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 since 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 iclude: “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 inclusive 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!
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BEST #OWNVOICES CHILDREN’S BOOKS: My Favorite Diversity Books for Kids Ages 1-12 is a book that I created to highlight books written by authors who share the same marginalized identity as the characters in their books.
40 thoughts on “Rethinking & Examining Dr. Seuss’ Racism”
Good article, Mia. I’m of the school that wants to show every side of an author/public figure, warts and all. As you mentioned, Seuss was a product of his times and even though he attempted to make peace with his earlier racist art and comments, they’re still there for all to see (you can’t out the toothpaste back in the tube, as they say). It all smacks of anti-Semitism, anti-Black and, of course, the anti-Muslim fervor we’re going through now. Have we learned anything? It doesn’t seem like it, but I still have hope. Heck, we’ve been debating Huckleberry Finn for decades! My attitude is that we show all sides and stress the that-was-then-this-is-now. I agree that we cannot rewrite history to satisfy our conscience; the best we can do is understand where it comes from and deal with it from there. I’m looking forward to seeing the Seuss Museum myself and hope to see ALL his work, books, Flit ads, paintings, prints and political cartoons. One can only understand a person—and learn lessons–by seeing all sides. Thanks again, Mia!
Thanks so much Doug! It does seem like the times have not changed so much here in the U.S. A few years ago, it seemed like racism was a thing of the past in my town, but it was there, simmering under the surface. Now, the racism is blatantly everywhere which makes Dr. Seuss’s racism more noticable, and relevant. I’m happy that this spotlight on Dr. Seuss has changed Read Across America. For the first time in 20 years, NEA’s Read Across America will not feature any of his books and the imagery of Dr. Seuss’s books will be removed completely over the next year. Instead, picture books with diversity themes are being introduced which is wonderful. All children will now be able to see themselves in this literacy event.
I think the thing today is an issue of balance. Yes be wary of racist things that make ALL colors look bad. It doesn’t do any good to fight racism by being the exact opposite of a white supremacist…
I agree Chinese racism needs to be removed. Black face, etc… and we need to improve on women’s rights, etc… but I notice, not being exactly old, but even at 40, that things happening across time create waves and ripple effects.
It’s like growing pains. Change isn’t a perfect smooth transition, and I have seen bad ideas come up with anger. Women not just for equality, but putting their heel on males for ever more. Bashing anyone white and even just white objects for the for-seeable future.
Like I said, I have seen bad things in comment sections. Someone stole something ? Forget 20 years in jail, Facebook says hang them, and make sure everyone gets to watch ; including anyone in Democrat states according to comment sections. It’s a downward spiral, next is public beheadings for who ever says something someone doesn’t like or uses aunt jemima syrup, or who ever watches the Green Mile movie.
I didn’t know that Dr. Seuss’s work had examples of racism. Sure, his political cartoons had racial stereotypes, but I wasn’t too upset because I thought that was the mindset of society at the time during WW2.
I’m not so sure if the hidden racism behind the Sneetches or Horton Hears a Who was intentional though since I know that the former was based on how he was picked on as a child during WW1 while the later was partly based on the McCarthy scare that was going on in America at the time. While I may be wrong, I still think some of the examples from his books were unintentional coincidences due to being products of the time, but it’s still pretty interesting to point that out to show accidental examples of racism.
Hi Mr. Anonymous.
I think Ted Geisel’s white supremacy beliefs permeated his books because it’s what he thought.
You know the best part about growing up and at some point, in time get a little wiser. Openly denying of the obvious truths that are still subjugated in our present day with saying “it’s just a sign of time” DOES NOT justify the disrespect that was tolerated then. Now begin swept underneath the rug by the same group of people that created the division from the beginning.
I’m just saying we all have to take responsibility at some point in our lives. Even if that means begin criticized by one’s peers for pointing the truths that are clear to everyone that is not in denial.
Excellent article Mia. I was not a fan of Dr. Seuss books for some reason, and so I have learned a great deal from you today. This article is a keeper and your should re-post every year. Thank you for enlightening me. It is so timely to the racism that still exists in America today. It’s time to heal this dark part of our history. What better place to start than with the upcoming generations.
Thanks so much for your support Pat!
