History, Politics, Race in America

Yes, this is racist

I like Dr. Seuss. I have since I was a kid. The quirky creatures shown in playful line drawings accompanied by whimsically cadenced text are enough to capture the imagination of any child. As a kid who loved gadgetry and Rube Goldberg devices, I was a fan. I still am.

There’s just one problem. Yes, like so many latter-day heroes, it turns out the beloved Dr. Seuss was deeply flawed, too.

Now, wait, before you start, you don’t know what I am going to say until you actually read it so don’t assume. First, please note: I said “I like Dr. Seuss.” That was present tense, not past.

Second, Dr. Seuss isn’t being cancelled, despite what you’re hearing from the angry hand-wringers all over social media. Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the company that owns and manages the rights to Dr. Seuss books, announced Tuesday it would no longer publish six Dr. Seuss titles because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.” With nearly 50 books to his credit, half a dozen titles won’t ruin or cancel the author Theodor Seuss Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss.

It’s true two of the six currently rank in Amazon’s top 10 best-selling children’s books. When I was a kid, “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” was my favorite Seuss book so my childhood nostalgia wants to be a little sad to see that one go. The other best-seller is “If I Ran the Zoo.” The two books were originally published in 1950 and 1937 respectively. The other four titles are “The Cat’s Quizzer,” “McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!” and “Scrambled Eggs Super!”

You’ll find an example of Seuss’ racism in the accompanying graphic and several of the disqualifying images in the comments — only a moron could argue they’re not racist. But that’s not even the point. This isn’t new news — 25 years ago, I did a double-take when I read Mulberry Street to my daughter and encountered Seuss’ clearly racist imagery.

Here’s the deal: white people do not get to be the arbiters of defining what non-white people perceive as racism. As the self-appointed masters of the universe who spread out across the globe to colonize and subjugate, it was white people who decided early on that people of features and coloring different than theirs were somehow inferior. Without this history, we wouldn’t be having this conversation. In a world that’s hurting worse than at any other moment in my lifetime, white people now must stand down. In the U.S., the problem has reached a crescendo.

It’s our turn now to sit down and listen. Just hear what people of color have to say. Chances are, you’ll be surprised by what you hear. You will almost certainly be shocked at times and deeply moved. I know I am.

Yeah, what about me? I listen, too — more today than I ever have. As a white man writing about race, I must tread a very careful line. I do not speak for any person of color and I know no person of color wants me even trying. Further, I do not speak TO any person of color — it is not my place to address any person of color on matters of race. As a human moral failing, overpowering and eliminating racism should be very near the top of every white person’s personal and public priorities. This moral principle should transcend politics, religion, philosophies, everything. This is why I write. If I can help ignite an anti-racist zeal in a few of the world’s clueless whitefolk, I must do so.

Back to the topic of Dr. Seuss, alter-ego Geisel also served as a political cartoonist during the 1930s and 1940s. During that period, he produced the most offensive work of his career, by far. While many white people will argue he was a product of his time, that doesn’t make it right but you already know that, even if you won’t admit it.

Fortunately, it’s pretty well-documented that even though Dr. Seuss diligently perpetuated racism for the first half of his life, he performed an about-face and worked vigorously as an anti-racist for the second half. By nearly all accounts, he succeeded — the man atoned for his sins. In fact, Seuss’ book “The Sneetches” actively deals with the subject of combating racism.

If I had to guess, I’d say Dr. Seuss Enterprises will sit on the titles for 10 or 20 years before possibly reworking them to eliminate racist imagery and language — we may see an updated Mulberry Street again, yet. But if we don’t, we shouldn’t mourn the old racism that rightly lost its place in modern culture.

So, yes, I do like Dr. Seuss, present tense. I believe the colorful whimsy coupled with moral rectitude Seuss demonstrated in his later years still holds a place in children’s libraries. Seuss’ history as a fallible man who worked for decades to achieve redemption might even act as a moral lesson for our older kids, too.

Photocollage uses reproduction of classic children’s book