Popular television shows from the past are always remembered a little fondly, through the misty lens of memory that softens all the hard edges. It would be easy for everyone to continue remembering their favorite shows from the past as totally innocent and fun to watch… if it wasn’t for YouTube and video streaming services. Re-watch some of those shows that you used to love, and you might end up being shocked by what you see. Upon closer inspection, there were lots of shows that were crazy racist when they were on the air. Watching them again may just inspire your gag reflexes in the present.
These old shows were all incredibly popular and some seem to be perfectly safe – after all, how damaging can a cartoon or a sitcom really be? But look a little closer, and you’re going to see some pretty frightening and shocking racism embedded not so deep in those scripts. You don’t have to read between the lines to see some of the blatant racism in these old shows that everyone loved, once upon a time.
So before you start streaming, start screening your TV picks – and make sure you aren’t going to be inundated with racist jokes, references and in-your-face insensitivity.
10. The Little Rascals
Our Gang was first made from 1922 to 1944 by MGM, and you can tell it’s super outdated. It has appeared on syndicated TV as The Little Rascals since the 1950s. The racism in it was pretty shocking even back then. It was more shocking when the show re-appeared on television in the 1960s, the 1970s and even in the 2000s.
In later versions, however, the “Rascals” are heavily censored to cut out the more glaring racist remarks and jokes. Despite horrifying stereotypes and black characters named “Buckwheat” and “Sunshine Sammy,” the kids in Our Gang were progressive in some ways. The integrated cast featured white and black actors interacting with each other, which was pretty rare in the 1920s. Sadly, whites in blackface was not.
9. Tom & Jerry
Most parents never question the assumed fact that 1950s cartoons are safe for children to watch. After all, this was the era of the happy sitcom family and the good-natured animated hi-jinks, the days of innocence and poodle skirts. Re-watch some of those old cartoons, and you could find frightening racism within minutes. Such is the case with Tom and Jerry, which is now streaming with a warning label because it’s so very racist.
Specifically, the Mammy Two Shoes character is considered to be highly offensive. You rarely see Mammy’s face, but she does feature in several Tom and Jerry shorts. Amazon includes a warning label on the show because the character is so incendiary.
OK, so this show isn’t that old, but it’s definitely old news. Glee was careful to gather a cast built on diversity. You’ve got the African-American girl, a couple of Asians, even a disabled kid. But scratch the surface of the popular series, and things begin to stink.
The black cast member is a full-figured gal with an attitude and a huge voice. The Asians are both driven to succeed and feel pressured by their families. Heck, the show even has a dumb blonde in the mix just for laughs. Glee got a ton of early criticism for shoving all the kids “of color” to the back of the cast and giving most of the story to the white cast members, a problem the show later rectified but without any real pizzazz or commitment. The show perpetuated a lot of stereotypes about black people, Asians and Hispanics, and that’s nothing to sing about.
7. Diff’rent Strokes
Diff’rent Strokes looks like a pretty progressive show on the surface. After all, it was about an interracial family in the 1980s and that’s pretty amazing. Blacks and whites lived together and became a family, tackling issues and obstacles together. It’s all pretty powerful stuff. The show has become famous again over the years for its wayward cast members, who made some mistakes after leaving the uber-popular series.
The problem with Diff’rent Strokes is that it contains a lot of themes of white people saving black people – from themselves and from others. Many find these story lines, and the entire show’s premise, offensive because of this. It was originally named 45 Minutes From Harlem, a proposed title that stresses the contrast between white and black that’s such a strong focus of the show.
6. All in the Family
Archie Bunker is unquestionably one of the most racist characters ever to grace the TV screen. That’s actually what made All in the Family such a groundbreaking show. It aired through most most the 1970s and was unafraid to deal with topical subjects. Head of the family Archie is a bigot, a jerk and unapologetically hateful to anyone unlike himself. He served as a counterpoint to his much more liberal daughter and her left-wing husband, played by Sally Struthers and Rob Reiner.
By making a central character an over-the-top racist, All in the Family attempted to show how wrong his point of view actually was. This was really amazing stuff in the 1970s. Archie is still offensive as heck today, just as he was meant to be.
5. Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers
What could be wrong with a kids show about everyday martial arts? Believe it or not, the Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers is way racist. Ever notice that the red ranger was Native American? The Asian ranger wore yellow. The black ranger… well, you get it by now.
The Power Rangers are still around, actually, but the original group is the one that made TV history. In interviews, the black ranger has said that the color of their costumes was totally coincidental. But is it an accident that the yellow ranger was always having trouble with her sabertooth vehicle, or the music changed to a more urban beat every time the black ranger was performing his moves? You decide. Let’s not forget about the superior white ranger…
A fuzzy, cat-hating alien seems pretty safe, doesn’t it? The beloved late ’80s sitcom Alf has been accused of being racist toward Jews because the alien has a huge nose and a bad attitude, a criticism which seems racist in its own right. However, the racism of the lead actor who portrayed Alf was made known in a leaked video that appeared online in 2010. In the behind-the-scenes video, Alf is dropping racial slurs quite casually and, to today’s audiences, horrifically.
In retrospect, it’s hard not to look back and suspect the show itself is racist. Either way, it seems that the puppeteer who voiced Alf certainly was. For some, that’s plenty enough reason to dislike the entire series.
Friends is still remembered fondly by TV watchers, mostly because it’s in syndication and reruns are all over cable all of the time. But for a long time, the show had taken flak for its completely white (oh, so very white) cast. Holly Robinson Peete called for a boycott of the show while it was still on the air in 2003.
The lack of diversity in the cast is felt by many to be an inaccurate representation of New York life, a criticism the show got for many different reasons while it was still on the air. Looking back, to many, Friends looks like an ode to white privilege that isn’t so funny after all.
2. The Lone Ranger
The Lone Ranger has such a history of being offensive, the existing Native American community expressed some backlash toward the Johnny Depp movie released in 2013. That’s a pretty long time to stay angry about a show that was on the air in the 1950s.
The Native American Tonto was a very one-dimensional, subordinate character in the original Lone Ranger, both as a radio and a televisions series. He was a collection of stereotypes and really only served to set up the show’s titular star. Johnny Depp, who has some Cherokee heritage, took on the role of Tonto for the big screen. Some still found his portrayal to be racist, though Tonto was updated for a new era. By the way, “Tonto” means “stupid” or “foolish” in Spanish.
1. Looney Tunes
Many people don’t know how racist Looney Tunes really is, because the worst of the collection has been banned since 1968. The famous “censored 11” is all clips that were made in the 1930s and ’40s; they’re so culturally insensitive they’ve hardly seen the light of day since. This includes “Coal Black and de Sebben Dwarfs,” which really needs no further explanation.
Even among the stuff that’s not banned, Looney Tunes has some pretty politically incorrect stuff. Speedy Gonzales is a stereotype, Bugs Bunny put on blackface more than once and Pepe Le Pew has been likened to a sex offender by critics. That’s a whole lot of stuff to explain to today’s kids.