Dr. Seuss was Racist
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.From Tolerance dot org
This knocked the wind out of my sails yesterday. Not sure how it didn’t hit my radar until now. The National Education Association, the group that promotes Read Across America, took Dr. Seuss out of the recommended reading in 2016. Still, many schools are promoting the racist author, despite his past.
My family visited Seussville at Universal Orlando. It’s a thing to do with kids in Orlando. We loved it, Kevin loved meeting Cat in the Hat. He loves Dr. Seuss books. To be clear, I am really struggling with this.
How is Dr. Seuss racist?
First, I think it’s important to note that I’m not suggesting to anyone that you gather every Seuss book and toy that you have, and go set it on fire in the backyard.
We have to accept two universal truths.
- Dr. Seuss is a phenomenal author and illustrator.
- Dr. Seuss has a racist past.
Both can be true. Both are true.
Whenever an idea comes up that challenges cultural norms, it is met with resistance. This is true here. If you search online, you will find mentions of Dr. Seuss’s past, but also you will find apologists or people who want to excuse it away. “He was a product of his time,” they’ll say.
But here’s the thing. Not everyone during that time participated in racism. On the contrary, many people, white people, were allies to African-Americans and their struggle and risked their lives and community status to help them. We have to stop excusing away bad behavior. In this case, the evidence is there-many times over.
How bad was it? Take a look.
In a study published in Research on Diversity in Youth Literature, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens found that only 2 percent of the human characters in Seuss’ books were people of color. And all of those characters, they say, were “depicted through racist caricatures.”
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. (citation: NPR)
The argument is sometimes made that Dr. Seuss was a satirist, and as satire is often misunderstood, so is he. That his political cartoons were intended to be satire, therefore, he was actually against discrimination.
I’m not entirely comfortable with that defense. Even if it holds up, that is only for his political cartoons. There are numerous depictions and drawings in his children’s books that are extremely stereotypical and harmful. Even if, we as parents were going to argue that point….it’s not something that a 3-year-old or 5-year-old can comprehend. And, biases become fixed by age 7.
Did Dr. Seuss outgrow his racism?
I’m going to provide you with some links below discussing Dr. Seuss and his racist past. Again, I’m not suggesting you never touch another Dr. Seuss book. However, this warrants a discussion.
Every March, our children are just inundated with Seuss. School staff dress up and at my school, they even do Seuss-themed lunches in the cafeteria.
And, there are alternatives. Sure, we love, love, LOVE his books. Kevin just can’t get enough of the cadence, rhythm and colorful drawings. But there are other authors and illustrators out there. Those without a racist past.
When I am faced with situations like this to think about, I insert my own personal passion, disabled children. 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 disabled children?
If he used the R-word as generously as he used the N-word, would more parents change their minds on this issue? I think they would.
The fact is, Dr. Seuss was not a hood-wearing, cross-burning racist. However, many of his books, books that are for young children, contain too many implicit biases in the drawings. And as a society, yeah, sure, we’ve moved past (and then regressed, but another post for another day) many forms of outright discrimination.
Sure, separate water fountains are gone, but we have too many implicit biases in our media. Learning that ages 3-7 is an extremely important time frame for these biases to be set in a child’s brain is what is the game-changer for me.
Racist Dr. Seuss
Representation matters. As someone who works almost exclusively with disability families, I see how ga-ga you get when you see a disabled child represented in a positive light. I’m talking about the Target ads and stuff like that. It matters. We recognize this when it comes to our kids.
Kids need to see people who look like them, shown in a positive light.
If kids open books and “the images they see [of themselves] are distorted, negative [or] laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society in which they are a part,”Rudine Sims Bishop, a scholar of children’s literature.
For these reasons, I am making the decision to move away from Dr. Seuss books and on to other options. I cannot and will not let nostalgia overcome an important life lesson.
This is incredibly unfortunate. Dr. Seuss is an American icon. But, he also participated in behaviors that are unacceptable to me, and not the lessons that I want to teach my kids.
Alternatives to Dr. Seuss
I have a shortlist of recommended reading below. Also, below there are several articles, including links to the academic studies on Seuss publications. In my school district, I know that one parent already contacted the district and asked them to reconsider celebrating Dr. Seuss and her request was denied.
I will be having a conversation with my son about this as he progresses through the week. I’m waiting to see which books they talk about first.
Dr. Seuss Racist
Rather than quoting these articles and making their same points, I thought I would just list them here for you.
- I Don’t Like Dr. Seuss: Books to Read On His Birthday If You’re Not a Fan
- Is the Cat in the Hat Racist? Read Across America Shifts Away From Dr. Seuss and Toward Diverse Books | School Library Journal
- Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, But Students Keep Reading Them
- Is ‘The Cat in the Hat’ Racist?
Blog Owner Note: If you reached this post because you were seeking the ‘old’ Dr. Seuss posts I had on the blog, they are no longer here. In light of this new (to me) information, I cannot in good conscience recommend that Dr. Seuss be unapologetically celebrated. This post was originally written in 2019 and is updated to check links.