Wednesday, March 3, 2021

Only Racists See Race? Discussing Dr. Seuss


I am trying to figure out what has so many white people so upset. There's all this talk of "cancel culture," but, as far as I can tell, everyone seems up in arms about the demise of  things already dead. Yesterday my internet feeds were blowing up because Dr. Seuss was being labelled racist. His books were being called racist! And some people were very upset.

I can't quite figure out why, except that of course many of them didn't know the facts of the matter, they'd simply seen clickbait titles like, "Dr. Seuss Banned!"

So let's start with the facts. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the organization which owns the copyrights to the author's material, decided to cease publication of six books due to their racially insensitive words or illustrations.  Those books are: McElligot's Pool (published 1947), If I Ran The Zoo (1950), Scrambled Eggs Super (1953), On Beyond Zebra (1955), And To Think That I Saw It On Mulberry Street (1964), and The Cat's Quizzer (1976.) 

I'm 53 years old, and only one of those books was first published in my lifetime. Also, I'm really well-versed in the field of children's literature, and I've never even heard of four of the titles. Also, do you all imagine books stay in print forever? Very few do. I have published 18 books, the first in 1998. Nine of them are still in print--two of those as electronic versions only. This is likely slightly better than average. Dr. Seuss's books have had phenomenal runs. 

No one is suggesting that these books be banned, removed from libraries, or burnt in the public square. They're just not printing new copies.

Are those six books racist? Yep. They are.

You don't have to like it. You can excuse Theodor Giesel as being a man of his time. You can say that you've not noticed racism in your favorite Dr. Seuss books--but you can't look at the specific books in question and say they don't propagate harmful racial stereotypes. They do.

And. This is important: you don't get to decide what offends someone else.

Take, for example, the swastika. You might see it as an ancient Sanskrit symbol of well-being. But if you wear it as a tattoo people will consider you a neo-Nazi. You can call the Confederate flag a symbol of states' rights all you want--but you need to recognize that many people see it as a badge of white supremacy. When the only pictures of Black people in a book show them barefoot wearing grass skirts--well, that's equating Blackness with ignorance and savagery.  Maybe you don't see it this way, but many people do. When they say they're offended, you don't get to tell them they aren't.

This is also important: there is no good reason to continue to offend people here. McElligot's Pool is not a hill to die on. 

I get that many people have happy childhood memories of Dr. Seuss books. I do. The Sleep Book was my favorite, in part because it was so long, and in part because of one particular illustration I loved so much I could probably draw it for you even now,. The kids I babysit used to made me read Fox In Socks every time because they thought it was hilarious how the tongue twisters tripped me up. No one is "cancelling" this. No one takes those memories away--nor is anyone ceasing publication of Fox In Socks or Green Eggs And Ham.

Dr. Seuss may or may not have been racist himself. I have no idea. Most likely, neither do you. It's irrelevant to the conversation. The man has been dead for thirty years. My grandmother, who's been dead more than twenty years, was absolutely racist for at least most of her life. I loved her dearly, and have many fond memories of her. I also remember how, in her very last years, some of her opinions about Black people changed--she became less racist, in part because she had more genuine interactions with Black people. None of that matters, any more than Dr. Seuss's real beliefs matter. All we're doing now is no longer producing new copies of some racist books Seuss wrote.

I'd like everyone who's got their knickers in a twist to answer these questions honestly:

--when was the last time you read a Dr. Seuss book?

--when was the last time you read any of the six books going out of print?

--how many of those six books have you read?

--if you have read them, what's your honest opinion of them? How do they compare with other children's books you've recently read? If you were going to buy three books for any child of your acquaintance, out of all the books in the bookstore, would any of these make the cut?

Look, it's not much of a stretch to say that today's children are better served by books written less than sixty years ago. We're in a glorious golden age of children's literature right now. There are amazing books being written, and our kids deserve to enjoy them. Take a look next time you go to a bookstore. Browse through the children's section. Open up some of those picture books. You'll see.

As for the title of this blog post: it's something someone wrote yesterday on a thread about the Seuss news. Only racists see race. Which is, honestly, one of the stupidest things I've ever read. If you don't see my identity, including my race, you don't see me. It's nothing to do with prejudice. It's simple truth.

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