Why 'cancel culture' doesn't apply to the reckoning with Dr. Seuss' racist imagery

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The business that preserves Dr. Seuss’ legacy announced Tuesday that six of the celebrated author’s books for children will stop being published because of racist imagery. The move has both sparked backlash from conservatives who call it another example of “cancel culture” and reignited debate over promoting classic but problematic books.

The announcement came on Read Across America Day, an initiative to promote childhood reading, which falls on the birthday of Theodor Seuss Geisel, known as Dr. Seuss.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises admitted that the books — published in the 1930s to the late 1970s — “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” The decision may have prompted a renewed focus on the classic works, but conversations about racism and prejudice in the author’s books are hardly new.

“In Dr. Seuss’ books, we have a kind of sensibility which is oriented toward centering the white child and decentering everyone else,” said Ebony Thomas, a professor of children’s and young adult literature at the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of “The Dark Fantastic: Race and the Imagination from Harry Potter to the Hunger Games.”

“Dr. Seuss was shaped by a completely immersive white supremacist culture," Thomas said. "Even during that time, our ancestors and elders were protesting racist works and producing alternative stories for our children. How do we decide what endures and what doesn’t endure? It’s our responsibility to decide what kind of books to put in front of kids.”

The debate is a complicated one because it must tackle the fortitude of classic books while reckoning with the place of such stories in a world of diverse readers.

A 2019 survey of Seuss’ works found that just 2 percent of human characters were people of color — 98 percent were white. Portrayal of and references to Black characters relied heavily on anti-Blackness and images of white superiority, the study found.

In “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” a white man is shown holding a whip above a man of color and the elephant he's riding on. In “If I Ran the Zoo,” a white boy holds a large gun while standing on the heads of three Asian men. “If I Ran the Zoo” also features two men from Africa who are shirtless, shoeless and wearing grass skirts while holding an exotic animal.

While Seuss’ body of work has been called “dehumanizing and degrading” to Black, Indigenous, Jewish and Muslim people, and people of color, according to the survey, he is praised for promoting universal values in children. Then-President Barack Obama lauded the author in 2016, saying, "Theodor Seuss Geisel — or Dr. Seuss — used his incredible talent to instill in his most impressionable readers universal values we all hold dear."

The books that will no longer be published are: “If I Ran the Zoo,” “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” "McElligot’s Pool," "On Beyond Zebra!," "Scrambled Eggs Super!," and "The Cat’s Quizzer." The business said it came to the decision last year after months of discussion and hailed the move as “part of our commitment and our broader plan to ensure Dr. Seuss Enterprises' catalog represents and supports all communities and families.”

“I absolutely think this is a commitment to a better, more just, and inclusive world of children’s literature,” Ann Neely, professor of children’s literature at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, said. “We have so many outstanding books for children today; there is no need to continue to publish books that are now inappropriate. We must evaluate books for children by today’s values, not on our own nostalgia. Children need to see themselves, and others who may be different from them, in an accurate and positive way.”

Seuss’ books have come under scrutiny in recent years.

In 2017, a Massachusetts school librarian rejected Seuss books from then-first lady Melania Trump saying they were “steeped in racist propaganda.” That same year, a Seuss museum in Massachusetts vowed to replace a mural that featured images from “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.” A 2019 book titled “Was The Cat In the Hat Black?” argues that “The Cat In The Hat” was based on anti-Black stereotypes and blackface minstrel shows.

Aside from the beloved books, Seuss also published anti-Black and anti-Semitic cartoons in which he depicted Black people as monkeys and referred to them with the N-word. Other cartoons featured sexism and racist depictions of Asian people, according to the 2019 analysis. Thus, the National Education Association — which runs Read Across America — has distanced itself from Seuss in recent years.

Criticism of Seuss works can be found as far back as the ‘80s. Today, parents and teachers alike are questioning the impact his works can have on young, impressionable children. Children begin forming racial biases as early as 3 years old, and those prejudices are fixed by age 7, according to a study. By 10 years old, children were exhibiting adult levels of racial bias, the research found.

“The children of today are not us. We cannot continue to give our babies the same input that we had,” Thomas said. “We know now that there are anti-Asian stereotypes in ‘And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street.’ ‘The Cat in the Hat’ is minstrelsy.’ When we know better we can do better."

Neely added: “By today’s standards, several of his books include illustrations that are quite racist. These outdated stereotypes are not appropriate for today’s children.”

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