The Disney Look
The Cast Member building for the Disneyland Resort is easily spotted off of the 5 freeway. It's long and round and painted a queer sort of greenish-blue and accented by kindergarten yellow window panes. At some point during my youth, my mother worked for Disney--many people who live in Southern California often end up working for Disney--and I remember referring to this place as the "Watermelon Building." I was confident that the interior was painted red--it is.
It is a gray Tuesday morning in December and the waiting room is large and somewhat intimidating despite the fact that Toy Story is playing on three small television screens and pixie dust decorates the ruby walls. There are a handful of desperate looking people scattered around the tables and chairs that are desperately scattered around the tension in the room. I read the orange sign at the front desk:
|Attractions||Walt Disney Travel||Parking|
If hired, this would be my second experience with Disney. The summer before my junior year of college, I participated in an internship program where I worked at the front desk of the Disneyland Hotel. While I was prepared for the cult-like existence of the "Castmember" and the weekly meetings that referenced "Magic" as if Tinker Bell's pixie dust was something tangible and necessary to the makeup of the entire human race, I was a little appalled when, the day before Michael Eisner paid a visit to the hotel, all Castmembers were told that if anyone should encounter Mr. Eisner, we were not to look him directly in the eye.
But despite all that comes with working for Disney I have decided to go back, only now there are no front desk positions available and so I apply to work at the Walt Disney Travel Company because it is off-site, I don't have to wear a costume, and it pays more than Attractions.
After completing the requisite paper work, passing a typing test, and wowing the interviewer with my ability to read a sales script with clarity and enthusiasm, I am hired and read my rights regarding attitude and dress code. The attitude mantra is unsurprising: Be Happy.
The dress code, on the other hand, presents a problem.
"Now, for orientation on Saturday you must adhere to the guidelines in the Disney Look Handbook."
"Right," I quickly agree, anxious to be done with the wrap-up.
"All skirts can be no shorter than two inches above the knee and stockings must be worn with all skirts and dresses."
"Any visible body alterations must be covered up, but a conservative pair of earrings is acceptable--no bigger than the size of a quarter."
This room is not coated in red, and devoid of any pixie dust or whimsy, it's depressing; the short, fuzzy, gray cubical dividers only accentuate the gloom. I am separated from my interviewer by a large, rectangular gray table and she looks at me--the top half of me in my fitted white button-down collared dress shirt--and remarks, "What you're wearing now would be fine, you already seem to have a fairly conservative look."
I smile and nod.
"Yes, well, other than your hair you should be set, just be sure to have it fixed by Saturday."
I slowly roll one of my short dread locs between my thumb and my index finger. Remembering that I had dyed my hair several months ago I remark, "Yes, I will make sure that it is all one color by Saturday."
Without missing a beat, she responds, "Oh, the color is not a problem; it's the style that is not appropriate."
I feel the coarseness of the single loc between the tips of my fingers (now a noticeably dark mocha) and roll the strand more quickly.
I say nothing.
"As you know, Disney prefers a more natural look so I don't know what you do--straighten it or put it into individual braids as long as they're not too long and they don't have any of those extreme patterns…"
I let the loc fall from my fingers, its poison now leaking and running down the length of my arm, down my side.
My voice wobbles, but I try for clarification anyway. "Well, this is as natural as my hair gets." We share blank stares. "Is there something specific about my hair that I need to change? Is it too long, because I can cut it?" Uncomfortable and conscious of a potential problem, this lady, safe on her side of the gray, says, "Well, it's just…here. Let me call my supervisor and see what she wants to do about the situation."
Managers and supervisors crawl out of crevices and corners to assess the Situation. I am surrounded by several "authority figures" as I sit in my lop-sided, swivel chair as if I am a sideshow or an exhibit that is passing through town: "HUR-RY! HUR-RY! HUR-RY! STEP RIGHT UP. COME AND SEE AN AUTHENTIC NEGRO AND OBSERVE THE MYSTERY OF WHAT IT CALLS HAIR!" Finally, a tall, black-suited woman hovers next to me, the bottom of her jacket inches from my left shoulder, and asks, "What exactly is it?"
What is it?! It's my hair! This is what happens when a black person's hair grows. This is what happens when I resist the urge to lather chemicals on my head in an effort to synthesize a style with which you might be more familiar. This is what happens when I refuse to tie or staple or glue strands of European hair onto my scalp to construct a hairdo that suggests a sense of order and straightness. This is my hair. Fuck you.
Only, there is no "Fuck You." No speech. No declaration. Instead, there is a look of shame slathered across my face and an attempt to appease the Situation by finding out what it is the authorities want me to do. Encircled by bureaucracy, this distressed, gray room has become a cell, the supervisors and managers serving as the bars. We like a more natural look in this company so if you cut it or straighten it or braid it... And although I mentally construct page after page of argumentative strategy for my planned court appearance, I simply respond in the same manner in which I have always responded to unpleasant or confrontational situations; I sit and I smile and I apologize--I "yes mam" 'em to death. Trapped within the confines of fuzzy dividers and a river of rectangular segregation I project Martin Luther King, Jr.--hand holding, dreams, equality, complacency. In my car, away from the crimson happiness, I project Malcolm X--violence, resolve, "by any means necessary."
I admit that the Walt Disney Company has never been particularly African American friendly.
With the exception of Song of the South — a feature film based on a series of short stories about the fictional slave narratives of "Uncle Remus" and once boycotted by the NAACP for racial insensitivity — there are no animated films that feature Black human characters in either leading or supporting roles. What's more there have been three animated films that take place in Africa (The Lion King, The Lion King II, and Tarzan) and dark skinned people are noticeably missing from each of them. Of course, there are currently two very popular television shows on the Disney Channel (The Proud Family and That's So Raven) that chronicle the lives of two fictional black families, but if you go to any Disney theme park you won't find merchandise for these shows. In fact, you won't find merchandising for these shows anywhere because it doesn't exist.
Oddly enough, Walt Disney himself was the co-founder of the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals and part of the group's Mission Statement reads:
We believe in, and like, the American way of life: the liberty and freedom which generations before us have fought to create and preserve; the freedom to speak, to think, to live, to worship, to work, and to govern ourselves as individuals.
Nonetheless, Walt Disney was known to be a disreputable racist and anti-Semite making it quite clear via strict dress codes, discriminating employment practices and unicultural film making (realities that are still in practice today) that liberty, freedom and individualism applied only to a specific group of people.
It's no wonder the Walt Disney Company has a problem with natural black hair--they have no history of acknowledging it.
One week later while sitting in morning traffic on my way to orientation I wonder why I failed to say anything. The 405 is moving like molasses, two feet every five minutes, but there is a small break in traffic and my car begins to roll slowly forward at eight miles per hour. While I sing along to top 40 it occurs to me that I did ultimately win the war--my hair remains unaltered--but I am uneasy with my decision to willingly surrender the initial battle. I glance at the digital clock on the dashboard. Twenty minutes until eight o'clock, ten minutes to my exit. I have come so far since the fifth grade when I couldn't even recognize myself and yet, now that I am allegedly black and proud I find that I still can't stand up for myself. I move another two feet and the traffic stops. I slow to a halt, put the car in park, roll down the window and continue singing.
I'm going to be late.