Trigger warning: The following article contains subject matter related to race and discrimination. This information is used for informational purposes only.
Dr. Seuss books are a big hit in my home. Being raised in the UK, they weren't something that I was familiar with until my American husband introduced them to our daughter when she was two. Since then, they have become regular go-to books for bedtime. Their clever rhyme and rhythm make them a pleasure to read, and their messages were about equality, openness, and being non-judgmental. But that's apparently not the case anymore, according to a recent study.
It wasn't just me who assumed that progressiveness and anti-discrimination were the heart and soul of Dr. Seuss' books. Theodore Seuss Geisel first published a children’s book back in 1937. They soon became American classics that were celebrated as anti-racist books that encouraged tolerance. The report says that The Sneetches, which my husband was especially excited about buying for our daughter, had been used to teach anti-racist curriculum from kindergarten to fifth grade. Horton Hears a Who! has a similar reputation, what with its famous line “A person’s a person, no matter how small!” How could it be that these books aren't actually about equality? If they aren't, what are their real messages?
The report- which was carried out by Katie Ishizuka of The Conscious Kid Library and Ramón Stephens of the University of California, San Diego- makes the claim that Geisel's children's books promote the total opposite to notions of racial equality. They came to this conclusion after evaluating how non-white characters are portrayed in the books, the number of times White human characters appear versus characters of color, and assessing the dynamics between white and non-white characters, such as dominance, dehumanization, stereotyping, and so on. The verdict was that the books included themes of orientalism (the depiction of the Middle East and Asia as backward), anti-blackness, and white supremacy.
This may not be surprising once some important history of Theodore Seuss Geisel is revealed. The study elaborated, saying that from the 1920s onward, Geisel produced a range of anti-black, anti-Semitic, and other racist cartoons mocking Arabs, Asians, Mexicans, and Indigenous peoples. Racist accusations towards Geisel have been concentrated on these earlier works, but such portrayals can also be found in his children’s books.
For example, Horton Hears a Who!, the researchers found, reinforces white supremacy, orientalism and white saviorism. The Whos are supposed to be Japanese but, “are depicted as exotic, backward, uncivilized, dangerous in relation to Americans, and in need of saving.” They are eventually saved, “by the bigger, more powerful (White savior), Horton.”
Anti-blackness was detected through the invisibility of black human characters. Only two out of 2240 characters are identified as black, and both are depicted as monkeys. We are told that the Cat in The Cat in the Hat, probably the most famous of all the Dr. Seuss children's books, was influenced by blackface performance. The Cat's appearance makes references to minstrel clowns, and his role, “mimics the role of blackface performers (whose) purpose is to entertain and perform tricks for the White children.”
As for our family favorite, The Sneetches? The book features non-human characters, so how could this be problematic? Well, the report argues that white supremacy is at the root of the book. The oppressed Plain-Belly Sneetches are depicted as simply, “moping and doping,” accepting their oppression rather than resisting it. Their only solution is to look like their oppressor. In the end, all of the Sneetches become mixed up, and no one could tell who was who; an ending which the researchers say encourages the "forgetting" of histories of racial oppression.
Gender is also critiqued in the report, which says the books are both sexist and patriarchal. "White women and girls retain minimal speaking roles, are rarely present, and are presented in subservient roles. The more startling finding is that women and girls of color are completely absent across his children’s book collection. Seuss’ White male protagonist leads dominate the visual space, narratives, and speaking roles."
The report has provided me with lots of food for thought. The researchers- one Japanese American and the other Black- said that they wanted to look at the books from the perspective of non-White researches. Even though Geisel's work has had a lot of attention- including the racism of his earlier works- critical race readings of his children's books hasn't been applied by white researchers, who have often instead seen them as examples of how he had become a "reformed racist."
Can this difference in positionally apply to readers as well? Is this why, as a white woman, it initially surprised me to think that these books could be anything other than promoting tolerance? I can see how their arguments make sense now, but it's a shame that I didn't look deep enough beforehand. It's jolting, but it's also important to be reminded that the lure of children’s books, can mask potentially harmful messages- what with their fun rhyming and quirky illustrations. The question for our house is, will we be able to read The Sneetches the same way again? Probably not.