Dr. Seuss and Dr. Seuss Enterprises profited profoundly off of the sales of this book, it’s Broadway rendition, the Horton Hears a Who! movie (which grossed $297 million dollars) and associated merchandise. None of it went to the Japanese community, including those still impacted by cancer and leukemia from the atomic bomb blasts. Dr. Seuss never directly apologized for his anti-Japanese work and this book doesn’t hold up as a meaningful, indirect one.
I’ve had the privilege of working with Katie Ishizuka-Stephens, Executive Director of The Conscious Kid Library. She is also Japanese American and her parents were forced into internment camps during WWII. This makes us both sensitive to the dehumanizing racism against Japanese-Americans during WWII that allowed the American public to accept putting innocent civilians into concentration camps in which Dr. Seuss’s political cartoons played a large role.
She found me when I posted on The Racist Side of Dr. Seuss That You Didn’t Know About. We both objected to the National Education Association’s (NEA) Read Across America’s choice of using Dr. Seuss as the featured author.
Now there is a Dr. Seuss museum that is opening near me in Springfield, MA. There are no plans to include Dr. Seuss’s racist political cartoons as part of his legacy. The museum is carefully orchestrating hiding this side of Dr. Seuss that no one knows about. Ostensibly, their excuse is that they don’t have any original political cartoons of his, and the artwork featured is all original. This is not a very high hurdle given that Dr. Seuss’ sad political cartoons have no market.
This one, for example, was for sale and there were no takers!
The Mark Twain museum in Hartford, Connecticut takes pains to address the racism in his books. I think that it’s important for Dr. Seuss (a.k.a. Theodor Geisel) to include his racist past. It was rooted in bullying that he experienced as child, growing up German-American in America during WWI. As is often the case, the victim then emulates the bully when the tables are turned.
Dr. Seuss took pains in his WWII political cartoons to depict Hitler and Mussolini as evil, but not Italian Americans or German Americans. He made no such distinction for Japanese or Japanese Americans however, allowing his own personal racism to reflect his political cartoons. Geisel himself was vocally anti-Japanese during the war and had no trouble with rounding up an entire population of U.S. citizens and putting them in camps.
But right now, when the Japs are planting their hatchets in our skulls, it seems like a hell of a time for us to smile and warble: “Brothers!” It is a rather flabby battle cry. If we want to win, we’ve got to kill Japs, whether it depresses John Haynes Holmes or not. We can get palsy-walsy afterward with those that are left.
Rethinking & Examining Dr. Seuss’ Racism
Supporters of Dr. Seuss will cite his books such as Horton Hears a Who and The Sneeches as evidence that he regretted his earlier racism and made amends. Katie Ishizuka-Stephens’ presentation: Rethinking Dr. Seuss for NEA’s Read Across America Day: Racism Within Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books & The Case for Centering Diverse Books points out the racism within his books.
I have the entire report here: FINALNEAReportDr.SeusssRacismandRAA. Please feel free to download it. I also have her summary of report at the bottom.
Here are some highlights:
When taught as an allegory for race relations, The Sneetches reinforces white supremacy and racist narratives about people of color.
While The Sneetches is metaphorical and does not contain human characters, it is taught in schools as “anti-racist” so must be examined through a racial lens. Unfortunately, it fails in being “anti-racist” for several reasons. One is because it portrays the “oppressed” in a deficit-based framework. The Plain-Belly Sneetches are portrayed as “moping and doping” in their self-hatred and spend all their time, energy and resources trying to be exactly like the dominant Star-Belly Sneetches. This is a very problematic and misguided way of looking at oppressed groups. Oppressed communities are generally fighting to hang on to their own culture and identity and not have it erased, marginalized or appropriated by the dominant culture. Oppressed people want to be free of oppression, they do not want to be their oppressor.
For those who do experience self-hatred, it is the direct result of their oppression — of whiteness being upheld as the “default” culture that all “others” must conform and assimilate to. Oppressed groups are bombarded and conditioned by a system of white supremacy that equates white with “right”, “good”, “intelligent”, “beautiful”, “successful”, “pure” and “innocent,” and positions all “others” as “bad”, “wrong”, “dirty”, “exotic”, “ugly”, and “stupid”. This book presents no critique or reference to systemic racism or white supremacy. Instead, it perpetuates a degrading narrative of oppressed groups that denies them their identity, culture, agency, and empowerment, and positions them as hopeless and miserable until they can be exactly like their oppressor.