I think it’s important to share an accurate portrayal of who he was. The truth is, all of us have flaws. I think it is easier to recognize our own flaws when we also see them in “big” figures like Theodore Geisel. Thanks for this post, which is a great starting off point to talk about this with my kids.
I’m so glad you discuss racism and Dr. Seuss with your kids MaryAnne!
Thank you for sharing this information, Mia. It’s very important and thought-provoking. I think it’s important to see all sides of people–where they’ve come from, the historical circumstances, and to not put Geisel on a pedestal. We need to be truthful, confront the past, learn from our mistakes if we’re ever to truly go forward.
I feel like my biggest accomplishment this year was working with Katie from The Conscious Kid Library to convince the NEA to remove Dr. Seuss from the Read Across America literacy program. For the first time in twenty years, they did not include a single Dr. Seuss book in the Read Across America book calendar. They are phasing him out completely within one year and replacing his books with diversity picture books. I think it’s so important that all children should see themselves reflected in books, especially for a literacy event that takes place across so many public schools.
This article is amazing and you are amazing.
Thank you so much for your efforts in this area. I’m disappointed to learn that the NEA appointed the Dr. Seuss books to such an important level without thoroughly vetting them. We are lucky to have people like you who look at things from different angles and act accordingly. Dr. Seuss books should be studied in classes on racism and insidious forms of indoctrination, not read to small children in an unsupervised setting.
Mia – I’ve thought of this article many times over the last week as the opening of the Seuss museum was celebrated with much media coverage. I hope sharing this article will serve as a springboard for deeper conversations among Seuss fans and kidlit thinkers about ways to acknowledge and address a painful history. We must move forward with honesty and full understanding.
Thanks so much Cathy,
I’m hoping but not hopeful that the Dr. Seuss Museum will include his WWII political cartoon to allow kids to talk about racism.
Not to defend any racism anywhere, I must say that I’m glad that my favorite Dr. Seuss book is Horton Hatches the Egg, which has always been about diversity and acceptance as far as I’m concerned… I’ve never read any overt racism into The Cat in the Hat – more like a lesson to not let strangers into one’s house! I would also like to point out that Dr. Seuss was a master of rhyme and meter – and that many of his books were constricted by the need to use words that children could read easily. I think he had a list of words to incorporate. So I am not disputing the apparent racism depicted in these articles, and am deeply disappointed in that I apparently accepted the stories as entertaining stories without looking for underlying messages, but one has to remember that he got an awful lot of children excited about reading!
Horton Hears a Who is White Savior … reread it again and that might jump out at you. I think there are other great books with rhyme and meter that also include diversity and are not racist that everyone can use instead. Also, Dr. Seuss as the mascot for Read Across America for 20 years might be why children got excited about reading. The NEA who does Read Across America is now phasing Dr. Seuss out and replacing with diversity choices.
I’ve been having a real problem with racism and Dr. Seuss lately as a biracial school librarian but the article in the latest Time Magazine linking him with minstrel shows is the last straw. I was a huge reader growing up but have no memories of perusing Dr. Seuss books. However, in a previous school in which I was a librarian, we made a BIG DEAL about Dr. Seuss (this was before we learned about the racism) and we invited parents in to join me and the children for a read aloud around the time of his birthday. I dressed up as The Cat in the Hat and read Green Eggs and Ham.
I’m no longer in that school but as recently as this March, I once again dressed up for his birthday on our literacy night (again, it was before I learned about the racism). This link to minstrel shows — and now this article about ink (?!) in this blog ends it for me.
There are way better books to highlight and read, anyway. Let’s focus on more contemporary male and female authors of all races. Seuss was a man of his times and those times were racist. They still are racist, for that matter, and as someone who is biracial but is very light skinned and thus have white privilege, I have heard, and had to respond to, racist comments my whole life. However, most people are aware today that racism is wrong. That’s the difference. Anyway, I’m not going to dress up in an outfit inspired by a minstrel show.
If there is an occasion to dress up again, I’ll do another character, whose books I enjoy and promote a lot more than Dr. Seuss’: Eric Litwin and James Dean’s Pete the Cat. I’ve done that before, too — and my students enjoyed it.
