, I went to an all-girls school. Our environment was a new-age type of gender-specific education: no pleated skirts, no stockings, no mary jane shoes, and no nuns. Instead, our curriculum included self-defense classes, swapping out letter grades for smiley faces, building literal robots, and learning that the world desperately needed more young women who were confident, courageous, and creative.


The student body was predominantly white, largely affluent, and for the most part, my classmates were young Jewish girls. Despite not belonging to any of these groups, identifying as a middle-class Black Catholic girl, I didn’t experience otherness. Yes, I was one of three Black girls in my grade, but I was also charismatic and charming. The evidence exists; I got the lead in the school play and was the co-captain of the basketball team.


Despite being different, my classmates never set out to make me feel different. The contrasts that I did recognize between my classmates and me were trivial, like our taste in music. While I danced to Destiny’s Child and 3LW, the other girls would gush over Green Day and Avril Lavigne. Our friendship was symbiotic; I taught them the lyrics to Survivor, and to this day, Complicated is my go-to karaoke song.


Yes, my classmates had summer homes, observed the sabbath, and their hair grew down and not up like mine, but what stood out wasn’t just my hair; it was our friendship. I was always treated with respect, kindness, and generosity. I was treated like a friend.


As the student body was by and large Jewish, we celebrated holidays like Rosh Hashanah in school. I would feast on the apples and honey served in-class, simply begging for cavities with each bite. It was after one of these cultural and educational lessons that I would experience a topic I had learned about but had never been invited to participate in, prejudice.


With honey wedged in the corner of my mouth and my fingertips still a bit sticky, I traveled with my parents that afternoon to visit a family friend, let’s call her Auntie June. While my younger sister went off to play with her toys and Auntie June’s daughter, April, I sat with the adults in the living room. As a child, I always felt more comfortable with the adults. I was a nosey kid, and I was deeply fascinated by “grown folks business.” Auntie June and her husband Augustine had recently renovated their kitchen, so Uncle offered to take my parents on a tour. I decided to hang back with Auntie June instead.


We began chatting about school. Auntie June was always a huge proponent of my education and was deeply invested in my schooling. I shared the usual, how I excelled in my classes, how my teachers adored me, and that I had been cast as the lead in the school play. June raved at my success, offering me a piece of candy which she kept stored in a repurposed Royal Dansk Danish Cookies Tin. The candy inside was always nasty, but of course, I couldn’t say that, so I told her I had already had enough sweets during school. Intrigued and a bit insulted, I assume, June asked me to explain myself. I expounded, sharing that I had just come from a Rosh Hashanah celebration at school and that I had eaten enough honey to turn into a bumblebee.


Auntie June was not amused. June took a deep breath, looking down at her hands, before placing one on top of mine. Auntie spoke clearly and concisely, “Fredia, you should be careful of the holidays you celebrate.” Thinking this conversation was about tooth decay and that Aunt June would snitch to my parents about my honey consumption, I began to explain that I didn’t really eat as much honey as I had gone on about before. However, that wasn’t Auntie June’s point.


June continued, “What I mean is, you need to be careful around those Jewish girls. They’re Jewish, which means they don’t believe in Jesus, and if you don’t believe in Jesus, you’re going to hell.”


I was blown away. How did a conversation that began with something as sweet as honey turn into something as sour as hell?


I was known to talk back to adults in my family, but I could tell that Aunt June was painfully earnest, and I didn’t want any of that pain to be directed at me. But I did ask, “Isn’t that a stereotype?” As an East Bay area kid by the age of eleven, I had gone through a series of school-led sensitivity and multicultural training, and although my vocabulary was limited I knew for a fact what my Auntie was saying was socially irresponsible.


Placing the lid back on her old cookie tin, Auntie June replied coldly, “It’s in the Bible, so it’s a fact, and you should know by now that stereotypes come from a real place.”