The Plain-Belly Sneetches give everything they have to look exactly like the Star-Belly Sneetches until the Star-Belly Sneetches get confused as to who is the oppressed and who is the oppressor and they have no choice but to accept each other. In reality, no matter how hard a person of color may try to look or act white, they can never be white.
Implications for Youth
This book has a detrimental impact on youth, especially when the book is positioned as “anti-racist”. Youth are receiving messaging that:
- People of color are uncomfortable, unhappy and self-hating about their “separate” existence and they won’t be happy until they can look and be exactly like (white people) the dominant group. They should be supported in assimilating and conforming to whiteness so they can be happy and love themselves.
- If people of color work hard to look and be white, eventually white people will forget/”not see” they are a person or color and accept them. In addition to supporting conformity to whiteness, this reinforces the problematic colorblind framework of “not seeing race”.
- Racism and/or oppression itself does not need to be named, challenged or resisted. The Plain-Belly Sneetches never challenge or resist their oppressor or the oppression itself. The only action they take is to disregard their own identity and culture to take on the one of the oppressor.
Dr. Seuss did not write this book with the intention of it being anti-racist and it cannot be legitimately upheld as such. When taught as an allegory for race relations, The Sneetches reinforces white supremacy and racist narratives about people of color.
Horton Hears a Who!
The book Horton Hears a Who! is another one of Dr. Seuss’s books widely cited as promoting “tolerance”. Many people infer that it is an apology for his WWII anti-Japanese propaganda. However, this book is problematic in its perpetuation of the White Savior Complex.
Everyday Feminism discusses the White Savior Complex and why it is harmful:
“A White Savior is a common trope used in books, films, and as a way of interpreting actual history. It’s also a perspective shared by many white people as we move through the world. In the simplest terms, it’s when a white character or person rescues people of color from their oppression. The White Savior is portrayed as the good one, the one that we’re meant to identify with as we watch or read these narratives. They usually learn lessons about themselves along the way. There are many problems with this kind of narrative, some of which I’ll go over. For instance, it racializes morality by making us consistently identify with the good white person saving the non-white people who are given much less of an identity in these plot lines. It also frames people of color as being unable to solve their own problems. It implies that they always need saving, and that white people are the only ones competent enough to save them. This is very obviously untrue, and it’s a harmful message to relay. Considering how widespread the story is, the result is that it ignores the reality that communities of color have their own leaders and they’re not being saved by white people. It also exoticizes the (other) people and positions them as being automatically broken and needing saving, just because of where they live or how they look” (Edell, 2016).
Implications for Youth
This book has a detrimental impact on youth, especially when the book is positioned as “promoting tolerance”. Youth are receiving messaging that:
- People of color and/or oppressed groups are helpless
- People of color and/or oppressed groups need to be saved
- People of color and/or oppressed groups need to be saved by white people (the dominantgroup)
- White people are “saviors” who should be praised for “helping” people ofcolor/oppressed groups who can’t help themselves
- People of color and/or oppressed groups are, or should be, “thankful and grateful” to their“white saviors”
Dr. Seuss actively supported and fueled the racism, incarceration and even killing of Japanese and Japanese Americans, which had adverse intergenerational and deadly impacts on Japanese people. The damage done cannot be reversed or mitigated with an allegory that attempts to rewrite the reality of what actually took place and upholds a racist White Savior narrative that people of color are helpless and need to be saved.
Racial Analysis of The Cat in the Hat as Blackface Minstrel
The “Cat in the Hat” is significant as Dr. Seuss’s most hypervisible and iconic character. The book, The Cat in the Hat, is the 2nd best-selling Dr. Seuss book of all time (after Green Eggs & Ham), has sold 15.5 million copies (Random House) and is the 9th best-selling children’s books of all time (Publisher’s Weekly). The NEA named it one of its “Teachers’ Top 100 Books for Children” and sells the iconic red and white striped hat through its Read Across America website. Children and adults across the country will be seen wearing the “Cat’s” hat at school on Dr. Seuss’s birthday every year for Read Across America Day.
