By Joanne Dingus.
UUFP Director of Religious Education
If you didn’t make it to services on Sunday March 10, you missed hearing my Children’s Focus titled, “Letting Go of Dr. Seuss.”
I started by reminding everyone that we are in the season of Lent. And for many people, Lent is a time to give up something. I told the congregation that I had decided to give up Dr. Seuss stories for Lent, but not just for Lent, for future use in our Religious Education Program.
So, the big question is WHY?
Religious Educators have been talking about this for a while. There have been different articles written on Dr. Seuss’s work, some positive, some negative. The topic came up again recently as many children across the country were celebrating Dr. Seuss’s Birthday, March 2. The Read Across America program has encouraged children to read more, especially promoting the stories of Dr. Seuss. But over the last couple of years, Read Across America has toned down its use of its mascot "The Cat in the Hat" and offered more diverse options.
The issue is racism. Dr. Seuss expressed his racist views against Black, Japanese, Arab and African people in his depictions of characters. Before starting his career as a children’s author, he had many hateful cartoons published in newspapers and magazines. Once he started writing for children, his racist views continued in the lives of his drawings, often changing them slightly so that they were not as obvious.
For some of you, this may come as a shock. How could the much beloved Dr. Seuss be a racist?
You may want to find a way to justify or defend his actions. You may be feeling personal distress, loss, confusion, anger. After all, you may have spent countless hours joyfully reading these stories to your kids. You may have sewn red and white striped hats for them, made oobleck with them, welcomed Christmas with Fah Who Foraze, Dah Who Doraze.
If you have loved these stories as so many of us have, it may take some time to process this new information.
You may want to go back and read some of these stories with a new lens. What about "The Sneetches" with stars upon thars? Isn’t that a story about everyone being equal? Or is it a story about erasing identity?
How about "Horton Hears a Who!"? A person’s a person no matter how small? Isn’t that promoting tolerance? Or is it segregation, and the use of a savior swooping in to keep them from experiencing genocide?
Or "The Lorax" trying to save the earth?
And what about Theodore Geisel (Dr. Seuss) himself? Wasn’t he just a product of his time? Didn’t he change and evolve out of his racist past?
And what about this solution; aren’t you just sweeping the issue under the rug by not reading these stories? Couldn’t they be teachable moments? Couldn’t they teach kids that there is good and bad in everyone?
I ended the children’s focus by asking, if you know that these stories are hurtful and harmful to many groups of people, and you also know that there are millions of other books out there that do not contain harmful images and words, why would you knowingly choose the books that hurt people?
I also talked to some parents afterwards because we have a choice. I do think you can use these stories as teachable moments, to really help your kids understand what racism looks like, how subservience dehumanization, stereotyping, caricature, and exotification are used to oppress groups of people. But I would caution you to wait until you know your child is old enough to understand these concepts and decide what you will do about the fact that they may be getting mixed messages. At school their beloved teacher didn’t say anything about these stories hurting people; so, why are you being such a Grinch?
Here are some links to articles that can help you decide for yourself how and if you will continue to share the works of Dr. Seuss with your children.
"Rethinking and Examining Dr. Seuss' Racism" –Pragmatic Mom
"The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss's Children's Books" –the conscious kid
“Research on Diversity in Youth Literature” –St. Catherine University
“It’s time to talk about Dr. Seuss” –Gabriel Smith
“Dr. Seuss’ racial history draws controversy” –John Wilkins