New Study Labels Dr. Seuss Books As Racist And Problematic

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You’d be hard-pressed to find a child in America who isn’t familiar with the collection of Dr. Seuss. He’s considered by many to be the preeminent children’s author. His works span decades, and are loved and revered by many. We have a whole week dedicated to his collective works during Read Across America, after all! With Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birthday approaching on March 2, kids everywhere will be cracking open favorites like “Cat in the Hat” and “Hop on Pop”. But a new study which brands some of Seuss’s most popular books as racist and problematic may change the way we read and process them.

Dr. Seuss is, by most accounts, a beloved fixture in children’s literature. But that doesn’t mean some of his books aren’t extremely problematic.

The study in question was conducted by Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens. The paper, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, AntiBlackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books”, was done as part of St. Catherine University’s Research on Diversity in Youth Literature. The authors highlight several instances of Orientalism, white supremacy, and anti-blackness in Seuss’s books. The authors found that only 2% of the characters created by Dr. Seuss represent people of color. Furthermore, some of the most recognizable characters embody troubling racist and colonialist stereotypes.

The authors write, “Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles. This also remains true in their relation to White characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.” Dr. Seuss published his first children’s book in 1937, and plenty of the content and language is indicative of a pre-Civil Rights Movement culture. For example, in “If I Ran the Zoo”, Asian characters are seen carrying a white man holding a gun. The Asian males are described as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant”. Yikes.

But does that mean we need to collectively reject Dr. Seuss and his work? Not necessarily, argue some.

It’s hard to argue against the fact that many of the books we loved as kids (and those our kids now love) are racist and problematic. But, as Danielle Slaughter writes for Mamademics, the reaction shouldn’t be to immediately trash Seuss and his books. Instead, we should be using this as a teaching moment. Did Dr. Seuss grow up in a time when these sorts of racist messages were accepted and (arguably) encouraged? Yes. However, his later works seem to show a progression and growth, encouraging acceptance and inclusion. Slaughter writes, “‘Horton Hears a Who’ is a metaphor for the biggest among us speaking for the smallest. ‘The Lorax’ asks us to consider the generations who will come after us in regards to environmental justice. ‘The Sneetches’ is a clear stance against the oppression of Jews in Germany.”

Rather than completely write off the works of Dr. Seuss, we should be using this opportunity to talk about who he was, before he was Dr. Seuss. We shouldn’t shy away from his past, and instead talk about the mistakes he made, and the ways in which he rectified those mistakes. His earlier works were incredibly problematic, there’s no doubt about that. But the arc of his growth, both as a writer and seemingly as a human being, should not be ignored. The culture in which Dr. Seuss was born and raised was a racist culture. It was a sexist culture. Is it hard to reconcile our love for Dr. Seuss with the issues present in his body of work? Yes, absolutely. But rather than shy away from having those tough conversations, we should be embracing them.

We can’t make change until we sit in our own discomfort and confront that which makes us uncomfortable. Instead of throwing out your Dr. Seuss books, use them to teach your kids about the past, so that we can all learn from it.