|"A Chinese man who eats with sticks" --Dr. Seuss|
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.