OUR INHERITED BIASES


Last week I decided to rewatch one of my favorite films of all time, Disney’s Zootopia. Zootopia, the film, is set in an eponymic city where mammals, both predators, and prey, live amongst one another in superficial harmony. Similar to our world, Zootopia is filled with micro-aggressive behavior, hazing, social profiling, bias, and a recognizable pecking order. The metaphorical beef between the two classes of citizens, predators, and prey, results from thousands of years of predators (foxes, cheetahs, bears) killing and maiming prey (mice, rabbits, sheep). Simply put, imagine if you had to live side by side with a group of people who killed your ancestors for generations. If you’re an African-American person, this is less of an imaginary exercise and more a present-day nightmare. Centuries of abuse don’t go away because you’re buying groceries at the supermarket or selling shoes in the mall. The film is hilarious, has a bounty of insightful social commentary, and includes a particular scene that made me think back to all those years ago with my sticky fingers anxiously pressed against Auntie June’s Chesterfield sofa.


Zootopia details the life of Judy Hopps, who we are introduced to at an elementary school play. The children’s performance is amusing if you subscribe to heavily veiled propaganda. During this scene, we learn the consistent trope in the film that predators had a biological urge to kill and cause harm to prey. It is only because of evolution that prey and predators can live in harmony. The keyword here is biology. As an adolescent, Judy learns that biology is enough reason to assume the worst in others. This ideology not only permeates Judy’s education but it’s perpetuated by her family as well. We see this most evidently when Judy leaves for Zootopia, the first time, to begin her work as the first-ever rabbit officer in the Zootopia Police Department (ZPD). At the train station, Judy’s parents encourage her to be careful around predators in the city and arm Judy with a case of “fox repellent” before her journey, which she accepts. Moments before Judy begins on her journey to face naysayers who aim to diminish her as someone incapable of being an asset to the ZPD because of her rabbit biology, Judy doubles down on her preconceived notions of predators.


Proving two things: first, that victims of bigotry are just as capable of committing the crime themselves, and second, stereotypes do come from a real place. They’re manufactured by pain, shipped with ignorance, and delivered to our psyche.


HEALED PEOPLE


I desperately tried not to be angry with my Auntie June, but it was a pretty hefty insult. It was the kind of nastiness that made you feel bad for even being a part of the conversation, even if never shared with anyone else.


For a woman who loved me so deeply, it was shocking to hear her attempt to teach me to hate someone else. That’s when I made the distinction. Aunt June wasn’t a hateful person. She was a hurt person.


Aunt June was a Black woman who was born in Virginia in the 1930s. Her grandparents were slaves. Aunt June was ten years old when she attended her first segregated school, she was twenty-one when Emmett Till was killed, and she was thirty-four when Martin Luther King. Jr. was assassinated. Every step in Aunt June’s life was met with adversity. Every milestone she made, someone attempted to block, every celebration she planned for, someone attempted to bomb, every time she tried to pull herself up, someone else was trying to bury her alive. The only place my Aunt June felt safe was at church, and the only person I ever knew my Aunt June to trust was Jesus. Jesus was the one being that she could rely on, confide in, and the only one who made her believe that life was worth living. So for my classmates to not believe in Jesus was a pretty big smack in the face, according to Aunt June.


I didn’t talk to Aunt June the rest of that afternoon because I didn’t know then the context of how she grew up and what she had been through. I only knew that she was talking about my friends, and usually, I don’t let nobody talk about my friends and get away with it. The conversation was particularly insulting because Aunt June had never even met my friends. Aunt June didn’t know that Abigail wore a pair of rainbow socks every day, or that Riley had seen every episode of Spongebob and knew every song word-for-word, or that Taylor was the world’s biggest germaphobe and was the only eleven-year-old I knew with hand sanitizer in their backpack. Surely these were not the kind of humans Satan was hiring to push weight on earth.


