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Defending Dr. Suess: A Weird Hill to Die On

Do you think images of Asians with conical hats and slits for eyes are flattering? Do you think portrayals of Africans as monkeys is acceptable? Hopefully, the answer is no. So, why are so many people defending Dr. Seuss’s decision to showcase various racial groups by their negative stereotypes in his children’s books? Probably for the same reason that any time a minority group expresses offense at prejudices or inequality, it’s met with shouts about the “woke police” and “cancel culture.”  Racism.

What would people spouting “cancel culture” have to say in regards to the abolition of slavery back in the 1800s? Better yet, what were their parents saying when the Civil Rights Act was passed and segregation was ended? (Wait until they find out about The Washington Football Team and Aunt Jemima syrup). I’m sensing a pattern. Defending Dr. Seuss is starting to sound awfully similar to, “I’m unaffected by negative racial stereotypes because they don’t apply to people who look like me so we should preserve them so we can read fun books and give children unrealistic ideas about groups of people that they may not otherwise have exposure to.” Sounds weird, right? That’s because it is.

News flash: you can think Dr. Seuss was a great author and also condemn his racism and racist works. You don’t have to pick and choose. And you shouldn’t look past his racism because he was simply a “product of his time.” People do realize that abolitionists did exist, right? The fact that slavery was widely accepted and practiced does not mean that it was ever okay. In the same way that just because racist rhetoric has been so deeply rooted in our popular culture, it does not make it any less unacceptable or offensive. Studies have shown that children begin to recognize racial differences and adopt prejudices at a very young age. I’m not sure why some people still need someone to explain to them why it’s offensive to have racist and archaic stereotypes of people of color in existence anywhere, let alone a children’s book. But the truth is, these people are well aware that these depictions are racist. The idea of widespread accountability for racism, both implicit and explicit, is scary for a group of people used to spewing bigotry and trying to claim ignorance. I’m exhausted by the people who claim their inability to discriminate freely is an infringement on their freedom. Freedom to, what, be racist? 

You either agree that racist depictions in children’s books are wrong or you see no problem with them. You’re either a racist or you’re not. They’re mutually exclusive. And there is nothing “teachable” about racism in a children’s book. If you wanted to educate a child about racism and accepting diversity in the world, there are books that can do just that, and that are marketed specifically towards children like Antiracist Baby by Dr. Ibram X. Kendi. To argue that having racist caricatures in a children’s book could somehow be beneficial is similar to arguing that middle schoolers should read Mein Kampf in order to understand why antisemitism is bad, instead of using resources that were specifically made to combat antisemitism. You don’t need to shove racist and offensive content in a child’s face to teach them that racism is wrong; I highly doubt those arguing that the racist images in these books have educational value are explaining to their little ones that the images are offensive and wrong in the middle of reading. These arguments might seem like they are valid, but it’s pretty obvious those upset about these books no longer being published don’t even understand what they are defending. Even the National Education Association, which sponsors Read Across America, made the decision to shift towards including more diverse books and moved away from Dr. Seuss’s books due to growing concerns about the racially insensitive content back in 2017. The decision to stop publishing these books is not one that has been made in haste. In fact, it’s about time we gain the ability to reflect on what is no longer appropriate and vow to do better. No one is trying to erase the past; we are trying to create a better future.

One of the weirdest “insults” I have heard about my generation is that we are naive and idealistic. Is it idealistic to try and right the wrongs of the previous generations and put an end to the bigotry? Definitely not. Is it naive to think we could be successful? Maybe, but I don’t see us giving up anytime soon.

Hi, I'm Olivia! I'm a senior at the University of Pittsburgh pursuing a major in Neuroscience, minors in Spanish, Africana Studies, and Chemistry, and a certificate in Global Health! In my free time you can find me at the gym, listening to a podcast, or hanging out with my friends!
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