You’ve got to be taught
To hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught
From year to year,
It’s got to be drummed
In your dear little ear
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
I have some news that may be surprising for you. We’re finally becoming adults. We’re finally realizing that we did some stupid things when we were young. We’re finally realizing that perhaps we don’t have to keep those pictures that we took of ourselves drunk, naked, and peeing on a car available to the world on our Facebook page (and don’t go looking for them. They do not exist). When we grow up, realize we did something stupid, and change our behavior and repudiate what we did in the past, that isn’t “cancel culture”. That’s finally being an adult.
But you don’t have to take my word for it. Mary McNamera does a great job of saying it in the LA Times:
Look, I am a white person raised in the United States of America, albeit by fairly liberal parents, and I can say from personal experience that it is very hard and disappointing to realize that beloved books, music, movies and brand packaging once considered perfectly acceptable were and are in fact racist, sexist, homo/transphobic or otherwise offensive. That many of these “classics” were and are tools used, intentionally or unconsciously, to reinforce stereotypes that have allowed one group to dehumanize and dominate other less powerful and less privileged groups in many ways and for far too long.
I loved “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” as a child, and though I can’t remember noticing the Asian character in it, that’s probably because, unfortunately, offensive caricatures of all sorts of people were considered perfectly normal when I was a child … and a teenager … and a young adult. The Asian character, or the African ones in “If I Ran the Zoo,” didn’t register because their portrayals were consistent with much of what I saw in the culture around me. A culture that was just beginning to realize that “Whites Only” signs were not only unacceptable but a facet of the same problem.
It’s disturbing and mortifying to realize that those Butterfly McQueen-as-Prissy imitations I did as a child were completely and horribly racist, or that Charlie Chan, whom I also adored, was a double-edged sword. Yes, he was one of a very few Asian characters allowed to be a hero lead, but only when saddled with a welter of stereotypical traits. Turns out that “Ah-so, number one son” is not something Chinese people actually said; who knew? Well, every Chinese person in America, for starters.
But being embarrassed or feeling threatened or deprived of a beloved object when the offensiveness of certain images, stories or words is pointed out doesn’t give you an excuse to perpetuate or even defend them. Neither embarrassment nor that kind of deprivation is on par with the pain of living in a society that continually presents demeaning versions of people who look like you. Failing to realize that something you enjoy or take for granted is racist doesn’t necessarily make you a racist; but doubling down and getting all defensive after this racism has been pointed out — well, now, in the words of my faith, you are sinning with full knowledge of the sin.
The removal from publication of 6 Dr. Seuss books, by the owner of the books, is entirely within their right. I recall reading somewhere that the author was uncomfortable in later life with the racist work he did in his youth (and yes, Geisel’s early work was racist). An article I found noted:
Like many political cartoons from this period, some of Geisel’s political pieces are, today, considered racist—particularly toward Japanese people. While Geisel did not outright express regret over these pieces, contemporary critics believe that his later works—many of which revolve around themes of tolerance—atoned for these mistakes. Still, his early attitudes cannot—and should not—be dismissed. “We all have blind spots,” Richard H. Minear, the author of Dr. Seuss Goes to War, explains. “I use that as a teaching moment—even Dr. Seuss went astray.”
We tend to romanticize our upbringing. We recall only the innocence of what we read in our childhood, and of those times. The lovely family unit of Leave It to Beaver or Father Knows Best (both of which were in all-white small town America). The early days of Disneyland (with its depictions of colonizers, sub-human African natives, white men and Indian villages, etc.). Our children’s books, like those by Seuss, and Curious George and … Going to Sambos for pancakes. All of these had images that were accepted at the time, but looking back we wince with horror at the messages we were sending our children.
Were these authors and artists wrong or bad people? Probably not. They were reflecting the attitudes of their times, and were trying to do good and entertain. But we look back now, with newer ideas, and those attitudes we realize no longer hold. Settlers in America in the 1600s believed that many women were witches and burned them. We now view that as antiquated. They put Jews in ghettos. We know that is wrong. They taught the earth is flat, and that bleeding someone could cure disease. We know both aren’t true, and no longer teach that.
It holds up with children’s books as well. Beloved series of old don’t hold up to modern standards. Have you ever read Mary Poppins and seen its attitudes towards negros? Seuss comes as no surprise at all. Depending on how the authors estates handles this, they may be reworked to redraw problematic art, fix some language.
For adults, we can put things in context. Adults can confront the racism and racist images in some (but not all) of Dr. Seuss’ work. With older children, we can explain why the racist stereotypes used to illustrate Asian people (slanted eyes, wielding chopsticks), African people (monkeylike) and Arab people (man on a camel) are wrong. We can do like TCM, and place discussions around classic movies about both what they get right, and what they get wrong. Adults can understand this stuff.
I have a large music collection. Over 49,000 songs. I know that some of the songs in my collection are racist, or have a problematic past. That happens with folk tunes. That happens with pieces written before we were aware. But I’m also old enough to recognize that context. I can separate the tune from the words, and recognize the problems with the words. I’m an adult. I have that capacity.
But our littlest kiddos? Those under 5-6 — where these Seuss books were aimed — don’t understand context and nuance. They are sponges. They absorb the imagery, internalize it, and believe it without question. For them, the answer is simply to pull the materials. Perhaps when they are older bring out an archival copy in context. But when they are young… This is why — as beloved as these pieces might be in memory — the owners of the material are right to keep them in the vault. We don’t need the smiling Chinese man in a pointed hat carrying rice, or Brer Rabbit and the happy slaves. Geisel’s estate can keep those books in the vault, just as Disney can keep Song of the South locked away. Owners of material can do what they want with the material they own, for whatever reasons they want. Especially when we are working with young children, we need to be careful of what we are teaching them, and the images we are presenting.
You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.
You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!
Rogers and Hammerstein, who wrote those lyrics for South Pacific, also developed the culturally insensitive Flower Drum Song. It is difficult from any artist from any area not to have reflected the values and images of the times. That’s why we must teach carefully. It is worth nothing that the R&H estate authorized updating Flower Drum Song to adjust the sense and remove the stereotypes.
We can learn. We can change. We can see that things in our past were wrong, and decide not to perpetuate our mistakes. We have to remember we are under no obligation to remind the world that we were young and stupid once.
P.S.: For those who bring up Hasbro’s decision to rebrand the Potato Head line: Please note that Mr. Potato Head remains a Mr. What is changing is the name of the product line: Hasbro decided it made no sense to call the line Mr. Potato Head when it included a Mrs., and so they dropped the title from the line. That’s it.