In his upcoming book, Dr. Philip Nel, children’s literature scholar and University Distinguished Professor of English, presents extensive research on the racialized origins of The Cat in the Hat as “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans” (Nel, 2015).6
Dr. Seuss himself was heavily influenced by minstrelsy and blackface performance. He even wrote and acted in a minstrel show for his high school called “Chicopee Surprised.” Seuss performed in blackface (Nel, 2017). Minstrel shows exploited Black stereotypes for profit and mocked African Americans and Black culture. They were a white interpretation of how Black people are: “subservient”, “ignorant”, “buffoonish”, “lazy”; and how they should be: serving and performing at the pleasure (and profit) of whites.
I think that it’s a mistake to rewrite history into a idealized version of Dr. Seuss, which perpetuates picture books with inherent but subtle racist themes within his books. The opportunity for children is to learn from his racism and his bullying experiences so that history doesn’t repeat itself.
I am told that Dr. Seuss’s heirs rationalize hiding Dr. Seuss’s racism as being a product of the times. I would ask them if a children’s author today supported a Muslim ban because “all Muslims are terrorists” and that “Mexicans are all rapists,” is it is acceptable as the nature of our current times? What if they used their fame and popularity to spread this message? Should these authors’ racism seen as a product of our times sjnce indeed, one could rationalize that it is the position of America’s own president! One hundred years later, should we venerate those authors?
Or, is this an opportunity to teach children about courage, and taking a stand for what they believe is right? That a single person or even child can make a difference?
Katie and I will continue to speak out against Dr. Seuss as the representative of Read Across America. It’s telegraphing that this is a WHITE ONLY event meant to reinforce a White Supremacy narrative. I will visit the Dr. Seuss museum for myself to see if any of his racist images are on display.
Summary of Dr. Seuss Report
“The Racism Within Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books” Report Summary
On March 2nd, I wrote an article on Dr. Seuss’s history drawing anti-Black, anti-Japanese political cartoons and advertisements that depicted Black people as monkeys; referred to Black people as “n*****”; and, incited the mass incarceration and killing of Japanese and Japanese Americans during World War II. In the wake of an alarming rise in hate crimes and hate speech against students of color in schools across the country, it was a call to action for the National Education Association (NEA) to reconsider what it means to celebrate Dr. Seuss, and remove him as both the face, and focus of, their annual Read Across America Day.
Most were shocked and previously unaware of Dr. Seuss’s racist works. Of those that spoke out in defense of Seuss, the recurring argument was: “but his children’s books are not racist”. They rationalized that the racism of the political cartoons was “in his past,” and that he had “made a turn,” as evidenced by his children’s books that “promote tolerance” and are “anti-racist”.
To assess this, I conducted a critical analysis of race in 50 of Dr. Seuss’s most popular children’s books; an examination of The Cat in the Hat as a reflection of blackface minstrelsy and anti-Black references in American culture; and, a critical analysis of The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who!, two books consistently upheld up as promoting “tolerance” and “anti-racism”. The findings are detailed in a comprehensive report that was sent directly to the NEA’s Read Across America Advisory Committee. The report documents all of the racist references identified in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books; requests the NEA to reconsider him as the face of Read Across America Day; and presents a list of anti-oppressive, anti-racist authors that can be centered instead. A summary is included here:
Critical Analysis of Race in 50 Children’s Books by Dr. Seuss
- Of the 2240 human characters, there are 45 characters of color, representing 2% of the total number of human characters.
- Of the 45 characters of color, all 45 (100%) are depicted in a racist manner.
- Every single character of color is portrayed through at least 3, and sometimes all 5, of the following themes:
- Subservience: “Useful in an inferior capacity: subordinate: submissive”
- Dehumanization: “To deprive of human qualities, personality, spirit / to treat someone as though he or she is not human”
- Exotification: “portrayed as originating in or characteristic of a distant foreign country / very different / “other””
- Stereotypes: “a standardized mental picture that represents an oversimplified opinion, prejudiced attitude, or uncritical judgment / to believe unfairly that all people or things with a particular characteristic are the same”
- Caricature: “exaggeration by means of often ludicrous distortion of parts or characteristics”
- Of the 2 “African” characters:
- Both are depicted as monkeys (in the same likeness that Seuss depicted Africans and African Americans in his racist political cartoons).
