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Historians say Dr. Seuss was Racist, but What About Educators?

Next week is Read Across America Week, also known as Dr. Seuss week, which is the National Education Association’s weeklong celebration of reading. The big day that started it all, Read Across America Day is on March 2nd, which is Suess’s actual birthday. 

Schools across the country will be celebrating literacy and will be decked out in Seuss decorations. Think of teachers wearing the iconic tall red and white striped hat from The Cat and the Hat, kids will be dressed like Thing 1 and Thing 2, and there will be many, many readings of Dr. Seuss books. One quick search of web or IG will show hundreds of images of Dr. Seuss themed classrooms, activities and even book-inspired food and treats. It is an absolute glorification of the renowned author Dr. Seuss, also known as Theodor Geisel, who recently has been scrutinized for his racist works in both literature and cartoon.

Dr. Seuss’s books have come under the microscope for containing racist themes in recent years. Last year in a study published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens examined 50 books and 2,200 characters created by Dr. Seuss in order to evaluate the claims of racism. Their findings were indeed a shock.

Only 2 percent of the human characters in Seuss’s books were minorities. And all of those characters, they say, were “depicted through racist caricatures.” They found orientalism, anti-blackness, and white supremacy present in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books.

While it may seem insignificant, those racial caricatures actually have a potent effect, even at an early age. Research shows that even at the age of 3, children begin to form racial biases, and by the age of 7, those biases become fixed. This is big! In other words, racial caricatures have a significant impact on how our children view race and how they view themselves and their ethnicity.

As Dr. Philip Nel, professor of children’s literature states “Racism lurks in children’s culture in ways we’re not aware of, and (authors) can recycle images and ideas in their work without being aware of it. People don’t take children’s lit seriously, they think kids are not going to notice this, only grownups notice. That underestimates their intelligence and doesn’t take into account that we learn things without being aware we’re learning things.”

There are two important things for educators to acknowledge as true: 

  1. Yes indeed,  Dr. Seuss is an author whose work has truly helped shaped literacy around the world. He was a phenomenal author and artist.
  2. Yes, Dr. Seuss has a history of racism and this fact needs to be accepted and addressed. 

Whenever a contrary notion arises, there will always be those who are resistant to a change in perspective. Digging through the information online, you will find plenty of apologists, who are quick to excuse the racism by simply calling it “a product of his time.” But the truth is that not everyone during that time was racist. There have always been people who stood against racism or at least did not participate in the proliferation of it. 

Some examples?

In March 2016, Ishizuka wrote a piece on the website Blavity about Seuss’ anti-Japanese cartoons, along with work that used the N-word and depicted blacks at a slave auction or rendered to resemble monkeys. She also pointed out images portraying Middle Eastern men as camel-riding sultans and women as hyper-sexualized harem dwellers. 

1929, artwork depicting the sale of African-Americans with a sign using the N-word
“Chinaman” depicted in Seuss’s book And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street

Dr. Seuss is a prolific children’s book author and global icon. And Dr. Seuss has a history of racial baggage that educators should understand when introducing his writing to their students.

I absolutely understand the nostalgia when it comes to Dr. Seuss’s books. You grew up on them, and so did I. When I first learned of this whole case of racism and Dr. Seuss, I was truly gutted. So many childhood memories! There is no doubt that his work made a lasting and positive effect when it comes to children’s literacy. However, in today’s day and age, there are many far better alternatives to be celebrated. Even the NEA has shifted away from focusing Read Across America week on Dr. Seuss and now focus on diversity and inclusion themes instead, although classrooms and schools are slow to follow this change. 

During my recent visit to schools in the Bay Area, California I was disappointed and saddened to see classroom after classroom prepping for “Dr. Seuss Week”. Most of the teachers I spoke with about the NEA’s movement away from Dr. Seuss and more toward celebrating racial diversity were completely oblivious. Some were even offended because Dr. Seuss holds a special place of nostalgia in their hearts and found questioning of his books to be almost unholy. That is a problem. When we over glorify people or books, we fall into the trap of being blind to any flaws that may exist. 

Screenshot of what comes up when googling Read Across America Day

Here is the thing, Dr. Seuss’s racist writings and drawings mostly insulted African-Americans and Asian-Americans. If you are not either of those, I think it can be easier to dismiss the concerns. But what if it was your particular ethnicity? Would you feel different? If he used racial slurs against your ethnicity as much he used the N-word, would you feel different? Don’t we all have a duty to feel different regardless of who the racism is against? 

For me personally, I’ve decided to not buy any Dr. Seuss books since first learning of this in 2016. I’ve read the research, and l choose not to partake in perpetuating the cycle. Knowing that ages 3-7 is an extremely important time frame for biases to be set in a child’s brain makes me want to do better.

While that doesn’t mean I will be burning copies of any books I come across, I certainly don’t encourage outright celebrating of “Dr. Seuss Day” as many schools do, nor will I be buying these books to use with my family or the teachers I work with. I think our kids deserve better, and we can break tradition and create new, better traditions. We owe it to our children to celebrate the beauty of all of humanity by choosing books that represent all of our children in a positive light. 

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