As Dr. Seuss’ birthday approaches on March 2, a new study argues that many of the author’s classic children’s books are racist and problematic — and only two percent of his characters represent people of color.
“[This study reveals] how racism spans across the entire Seuss collection, while debunking myths about how books like Horton Hears a Who! and The Sneetches can be used to promote tolerance, anti-bias, or anti-racism,” Katie Ishizuka and Ramón Stephens write in their February 2019 report, “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, AntiBlackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’ s Children’s Books,” as part of St. Catherine University’s Research on Diversity in Youth Literature.
They continue: “Findings from this study promote awareness of the racist narratives and images in Dr. Seuss’ children’s books and implications to the formation and reinforcement of racial biases in children.”
The study continues by explaining that some of the most iconic characters relay the troubling messages of Orientalism (the representation of Asia and Asian people based on colonialist stereotypes), anti-blackness and white supremacy.
“Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles,” the authors write as part of their findings. “This also remains true in their relation to White characters. Most startling is the complete invisibility and absence of women and girls of color across Seuss’ entire children’s book collection.”
Theodor Seuss Geisel, whose pen name is Dr. Seuss, published his first children’s book in 1937, and his works are filled with problematic portrayals that coincide with the culture of pre-Civil-Rights-Movement America. For instance, in If I Ran the Zoo a white male is carried by three Asian characters as he holds a gun. The caption beneath the Asian males describes them as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell,” according to the study. The only two characters identified as African appear in Horton Hears a Who!. Sporting grass skirts and wearing no shoes, “they are placed in a subservient role, carrying an animal to a White male child’s zoo,” Ishizuka and Stephens explain.
For the researchers, these types of portrayals are deeply troubling. And they aren’t the only ones saying so.
In September 2017, Cambridgeport Elementary School’s librarian, Liz Phipps Soeiro, made a political statement that quickly went viral when she turned down a shipment of Dr. Seuss books from First Lady Melania Trump.
“You may not be aware of this, but Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliché, a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature. As First Lady of the United States, you have an incredible platform with world-class resources at your fingertips,” the librarian wrote in an editorial for The Horn Book’s reading blog, later adding. “Another fact that many people are unaware of is that Dr. Seuss’s illustrations are steeped in racist propaganda, caricatures, and harmful stereotypes.”
The books had been delivered as part of the National Education Association’s Read Across America program, which first began in 1997 and coincides with the author’s birthday.
The NEA has also received criticism for associating with Dr. Seuss, since he has such a complicated history. So in 2018, for the first time in twenty years, the organization “removed all Dr. Seuss books from their annual Read Across America Resource Calendar, and featured all diverse books and authors at their RAA events,” according to the study.
“I think there will always be a place for Seuss books — they are in every classroom and library in America — and in some cases, they’re effective for younger readers,” Steven Grant, a manager of Read Across America, told Education Week in October 2017. “That said, it’s not to the exclusion of all the other great books that are out there.”
While there has been a wave of criticism against Dr. Seuss and other children’s books (like Charlie and the Chocolate Factory and The Chronicles of Narnia) for being racist, many readers continue to support these longtime favorites.
Domenic Sarno, the mayor of Dr. Seuss’ hometown of Springfield, Massachusetts, fired back at Soeiro after learning about her rejection of the books.
“‘One fish – two fish – red fish – blue fish’ – I think her comments ‘stink’ and are ridiculous towards our beloved Dr. Seuss,” Sarno said, according to MassLive.com. “Her comments that this is ‘racist propaganda and that Dr. Seuss is a bit of a cliche and a tired and worn ambassador for children’s literature’ is ‘political correctness’ at its worst.”
Scholars who spoke with Education Week have a more nuanced view. They suggested that teachers receive training in cultural sensitivity and be given access to books with diverse characters. If children do read these older books (like those by Dr. Seuss), the scholars suggested that adults approach the readings in an informed and critical way, according to the outlet.
“I don’t think nostalgia is a defense. Affection is not a defense,” Philip Nel, a professor of English as Kansas State University, told Education Week. “What you have to do is take a deep breath, step back, and realize that the culture in which these books live and in which these books were written is a racist culture and a sexist culture.”