- Both are depicted in a subservient role, carrying an animal to a white male child’s zoo.
- Of the 14 “Asian” characters:
- Eleven of the 14 “Asian” characters are wearing stereotypical, conical “rice paddy hats”.
- The three (and only) “Asian” characters who are not seen wearing “rice paddy hats”, are carrying an animal in a large cage on top of their heads. There is a white male child holding a gun, standing on top of the animal cage that is being balanced on top of their heads.
- Twelve of the 14 “Asian” characters are featured in subservient roles, hunting down or carrying exotic animals for a white male child. They are described by Dr. Seuss in the text as “helpers that all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell”.
- Of the 29 characters wearing turbans:
- Fifteen are riding exotic animals, including camels, elephants and zebras, and four are playing exotic instruments.
- Seventeen of the “turban-wearing” characters are in a subservient role, “fetching” something for the white male child; driving a cart full of white males; or, carrying something for a white male child.
- One of the “turban-wearing” characters is referenced as being suitable to bring back, along with the exotic animals, to be on display in the white male child’s zoo. In the book, If I Ran the Zoo, Seuss’s text reads “A Mulligatawny is fine for my zoo And so is a chieftain (referring to the turban-wearing man), I’ll bring one back too”. There is a notable history of white people putting people of color on display in zoos (see David, 2013).
Below are several examples of how the characters of color in Dr. Seuss’s children’s books are depicted, including: 1) Africans from the “the African island of Yerka (Seuss)” carrying an animal for a white male child; 2) Asian “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant (Seuss)” carrying a caged animal and white male child holding a gun; 3) the person of color Seuss references as “fine for” being on display in the white male child’s zoo; 4) “A Chinese boy who eats with sticks (Seuss)” depicted with bright yellow skin and Japanese footwear; and, 5) “Persians” carrying a basket for the white male child: “what their names are, I don’t know. So don’t ask it. (Seuss)”
These findings categorically refute the argument that Dr. Seuss’s children’s books themselves are not racist. Beyond centering and upholding whiteness, they present subservient, dehumanizing, exotifying and stereotypical caricatures of people of color. It was surprising to see the extent and clarity to which this was the case, considering the number of people who uphold Dr. Seuss books as “promoting tolerance”, and even, “anti-racist”. It is possible that the reader’s own racial bias is preventing racist caricatures and stereotypes from being recognized, that they have never consciously or critically looked at how the characters of color are depicted, or perhaps both. Regardless of whether these racist caricatures are consciously recognized and/or acknowledged or not, they have an important impact on young readers.
When children’s books center whiteness, erase people of color and other oppressed groups, or present people of color in stereotypical, dehumanizing, or subordinate ways, they ingrain and reinforce “subtle and explicit lessons about whose lives matter” (Nel, 2017).
The Cat in the Hat as Blackfaced Minstrel/Dehumanized Black Man
The “Cat in the Hat” is significant as Dr. Seuss’s most hypervisible and iconic character. The book, The Cat in the Hat, is the 2nd best-selling Dr. Seuss book of all time (after Green Eggs & Ham), has sold 15.5 million copies (Random House), and is the 9th best-selling children’s books of all time (Publisher’s Weekly).
In his upcoming book, “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?: The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature and the Need for Diverse Books”, Dr. Philip Nel, children’s literature scholar and University Distinguished Professor of English, presents extensive research on the racialized origins of The Cat in the Hat as “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans” (Nel, 2015).
Nel (2017) describes how the “Cat’s” appearance in The Cat in the Hat, was inspired by an actual Black woman named Annie Williams. She was an elevator operator at the Boston offices of Seuss’s publishers at Houghton Mifflin (Nel, 2017). In 1955, Seuss was at their offices to meet William Spaulding, who tasked Seuss with creating a children’s book that was entertaining, as well as educational (Nel, 2017). Spaulding and Seuss rode up in the publisher’s elevator with Ms. Williams. Later, Seuss recalled Annie William’s “leather half-glove and secret smile” (Beckerman, 2017). When Seuss created the “Cat”, “he gave him Mrs. William’s white gloves, her sly smile, and her color” (Nel, 2017).
