How White is Your Bookshelf?
I have loved Dr. Seuss books for a long time. I thought they were clever, colourful and a voice for environmental and social justice. Now I am staring at the Seuss on my bookshelf through a new lens, and I am angry. Angry that I didn’t know to look at them through a lens that would reveal their racism. Angry that I ignorantly turned a blind eye to character depictions that were clearly not ok. Angry that I didn’t even know what I didn’t know and have spread that ignorance as a mother, teacher and librarian. (If you want to be angry too, you can read about the study here.)
I know that you will probably want to defend these iconic books, I get it, but instead sit your dominant culture butt down for a second and breathe . While you’re breathing, take a walk over to your bookshelf and do a scan of the authors, how much diversity do you see? Now, count out twenty fiction books as a random sample (even better if you have a kid’s bookshelf to do this with.) Of those twenty books, how many of them were written by someone who is not white? Not heterosexual or gender conforming? Not Christian? How many of the books have main characters who represent the diversity we see in the world?
We are all a product of the dominant culture that surrounds us, but that does not mean that we have to drink the kool-aid at every meal (and feed it to our loved ones). There are amazingly talented white, heterosexual, christian authors, but if that is all you and your family (or your students) are reading then you are literally missing out on the entire world outside of your tiny bubble. Only about 12% of the world’s population is white (of course depends a little upon your definition), if that’s all you’re reading, you’re missing out on 88% of the amazing and talented authors in the world.
How did your sampling of twenty books hold up? If you haven’t done it yet, go now, give it a try, I’ll wait.
If you have a wonderfully diverse collection, congratulations. I don’t mean that sarcastically at all, I am truly embarrassed by how dismally the bookshelves in our household withstand a diversity check (particularly our kids books) and we are an interactial queer family! How did I spend the past year trying to find books to fill my school library that represent diverse authors, characters, topics and themes and completely miss out on doing the same for my own
Sadly, I think the answer is that it’s easy. It’s easy to end up with a bookshelf full of what dominant culture is selling. It is easy to grab the popular and promoted books and series and fail completely to even notice that we are promoting the same voices to sing us the songs we already know over and over again. I am not telling you to abstain from reading your favourite, well-established authors, but I am telling you that if that is all you’re reading then you’re limiting your own knowledge and perception, as well as the opportunities for diverse voices to leak out and start to sing us some new songs.
I hope right now you are feeling a little uncomfortable. I know I am. When I talked to my kids last week about the abysmal cross-cultural representation of the thousands of books that they have at their fingertips, I felt ashamed and embarrassed. But also empowered.
There are so many things that I don’t know. The older I get, the more I am struck with the amount of things that I haven’t grasped yet (or don’t even know are out there for the grasping).
I can’t do anything about those things that I have yet to learn, but I can do something about the diversification of bookshelves in my home. As I learn more, I can take my kids, my students, my family and friends and all my readers on this path with me. I don’t know where I will run into my next set of blinders, but at least I know that I’m doing better than I was before. At least my children will get to have adventures in other worlds, by other voices.
It’s hard to reject Seuss. It’s much easier to make excuses for him. His books are iconic, fun and colourful. Oh yeah, and racist. Only 2% of his human characters are not white (and don’t fool yourself into thinking there aren’t many human characters, there are over 2000) and of those 2% there were exactly 0 female characters of colour, and all of his characters of colour are portrayed in racist, subservient and often demeaning stereotypes. Believe me, I want to love Seuss as much as you do, I want to him to be the pioneer of social justice that I thought he was. But, he wasn’t. He was a man with his own ideas and prejudices. Ideas and prejudices that I can’t in good conscience spread anymore.
It doesn’t matter if he was a product of his time, it doesn’t matter that he had a creative imagination. The past isn’t an excuse for the present. When children are exposed to racist images, it doesn’t matter when those images were created, the impact is the same. “Research shows that even at the age of 3, children begin to form racial biases, and by the age of 7, those biases become fixed.” I’m not saying that all of Seuss’ ideas are bad, but, how would you explain to the 4 year old reader with brown skin, why she will never see herself in any of Seuss’s books (even if she reads all 50+ of them). How do you explain to the little boy whose family heritage is anything but European, that the images he sees of himself in these revered books are limited and degrading? Maybe you are only reading this to white children and think that the message of a little more white supremacy isn’t going to hurt anyone? (Did you know this week that the Canadian government finally added a white supremacist neonazi group to its list of terrorist organizations?)
Let Dr. Seuss fall off his pedestal (he wrote and performed black-faced minstrels, in fact the Cat in the Hat is thought to be based upon a black-faced routine). Let him fall aside, the way that a caterpillar shed’s its skin when it becomes a butterfly. We don’t need it anymore. It’s time to hear from the other 88% of the world, it is time to make way for new voices.