What's Tony Thinking

Yikes! Dr. Seuss Is a Racist


Who knew? Dr. Seuss was a racist! Egads!

According to a story on the local NPR affiliate KUOW, the characters in Dr. Seuss stories are 98% white. (Funny, I always thought the characters in Hop on Pop, The Grinch Who Stole Christmas, The Cat in the Hat and other Seuss titles were mostly green, blue and red.)

Beyond that, the remaining 2%, who are people of color, are presented as stereotypes or caricatures. This is at least part of the rationale for subjecting Theodore Geisel, a.k.a. Dr. Seuss, to a critical re-examination.

For a couple decades now Geisel’s birthday has been observed as “Read Across America Day,” with the idea that school kids are to read a Dr. Suess book on that day. No more — at least here in Seattle. Recognizing the implicit racial bias of the Seuss canon, other books will now be read on “Read Across America Day.”

Well, okay.

I, for one, don’t have a problem with other reading material and choices to supplement Dr. Seuss in the diet of elementary school readers on “Read Across America Day.” Honestly, Dr. Seuss has always seemed a bit manic for my tastes. Then there’s the whole matter of implicit elder abuse in Hop on Pop!

Seriously, I do struggle with how we today confidently project our enlightened standards back into or onto other time periods with a certain air of smug superiority. Thank God, we aren’t like those miserable wretches!

Theodore Geisel was born in 1904. He lived in a very different world and culture than our own. While educators do need to examine the implicit bias in books they use, to look back and declare someone like Geisel to be a “racist” without more substantial evidence seems a bit of a cheap thrill.

Another book that has fallen under cultural critique is Little House on the Prairie the classic series by Laura Ingalls Wilder. Yes, Wilder tells the story of the American frontier from the point of view of white settlers, of which she was one. Native Americans are seen through a particular and largely pejorative lens.

Can we not, however, read these books from other eras with an awareness of their limits, yet without our self-righteous retroactive condemnation?

And — here is my real plea — let us advance our critiques of those of earlier eras with an awareness of our own limitations. We are as time and place-bound as they. It’s just that we happen to be the one’s presently alive. Each era and culture wears blinders. Ours included. We have fresh insights and we have our own blind spots.

I suspect that one of our current blind spots is our all but automatic assumption that everyone’s identity is wholly explained by their group affiliation — their racial, gender, sexual orientation or ethnic group. One day, we shall see that there is insight there, but blindness as well.

So, change the curriculum, supplement Seuss, Wilder and Twain. But spare us the smugness.


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