The Cat was also influenced by actual blackface performers and minstrelsy, which is seen in both the Cat’s physical appearance, and the role he plays in the books. Physical attributes mirroring actual blackface performers include: “The Cat’s umbrella (which he uses as a cane) and outrageous fashion sense link him to Zip Coon, that floppish “northern dandy negro”. His bright red floppy tie recalls the polka-dotted ties of blackfaced Fred Astaire in Swing Time (1936) and of blackfaced Mickey Rooney in Babes in Arms (1939). His red-and-white-striped hat brings to mind Rooney’s hat in the same film or the hats on the minstrel clowns in the silent picture Off to Bloomingdale Asylum” (Nel, 2017).
Dr. Seuss partook in minstrelsy and blackface performance himself. He wrote and acted in a minstrel show for his high school called “Chicopee Surprised”, and performed in it in blackface (Nel, 2017). Minstrel shows exploited Black stereotypes for profit and mocked African Americans and Black culture. They mimicked white perceptions of the attributes and function of Blacks as: “subservient”, “ignorant”, “buffoonish”, and serving/performing at the pleasure (and profit) of whites.
The role the Cat “performs” in The Cat in the Hat mimics the role of blackface performers in minstrel shows. The “black” Cat’s purpose is to entertain and perform “tricks” for the white children: “I know some new tricks, A lot of good tricks. I will show them to you. Your mother Will not mind at all if I do” (Seuss, 1957).
The “black” Cat is there for entertainment value, but the fish is very clear that he does not belong in the house with the white children: “No! No! Make that cat go away! Tell that Cat in the Hat You do NOT want to play. He should not be here. He should not be about. He should not be here” (Seuss, 1957). The Cat causes chaos in the white family’s home (Nel, 2017), and the fish censures the cat by saying, “Now look what you did! Now look at this house! You shook up our house. You SHOULD NOT be here. You get out of this house (Seuss, 1957)!
In The Cat in the Hat Comes Back, the sequel to The Cat in the Hat, the “black” Cat is described as “bad”, as well as not belonging in the white family’s home: ‘“Oh-oh!” Sally said. “Don’t you talk to that cat. That cat is a bad one, That Cat in the Hat. He plays lots of bad tricks. Don’t let him come near”’ (Seuss, 1958). When the Cat enters the house, the white male child gets angry and yells, “Cat! You get out!…I can’t have you in here Eating cake like a pig! You get out of this house! We don’t want you about” (Seuss, 1958). The “black” character, already depicted as an animal himself, is further dehumanized by the white child when he is berated for “eating cake like a pig!”
The white male child then drains the bath the Cat is in and exclaims, “And then I SAW THE RING! A ring in the tub! And, oh boy! What a thing! A big long pink cat ring! It looked like pink ink! And I said, “will this ever Come off? I don’t think” (Seuss, 1958)!
The “black” cat leaving a ring of “ink” in the bathtub is very racially significant. There are historical connotations of ink references to Blackness. Throughout the 1910s and 1920s, American advertisements and postcards featured black children getting their skin color from drinking ink. The message conveyed was (and continues to be through this book) that black people are not human, their Blackness is “unnatural” (white is the default/natural skin color), and that Blackness can be washed off. Below is an almost identical reference to the bathtub scene in The Cat in the Hat Comes Back. It is a postcard from the 1920s that depicts a Black baby leaving “ink” in the bathtub:
The story continues with the Cat wiping his “ink” on the white children’s mother’s white dress, the wall, their dad’s shoes, the hallway rug, and their dad’s bed. To clean up the ink all over the house, the Cat takes 26 “Little Cat’s” out of his hat to help. These Cats leave even more ink in their path until all the snow outside of the house is pink. The children yell, “All this does is make MORE spots! Your cats are no good. Put them back in the hat” (Seuss, 1958). The story concludes when “Little Cat Z” is able to remove all the ink and return everything to its desired “white” state: “Now your snow is all white! Now your house is all right” (Seuss, 1958)!
It is important to not only look at the use of racist references, but also to identify what Seuss does with the racism: It is not until everything is returned to “all white” that the house is “all right”. Whiteness is the desired “natural” state and associated with “right”, “clean” and “good”.