Hi A Biracial Librarian,
Hear hear! I totally agree with you. It didn’t help hide Dr. Seuss’s racist books that he represented Read Across America for 20 years but that is changing now. There are so many other great children’s books that include diversity characters and themes that will finally get this same attention that Dr. Seuss enjoyed from Read Across America. It’s long overdue.
It’s time to round up all Dr Seuss books and start a bonfire!
Please note that Dr. Seuss targeted Japanese Americans as the enemy, not just the Japanese. His political cartoons thus paved the way for Japanese Interment. Dr. Seuss was very careful to do the opposite for German Americans and Italian Americans. My question is why did he not do the same for Japanese Americans? It’s obvious that Dr. Seuss was protecting himself, as a German American who was bullied for his ethnicity during WWI.
When you say Dr. Seuss “made their faces look funny” and you don’t seem bothered by that, exactly why do you think that this is acceptable? I’m sure you realize that Asians and Asian Americans have been insulted for looking different from Europeans since arriving in America. You don’t seem to think racism based on insults like “slanty eyes” are an issue.
Also, why do you associate Disneyland with Dr. Seuss’s political cartoon?
Dr. Seuss did not apologize for his racist propaganda during WWII. Horton Hears a Who is a White Savior picture book. Let me know why you disagree. Dr. Seuss dedicated Horton Hears A Who to “My Great Friend, Mitsugi Nakamura of Kyoto, Japan.” And that’s the same thing as a Japanese-American interned during WWII? A Japanese national who himself has never experienced racism? So that’s the same thing — Japanese national/Japanese American. That’s exactly the same thing Dr. Seuss did during WWII cartoons — equating them as one and the same.
So if you are saying a Japanese American are a Japanese National are one and the same, then pull this same comparison. to German Americans/Nazis in Germany. Do you mean to say that German Americans are completely different from Nazi German Nationals? And why exactly is that?
I’m saying that Dr. Seuss was a white supremacist and that is my issue with much of his body of work.
“He became aware of racism later in life and began writing against it”. That really speaks to the issue — like racism is a totally new concept that just appeared in the late 20th century and he had a moment of clarity to have this great revelation, “oh I’m a racist.” And he began writing against it? What is your evidence of this? The Sneeches is about racial self-hatred.
In all seriousness, I am glad that you are engaging in this discussion. Your point of view makes it very clear what white privilege looks like.
I’m just explaining to my kids why some of his books are problematic but there is no need to destroy them or not read them. I think it’s a teachable moment about racism.
Thank you for this post. I know I’m a year late, but thank you for opening my eyes to it all. I am a fourth generation Japanese and Chinese American, who grew up with a love of books and Dr Seuss was among my favorite authors. So I am struggling a little. I fully acknowledge that war or even just fear forces the media in our country to dehumanize the enemy, so we can justify all of the lives lost and money spent. But what is truly horrifying to me is that he accepted a task by the Department of Internment to write a story to whitesplain to children in 1942 why their Japanese American friends were gone. As you’ve said, his blatant disregard for the humanity of American citizens (like my Japanese American grandfather who joined the M.I.S. to prove his loyalty), is unacceptable. When I was younger I didn’t necessarily see race, but I knew I was different. I thought because my eyes were slanted I wasn’t pretty. To know that a treasured and celebrated author like Dr Seuss may have subliminally contributed to my struggle growing up makes me sick. As a mom, I’m heart broken that I feel the need to remove “Oh the Places You’ll Go” and “The Cat in the Hat” from my biracial daughter’s bookshelf, but a part of me thinks I might keep them. Not to necessarily read over and over but to discuss with her when she’s older the complexities of how racism is still present in society because of the ways it is disguised, subverted, justified, excused or just plain ignored.
I feel the same way as you. You are not a year late; his racism has been under the radar for decades. I ended up thinking the same as you. I am keeping my racist Dr. Seuss books along with the other Dr. Seuss books that are not offensive but using them as a teachable moment to talk to my kids about it. My high school daughters have gone on to write papers on Japanese Internment camp which has also gotten them out at marches as activists. Dr. Seuss books are a good place to raise a young activist!
How upset are you about the anti-Japanese propaganda drawings and work during World War II? Are those fundamentally different from any other depictions, because of how Japan was running a militarized murderous reign of terror in China, Taiwan, Korea, and much of Southeast Asia, had attacked the United States without provocation, and was specifically allied with Nazi Germany? I’m not talking about the defense of the despicable internment camps here, but the drawings to inspire greater effort to defeat the Axis.