It’s not what my Aunt June knew of these young women that made them hellbound. It’s what she knew of her pain. Not believing in Jesus was an attack on my Aunt’s one source of salvation as a woman who was pigeonholed into limited resources and, ultimately, limited joy. Hurt people, hurt people, and my Aunt had been served pain as if it was the only meal on the menu.


It was at this moment I decided that I belonged to a new generation, a healed iteration of the Black women and men that lived before me. I wanted to move forward with life, inheriting my Aunt’s love for music, cooking, and home decor, but not her discriminatory views.


OUR HUMAN RACE


Biology doesn’t automatically dictate someone’s behavior, neither does ethnicity, religion, gender, sexual orientation, or any of the other protected classes.


We see this first hand in the relationship between Officer Judy Hopps & Nick Wilde, a scam artist living in Zootopia who happens to be a fox. While Hopps and Wilde were initially tense and mistrustful of each other, they eventually built a friendship during an investigation involving a missing Otter.


A significant point of their character development and relationship is a moment of prejudice in action. During a public affairs faux pas, Judy vocalizes that predators are biologically predisposed to violence. I wonder when and where she learned that from. It was a slap in the face to all predators. Still, it was incredibly disrespectful to Nick, who shared with Judy a trauma he experienced as a child at the hands of a group of prey animals who targeted him because he was a fox. Wilde not only witnesses Judy’s act of prejudice but also bears the burden of telling Judy why her statement was prejudiced.


Judy’s statement catapults Zootopia into chaos and completely disassembles her relationship with Nick. Leading Officer Hopps to understand that her words were much more threatening than the fox repellent she was carrying around in her back pocket.


Judy’s parents and my Aunt June were teaching the same lesson, be fearful before you are friendly. It’s a unique experience to witness a person of your community, a community with a history of oppressive prejudice, wielding a similar attitude toward another persecuted group. Whether that group was a perpetrator in your community’s hardship or not, the power of prejudice is that it is infectious. Hatred, prejudice, bias, and most importantly, fear can turn survivors into tormentors.


I’m glad I knew then that my Aunt was talking rubbish; had I listened to her, I would never know the mouthwatering taste of challah bread, or experienced my first bat mitzvah, or met my best friend Lilly. At the same time, I recognize that there is a child somewhere today learning how to hate people from someone who loves them. I doubt that those kinds of adults show their kids Zootopia and examine the film for its social commentary. I’m not sure how to rectify this situation, so I prepare myself to give those people grace because, in another reality, they are me.


As an adult, I do my best to hold myself and other people accountable for the ignorant, small-minded, and irresponsible things we say about other people behind their backs, closed doors and sealed in our minds. It makes for pretty uncomfortable Uber and dinner party table conversations, but it’s how I build the future I want to be a part of.


The difference between Zootopia and our world is that in Zootopia, the characters are genuinely of a different species. Despite the many ways we specify ourselves as humans, biologically, we are all the same. We can’t continue to create new sub-divisions of humans or rationalize inflicting pain on one another, or concoct new ways to disenfranchise one another. We are all one race and in the same racing game of life. Not competing against each other but instead on the same team. I’ve heard some people joke that humanity will band together and understand our collective need for one another once the aliens come to visit us. Instead, I’d like to think we can unlock peace and prosperity for all of humanity without the threat of being invaded, conquered, and enslaved. We perform these kinds of atrocities so often that we’re giving the aliens a playbook for our demolition.


FINAL THOUGHTS


Before I close I do want to mention the current affairs between Palestine and Israel. I know this article talked a lot about my experience with those who practice the Jewish faith. This does not mean I have any kind of allegiance to any side in this conflict, I simply wanted to share a story I’ve been holding onto since I was eleven. I am praying for everyone negatively impacted by the devastation and pray that we find a resolve that honors all human life and rejects prejudicial norms and laws. This conflict began long before I was born, but it would be a gift from God if it could come to peace during my lifetime.

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