In another one of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, there is an actual reference to a character drinking ink. The book One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish, depicts a “Yink” drinking ink with the text, “He likes to drink and drink and drink / the thing he likes to drink is ink. / The ink he likes to drink is pink. He likes to wink and drink pink ink. / SO if you have a lot of ink, then you should get a Yink I think”.
Below is a 1916 magazine advertisement of a Black baby drinking ink. The caption reads: “N***** milk”. The image of the “Yink” drinking ink from One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish mirrors the advertisement, almost exactly:
When a Black person or “minstrel” is drawn as a “Cat”, or the color of “ink” is switched from black to “pink”, it disguises the racialized symbols. However, the racialized (and racist) references are present, and they are significant. The “Cat” may ostensibly be a cat, but he is dressed like, acts like, and is treated like, a minstrel (or dehumanized Black man). The Cat was appropriated from the image of a Black woman, enacts anti-Black references from American culture and was created from the imagination of a man who wrote minstrel shows and performed in blackface.
The legacy of blackface and minstrelsy lives on, and anti-Black racism reinforced, each time the NEA encourages children and adults to “dress up” as the “Cat” in the Hat.
Critical Analysis of Themes of “Tolerance” and “Anti-Racism in
The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! (Brief Summary)
When people point to the work Dr. Seuss did to promote “tolerance” and “anti-racism”, they often cite the books, The Sneetches and Horton Hears a Who! Southern Poverty Law Center’s Teaching Tolerance uses The Sneetches in their anti-racist curriculum for children and the oft-quoted line from Horton Hears a Who!, “A person’s a person, no matter how small!” is proclaimed as a moral of “tolerance”. Both books feature only animals or made-up, non-human characters, so these stories are told through allegories and symbolism. Each book is examined critically to assess if and how they convey messaging around “tolerance” and “anti-racism”.
When taught as an allegory for race relations, The Sneetches perpetuates white supremacy and reaffirms racism through its degrading, deficit-based narratives about people of color; failure to acknowledge the institutional systems and power structures of oppression, domination and discrimination; and, promotion of a colorblind framework.
The book Horton Hears a Who! promotes a white savior complex and is further problematic in its insistence on the Who’s having to prove their existence so they won’t be killed. The responsibility of whether or not the Who’s get killed is placed on the Who’s themselves, not their aggressors. There is no action taken to challenge or defend against the violent threats of the kangaroos and monkeys. As in today’s racial context, people of color are forced to prove their right to life and that their lives “matter”, and white perpetrators of violent crimes against them are often not held accountable.
For full critical analyses of these books, see report.
Removing Dr. Seuss as the Face and Focus of Read Across America Day
Dr. Seuss books are the most well-known and probably most-read children’s books of our time, in large part because of the exposure they continue to receive in schools across America through the NEA and Read Across America Day. It has been, in some cases, over 80 years (1st Dr. Seuss book published in 1937) since these books were written, and 20 years since the NEA has been celebrating RAA Day on Dr. Seuss’s birthday. In 2014, children of color became the majority in America’s K-12 public schools and this majority will only continue to grow. It’s time to reconsider the impact that these books have on today’s youth (and in today’s context), and be aware of, and intentional about, who and what is being centered and celebrated in education (and for whom).
The National Education Association has a powerful opportunity to use Read Across America Day to not only promote a love of reading, but to be a leader in using books to celebrate the diversity of its 45 million annual participants, foster safe and inclusives spaces in classrooms across the country and support positive identity development, cultural pride and empowerment for millions of youth. Beyond a celebration and focus on Dr. Seuss’s books, Read Across America Day is often observed as a week-long celebration of Dr. Seuss’s birthday and the man himself. Regardless of what we think about Dr. Seuss/Theodor Geisel as a person, or our perceptions of what the historical and cultural context was when he was alive, the books themselves need to be looked at for the racism (and xenophobia) they are reinforcing and its impact on today’s youth.
 For additional excerpts from Nel’s 28 page book chapter “Was the Cat in the Hat Black?…” see Appendix
How about you? What lessons will you teach your children about Dr. Seuss in light of his racist past? Thanks for sharing!