If you’re going to give a full picture of Theodore Geisel, it’s also worth noting that he very much supported elective abortion. He may’ve seen it as a form of ethnic cleansing like Margaret Sanger (Planned Parenthood founder) called it.
I love what you are/were doing. I’m a fragile white raised with 1000s of racist messages from 2 years old; fighting it since 20 for 50 years. I hate it and it is so sticky when your parents and teachers (nuns in this case) put it there from birth. Thank you.
I think you are correct.
Thank you for writing this article. As someone who went to school for illustration, I’m fully aware of how integral it is to be particular about the content children absorb. As someone recently diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder as an adult it has finally hit me why I gravitated towards certain picture books. While there’s some embarrassment and shame re-examining my connection with books like the Cat in the Hat, I would say my privilege has blinded me from making such connections in addition to the lack of public information available concerning this topic. I still respect these books as the tools that taught me how to read but I can also separate that sentiment from my disappointment and dismay as I become aware of this man’s blatant racism. I support the notion of phasing such out of date books from library. Maybe recognizing such books by Dr Seuss on banned books day would be more appropriate so we can discuss why such views are no longer tolerated. I’m interested to know if there’s more racism unbeknownst to me from other illustrators and book writers from my childhood. All I can do is continue to educate myself and move forward past my mistakes.
Seuss cartoons didn’t lead ti the internment camps, he was reflecting what was felt 80 years ago.
I’ve struggled to understand the WW II Japanese internment camps.
Asians were not liked nor trusted because they didn’t assimilate.
Asians, especially railroad labor, were marginalized and not allowed to assimilate.
Asians, like the Jews in NYC, stuck together as a community supporting their own businesses, so some Asians through this cohesion and hard work became successful and showed some wealth.
How could these low class people prove they are more successful than a hard working white man, it must be through illegal and/or immoral pursuits like opium, alcohol, and preying on innocent white youth.
Even if they suspected war was coming, Japanese-Americans were also stunned and embarrassed by the attack on Pearl Harbor.
Japan is part of the evil Axis, and all Japanese diaspora are part of the Emperors spy/sabotage network.
Everyone knew the war was raging around the globe and we were likely to get into it despite Lindbergh and friends, but the attack on Pearl Harbor was a shock. The lack of communication, just newspaper and radio, let rumors and imagination envision foreign troops invading the west coast.
But the thing that made me understand the decision for the camps was the President was pressured by Lt. General DeWitt, CA Governor Olson, and CA Attorney General Warren, because of the Niihau incident.
For them that was the smoking gun, the proof that all Japanese were loyal to Hirohito and not to be trusted.
I don’t think is was right but I do think it was more than racism fueling it, probably fear of the future, fear of making the wrong move, and the need to reassure the public that the leaders were in control.
This breaks my 58-year-old, white, male heart.
My Granddaughter was in “Ballet de Seuss” many years ago, and she had the part of a “Sneetch” several times – once with a Star and once without a Star. At the end of each
performance, while members of each side are arguing with the others, two children sit
down on the floor and start to roll a ball back and forth between them. I don’t own the book, so I can’t tell whether this was included in the last page. But I think the ending of
the Ballet shows that children from opposite cultures can play together and ignore
all of the “Hate” surrounding them.
I never noticed the similarity of “The Cat in the Hat” to a Black Minstrel Singer. I just thought he was “A Troublemaker” who entered their house while “Mom” was away,
possibly in their imagination. After all, who ever heard of a Cat that walked on 2 legs,
talked, and wore ridiculous clothes like he did ? And how did he get into the house?
There are other stories Seuss wrote that speak of “Bullying” in a more direct way, i.e.
I think the name was “Maizy.” A little girl has a Flower stuck on her head, and has to be
removed from society because of it. Her tail requires “surgery” to be removed.
There is also the story of a little bird that wishes for (and grows) a longer tail, and it grows out-of-control because she eats too many berries. Maybe Dr. Seuss “toned down” his later stories, because he saw what was happening during the Civil Rights Movement.
At any rate, the story is an allegory about “Wishful thinking” or “Greed.”
