Putting the Bedtime Story to Bed: Student Perspectives on the Hidden Racism Behind Dr. Seuss

Spring 2019

By Lora Mei McManus

An Opportunity Arises

New revelations delineating over half a century of racism by the formerly beloved author Theodor Geisel, better known as Dr. Seuss, sent shock waves through library and elementary school communities in February of this year. On examining 50 of Dr. Seuss’s children’s books, containing a total of 2,240 human characters, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens identified 98 percent of the characters as white, with these characters holding 100 percent of the speaking roles. Moreover, all characters of color (totaling 45) are male, perpetuating the invisibility of girls and women of color.1

Read Across America Day, a March celebration of literacy and reading in classrooms and libraries, was originally conceived in honor of Dr. Seuss, who inspired generations of readers by expanding the latitude of children’s books through his creativity. However, after the release of Philip Nel’s book in 2017, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books,2 the National Education Association went so far as to remove all references to Dr. Seuss from the Read Across America webpage and instead focused on books promoting diversity and inclusion with authors and protagonists of color.3

In light of this emerging research, educators and librarians have begun to look at Dr. Seuss through a new lens and with greater hesitation.4 Culturally responsive pedagogy, anti-racist curriculum, deliberate social justice teaching, and diverse texts are all in the forefront of my mind as a diversity practitioner and elementary school teacher. After reading Ishizuka and Stephens’ article, I grappled with how to approach Read Across America Day this year. I had heard from many diversity practitioners and equity educators that they would not be celebrating this holiday in their classrooms and that, in some cases, they had requested that Dr. Seuss’ books be removed from their school libraries. While there is a compelling argument to replace Dr. Seuss with children’s books by authors of color as the primary texts for emerging readers, Gabriel Smith, writing in Teaching Tolerance, sees this quandary as an opportunity for students to discuss and openly grapple with the evolution of social and cultural awareness of stereotyping and covert racism.5


The Teaching Moment

The national debate sparked by Ishizuka and Stephens creates a prime opportunity for students to critically analyze written work, formulate and express evidence-based opinions, and respectfully engage across differences. The subject matter of Dr. Seuss is ideal because his books are well-known and accessible to elementary and middle school audiences. When familiar texts are paired with a higher-level concept like racial prejudice, students have the opportunity to read with a discerning eye, critically examine language and connotations, and then engage in an informed dialogue.

Teaching fourth grade in a primarily white independent school offers a particular opportunity and a responsibility to deliberately prepare young students to be bias-conscious and culturally competent leaders and global citizens in an increasingly diverse world. With this understanding, I regularly present students with multiple perspectives, an equity and inclusion framework (like the cycle of oppression and the cognitive-dissonance model), and opportunities to center the voices and recognize the resilience of historical and contemporary people of color. Discussing the covert racism within Dr. Seuss was consistent with students’ developing social consciousness and allowed them to use their preexisting schema to expand their awareness of race and bias.

After I introduced The Cat in the Hat as a full-class read aloud, I asked students to detail the physical characteristics of the two children (Sally and her brother) and the anthropomorphic Cat. Students identified the black and white colors of these characters, contrasted with the vibrant Cat’s iconic red and white accessories. Students were then presented with a summary of the text-specific findings of Ishizuka and Stephens, which state that the physical attributes of the Cat mirror iconic elements of blackface minstrel performers (the umbrella used as a cane, red floppy tie, red-and-white striped hat, and wide-open mouth). As students reread the book with this lens, sentences such as “I can show you new tricks” and “You do not belong here” took on new connotations as they correlated with the minstrel motif and anti-blackness within the hegemonic white family. Eyes grew wide with astonishment, and hands shot into the air as students asked analytical questions and wrestled with this momentous insight into one of their favorite books.

Ultimately, students were discussing questions such as “Do you agree or disagree with Ishizuka and Stephens’ findings?” “What should we do with this information?” “Knowing these perspectives, what role should these books continue to play in schools and libraries?” All of these questions, to which there is no single correct answer, get to the heart of salient cultural predicaments. Through discussion and debate, students have the opportunity to form their own thoughts and opinions about complex, multilayered topics, and they learn how to respectfully engage in civil discourse to express and substantiate their point of view. As students responded, I challenged each one with an opposing perspective, asking them to defend their stance alongside a counterargument.


One Week Later

As a teacher, I often wonder which lesson students remember the most, which are most applicable to their daily lives, and which will challenge their schema of the world. Our Dr. Seuss discussion was the most scintillating student discussion I have ever witnessed; it had the momentum to fuel a two-hour conversation had time allowed. Initial reactions from students could be categorized as shock, dismay, disgust, and confoundment. However, what surprised me most was the noticeable impact on students in the days to come. The following week, two students informed me that they had sat together in the backseat during a lengthy car ride and perused many of Dr. Seuss’ other books, independently identifying many manifestations of racism, such as status quo segregation, capitalist exploitation of oppressed peoples, and colorblind racism in The Sneetches. Indeed, these students’ findings correlated closely with those of Ishizuka and Stephens.

When reading another picture book as a class, on a distinct topic for an unrelated objective, students were first asked to look at the cover illustration and make a speculation about the characters or plot. Without prompting, three students referenced the characters’ skin color and inferred that the book might be about discrimination, socioeconomic status, or cultural differences. Although race was not the intended focus of the lesson, these students’ observations revealed that their lens was shifting—they are noticing race in new ways, and they have a nascent foundational understanding of intersecting inequity and systemic oppression that allows them to make informed hypotheses regarding race, gender, and class.

Human beings need to acquire and continually polish their own special pair of glasses in order to see the aspects of our society that are normalized to the point of invisibility. There is no greater joy and honor than to witness students as they put on their special glasses for the first time and see the world as more complex, multifaceted, dynamic, and diverse. As an educator and diversity practitioner, these are the moments for which I will always teach, as young students gain the knowledge and tools to be contentious, equitable participants in and co-creators of the future.

Notes

  1. Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens, “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” Research on Diversity in Youth Literature 1, no. 2 (2019); online at https://sophia.stkate.edu/rdyl/vol1/iss2/4/.
  2. Philip Nel, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books (New York: Oxford University Press, 2017).
  3. Tiara Jenkins and Jessica Yarmosky, “Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, but Students Keep Reading Them,” NPR Code Switch, February 26, 2019; https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/02/26/695966537/classic-books-are-full-of-problems-why-cant-we-put-them-down.
  4. Gabriel Smith, “It’s Time to Talk About Dr. Seuss,” Teaching Tolerance, March 4, 2019; online at https://www.tolerance.org/magazine/its-time-to-talk-about-dr-seuss.
  5. Ibid.
Lora Mei McManus

Lora Mei McManus (lmcmanus@craneschool.org) is a fourth-grade teaching fellow with expertise in equity and inclusion at Crane Country Day School in Santa Barbara, California.