Sunday, October 18, 2015

Racism, fond memories, and toddler education

As I was reading Harriet her bedtime stories tonight, I was struck once again by a thing that greatly pains me.  Many of my fondest childhood memories are laced with rather awful racism that I simply failed to be aware of.  Case in point, tonight one of the books we read was To Think that I Saw it on Mulberry Street. This book is a simple and delightful Dr. Seuss tale of a child's fantasies of what he saw while walking home, building from a simple horse and wagon to a fantastical parade.  And there, on the second to last page, is this:
"A Chinese man who eats with sticks" --Dr. Seuss
Apparently, Dr. Seuss thought that Chinese-Americans were just as unusual a freak-show as a man with a 10-foot beard, a magician pulling piles of rabbits from a hat, and two giraffes and an elephant towing a brass band down the street.  And so we get this image, on which I can count at least six blatant pieces of racism.  Worse yet, this is apparently the post-1978 revised edition in which the racism is toned way down: he's a "Chinese man" rather than "Chinaman" and he's no longer wearing a pigtail and painted bright yellow.

OK, I know that Dr. Seuss is well known to have done some awfully racist things over the years (e.g., this cartoon condemning Japanese-Americans during World War II).  I know this.  But it burns me up that I had no idea that this monstrosity was living inside a favorite childhood book.  In other words, it's not that Dr. Seuss was making racist drawings, but that I didn't remember the racism at all. We bought this book (well, I bought this book) for Harriet quite early on, on the strength of my fond memories, and I was shocked when I got to this point.  I also noticed that the police were Irish and was a little bit dubious about the Rajah riding the elephant.  Not being familiar enough with the subject matter, I wasn't sure if the Rajah was racist or just archaic (like a knight in shining armor or a lady in a wimple), so I asked my wife, who is South Asian.  Her answer? "Totally racist."

This leaves me with two dilemmas that I struggle with.  First, what does this say about me, to not have known I had such racism in my education?  Clearly there's at least a bit of "fish don't have a word for water" going on.  I did not have this racism called out to me, and thus I didn't realize that it was anything to notice.  It's there in many other things I loved as well, like If I Ran the Zoo (another Seuss), The Jungle Book, and Tintin (oh my goodness, Tintin).  I loved these things and, if I am honest with myself, still do.  My favorite Jungle Book story of all time is "Kaa's hunting," and now I cannot read its descriptions of the Bandar-Log monkeys without wondering if they are allegorical for Kipling's views of India.  Tintin in America is practically hallucinogenic in its kaleidoscope of stereotypes and disrespect for, well, everything, and I still would read it again if I had a copy here in front of me.

And that leads me to the second struggle: do I share these things with Harriet or do I censor them? Mostly, there's an obvious third path that avoids the issue: there are so many good things out there, that I can simply choose to select the ones that I find less problematic.  But what about the ones I find out afterward, like in Mulberry Street? Tonight, I didn't read the line.  I broke the rhyme and went straight to the big magician doing tricks.  Other times, I read it through.  Sometimes, I point things out to her and critique them ("this picture is being mean"), and sometimes I do not.  Mostly, I am uncomfortable and simply shift my strategies back and forth.  I find some of the advice out there about liking problematic media to be useful, but it's not the end of the story and I still have not found peace.
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