I am sad to read your column, because it takes a big hit out of everyone’s childhood
fantasies, but I am passing the information on to my family members, so they can be
aware and can inform their friends about what you have discovered. I am unaware of
previous scholarship on this topic. I grew up in the mid-South, and I remember asking
questions about the signs that said: “Whites Only” all through my childhood and teenage years, but going to Washington, D. C., where we were allowed to go swimming in an integrated swimming pool. There was a little girl who lived one block from my Elementary School and had to catch a bus to a school on the other side of town because she was Black.
My Mother was PTA President and she joined a committee to Integrate the Public Schools,
because of which she became a victim of the White Backlash Movement.
Our Schools were not integrated until 1962, when I moved out-of-state to attend College.
Our University Basketball Team went to the National Invitational Tournament, due largely
to the efforts of the two leading Team players, both of whom were Black. They were always invited to parties given by my husband’s friends…….I also remember observing a march in our college town: Peoria, Illinois, where Black students were not admitted to a white-owned Barber Shop.
In Illinois, I wrote publicity for the United Farm Workers, and picketed the IGA Grocery Store because they did not carry UFW Lettuce. I began to receive the “White Backlash Movement” that my Mother had received many years before……..Later, I tutored Adult Vietnamese and Japanese students in ESL, and began a Literacy Center for our Community, involving Adult Students from Mexico, Lebanon, the Inner City of Chicago, etc., who worked in the Industrial Park near our home. We trained 50 Volunteers to Teach ESL to 75 Adults, over the course of several years.
I’ve spent my entire adult life fighting for the Civil Rights of Black, Native American, and Mexican Adults and Youth in the Community and the Court System, and I have been a Victim of the “White Backlash Movement” because of it ! I am presently writing a book about my experiences, following several others I have written, and all of which are unpublished-to-date, due to my fear of that movement. I live in Arizona, which is most definitely “A Racist State!”
Thank you for your enlightening article. I had no idea that this information had surfaced 4 years ago, because the media did not mention it until last night on the Evening News. The
Report was limited to ONE SENTENCE, and there were no details given, until I saw your article online.
Hi, first I’ll say that I am a big Dr. Seuss fan from when I was a kid. Your article makes a lot of solid and thought provoking points. Many of those political cartoons are indeed offensive. While I don’t want to defend his portrayal of Asians, the Japanese were deemed the enemy during WW2 and allied with the Nazis! Yes, they joined the Nazis-concentration camps, 6 million Jewish killed, etc., perhaps the most evil group of war criminals ever. So while this doesn’t excuse Dr. Seuss, it does provide some context to the anti-Japanese feelings of the era.
A few more points:
–Dr. Seuss, aka Theodore Geisel, was himself a minority, being Jewish.
–I think that a fair and balanced article might mention the huge amount of joy that his better
work has brought to children across the globe, also helping children of all colors to learn to read
in a fun way.
I take exception to this analysis on several different grounds.
FIRST, I think it’s very important when evaluating historical events or people, to avoid judging them using modern cultural norms to try to prove a point about the way things are today. Doing so misses out on critical context and is a very bad way to go about studying history, as almost always, you will misunderstand what the historical figures actually believed or thought.
The themes present in his ridicule of ethnically Japanese people during World War II and his portrayal of African Americans with the white savior complex are simply features of the prevailing cultural norms of the times Dr. Seuss lived in. For example, the burden of the white man was a mainstream cultural idea during the progressive era. Though today we can look back and see that that cultural idea was wrong, we must also recognize that many people who believed that genuinely wanted to help other peoples they believed were backwards.
The same goes for the anti-Japanese hysteria during World War II. Like others here have mentioned, the historical context of mass fear following the shock of pearl harbor is key. So many Americans shared the fear of Japanese-Americans infiltrating and subverting the country that the majority enthusiastically supported the wartime internment camps. This is again not to say that those camps were acceptable. It is to say that in all probability, had we been living in that same time period, we would have been laughing at Dr. Seuss’s wartime cartoons about Japanese people and supported the internment camps ourselves.
The fundamental goal of the argument against Dr. Seuss’s books and analysis of his illustrations is to try to prove that society today is systemically racist. The authors above are just taking children’s books written decades ago and imposing modern cultural norms on them to try to prove that today’s society is racist. If you want to go about trying to prove that, fine, but this is about the worst argument to do so.
SECOND, I think that while his cartoons clearly reflect historical cultural norms that are no longer acceptable today (for good reason), a lot of the claims about the illustrations in his book are really far overblown. The examples in Horton Hears a Who, the Cat in the Hat, and the Cat in the Hat Comes Back are at best big stretches and hardly convincing. Trying to argue that black characters were caricatured is the most ridiculous, because of course, everyone in the cartoons that Dr. Seuss drew was! The worst example: Trying to argue that since a make-believe animal drank milk out of a bottle with a straw in the same way that random political cartoon portrayed a black child as drinking ink out of a bottle with a straw, that the illustrations are racist. Here’s a hint: EVERYONE drank milk out of a bottle like that when Dr. Seuss was alive, because everyone had milk delivered to their front door in glass bottles by the milkman, which they would often drink from with straws. These authors are so spooked by the racist boogieman that they see him at every turn and corner, even when he’s not there…
THIRD, even assuming these illustrations reflect cultural norms which were bad like the cartoons, the books should be propagated more, not removed from shelves. If Dr. Suess’s books are racist, they should be used to teach today’s children and youth about those bad ideas and why they were harmful. This would serve to inoculate today’s youth against falling for those same types of bad ideas should they be repeated by future leaders or demagogues. The solution to bad ideas is to talk about them more and show people why they are bad. If the books are simply removed from shelves and children have little exposure to those kinds of bad ideas, like the white man’s burden and classifying an entire ethnicity as a threat to US security, they will be more likely to fall for them in the future.
FOURTH, I don’t think it’s possible to argue with any level of certainty that Dr. Seuss intentionally sat down trying to write books with racist illustrations. We don’t really know what he was thinking the whole time when he was writing these. Even when we do have insights, they have nothing to do with racism. Intentionality can’t be proven here. The very best you can say is that he was immersed in a culture that included the white mans burden and other ideas and that those ideas unintentionally were reflected in some of the storylines he came up with.
thank you james i should clarify
Mia, are you satisfied with the decision of the Seuss foundation to stop publishing six of the Seuss books? There is no doubt Seuss simply absorbed the common racial prejudices and stereotypes of interwar America and that those bigotries found their way into his depictions of non-White characters. The uproar now, with Tucker Carlson portraying a FDR liberal whose politics he would disagree with 100% as a martyr to “cancel culture” would be almost completely farcical if it weren’t toxic. None of these explicitly racist caricatures belong in a children’s book (Charles Blow’s column in the New York Times today–March 4th, 2021–is a perfect short essay in how and why).
But moving on to the entirely of Seuss’ work, I think we have to try to evaluate each book separately. “The Lorax” is the book I remember best. And it definitely imparted a very strong message about ecology. Conservatives still hate it for that very reason.
Dr. Nel makes a strong argument about how minstrel show tropes influence “The Cat in the Hat”, yes. I will have to find the book and read it again, as it never resonated with me so much as a child. It doesn’t seem possible to me, that said, for children to make any association between the Cat’s character and non-white people today. Not anymore. Again, I will have to look at the book carefully, but these connections — the hat, the bow-tie — are so obscure to a contemporary audience, that even if Nel’s study is entirely correct, it’s almost impossible to see how any racist message that might have been transmitted when Hollywood still made black-face musicals could be picked up by children today.
Black cats, after all, have a whole separate folklore that is still with us, and are usually seen as witchy and sinister — think Halloween imagery — and Seuss’ cat simply reads as well, Seuss’ cat nowadays. Whatever he might have intended or unconsciously imparted to the book, how could a child today connect the Cat to living Black person? It doesn’t seem possible.
Thank you for the analysis. Wish I had seen it earlier. Ted Geisel’s racism may be a product of his time, but there’s no reason why we have to celebrate his books even now in 2021. Schools promote them. Libraries promote them. There’s no reason why they should partake in the propaganda every year. That cat in the hat is inspired by blackface and minstrel shows is the last straw for me. Enough.
To read or not to read Dr Seuss to the children – why not to leave the decision to the parents?
It should be up to them.
Banning books – you didn’t read Orwell, I assume?