Should We Continue to Teach Bigoted Stories to Elementary Students?
Every elementary school student has read a book written by Dr. Seuss: The Cat in the Hat, Green Eggs and Ham, If I Ran a Zoo. Dr. Seuss is a prominent figure for young children with his simple yet entertaining stories that have been adapted to movie and television screens for young and impressionable children to see. Many schools even celebrate Read Across America Day, a day devoted to honoring Dr. Seuss and his body of work. But with his stories taught to children all over America, should educators consider Dr. Seuss’s controversial relationship with race? Elementary schools all over America educate students with books by authors who engaged in bigotry. Authors such as Dr. Seuss and Roald Dahl had racist views that reflected in their writing. Knowing this, why does the American education system still push stories with racist and antisemitic undertones to young and impressionable children without discussing the faults that lie within them?
Dr. Seuss, a pen name for Theodore Seuss Geisel, is a well-known name in schools and homes all over America. His books include loveable characters and humorous storylines that teach children lessons ranging from bravery to taking care of the environment. During his almost 70 years long career, Dr. Seuss wrote over 50 books with more than 2,200 characters. A number of these books present a pattern of racist portrayals of minorities. In And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, an illustration of a Chinaman had two lines for eyes, chopsticks and a bowl of rice, and traditional Japanese shoes. Similarly, in If I Ran a Zoo, two men from Africa were portrayed shirtless, shoeless, and wearing only grass skirts while bringing in a caged animal.
During research on Dr. Seuss’s oeuvre, researchers Katie Ishizuka and Ramon Stephens found that two percent, 45 of the total human characters in Geisel’s books were minorities. Of the 45 characters, 43 exhibited stereotypical and harmful behaviors. Later in his career, Geisel would try to compensate for his earlier faults by writing books that would shed light on discrimination. In The Sneetches and Other Stories, Geisel would take a simple approach to discrimination by talking about characters with and without stars. Eventually, the characters would stop their discrimination towards one another due to their confusion on who was oppressed.
Like Dr. Seuss, Roald Dahl’s past was riddled with negative connotations towards minorities. Roald Dahl was a children's author, well known for his humor and imaginative storytelling. Stories such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Matilda, and BFG are wildly acclaimed books that almost every child has heard about or read. These stories’ popularity has led them to be adapted to major motion pictures, reaching a wider audience.
Even with his influential platform, Roald Dahl was not quiet on his antisemitic beliefs. For instance, in a 1983 interview with Britain’s New Statesman Magazine Dahl said, “there is a trait in the Jewish character that does provoke animosity. ... Even a stinker like Hitler didn't just pick on them for no reason." Roald Dahl’s 1990 interview with The Independent also showcased anti-zionist sentiments: "I'm certainly anti-Israeli and I've become antisemitic in as much as that you get a Jewish person in another country like England strongly supporting Zionism." These antisemitic beliefs were reflected in Dahl’s first novel, Sometime Never: A Fable for Supermen, which featured a derogatory depiction of a Jewish pawnbroker named Meatbein who hid from danger in a safe full of money.
In addition to antisemitic beliefs, Dahl wrote with racist undertones as evidenced by Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. Oompa Loompas were originally depicted as small black pygmies with warlike cries before changing their origin to Loompaland.
Many can argue that stories that are not outright racist or bigoted should not have adverse effects on children, but research has shown that children sense racial biases at an age younger than most adults are ready to discuss it. According to an experiment conducted by Sullivan et al. (2020) whose results were published in Adults Delay Conversations About Race Because They Underestimate Children’s Processing of Race, adults in the United States believe that children should be at least five years old to talk about race. But according to the American Psychological Association, studies have shown that racial biases can develop as early as three months old. As a result of life, infants at three months old start to prefer faces from the specific racial groups they are exposed to. A nine-month-old infant will use race to categorize faces, and at three years old, toddlers will associate certain races with negative traits. The APA states that ”by age 4, children in the U.S. associate whites with wealth and higher status, and race-based discrimination is already widespread when children start elementary school.”
Researchers at Northwestern experimented on four and five-year-olds using an implicit bias test in the experiment, Bias at the Intersection of Race and Gender: Evidence From Preschool‐Aged Children. Children were given a series of images and asked whether they were “nice-looking” or “not nice looking.” The computer would show a series of prime, neutral, and mask images. Prime images showed puppies and black and white boys and girls. Neutral images showed images of Chinese letters and numbers. Mask images would show a gray square. The results showed that children consistently ranked black boys and girls as “not nice looking” compared to white girls and boys.
Given young children’s innate ability to have racial biases in a country with complex structural racism, educators should consider carefully the stories and authors that are introduced in their education. Even though it would be more comfortable for educators to avoid difficult issues altogether, the future is rooted in what and how young children are taught. To ban every bigoted or racially insensitive story/novel would be insane, but discussing the faults and issues presented with these stories to young children would be the right step forward.
Armstrong, A. (2019, June 04). Bias Starts as Early as Preschool, but Can Be Unlearned. Retrieved from https://www.edutopia.org/article/bias-starts-early-preschool-can-be-unlearned
Children notice race several years before adults want to talk about it. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.apa.org/news/press/releases/2020/08/children-notice-race
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Jenkins, T., & Yarmosky, J. (2019, February 26). Dr. Seuss Books Can Be Racist, But Students Keep Reading Them. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/sections/codeswitch/2019/02/26/695966537/classic-books-are-full-of-problems-why-cant-we-put-them-down
Kerridge, J. (2018, November 09). Roald Dahl's troubling legacy - much-loved author stands accused of racism. Retrieved from https://www.independent.ie/entertainment/books/roald-dahls-troubling-legacy-much-loved-author-stands-accused-of-racism-37508035.html
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Schwartz, M. S. (2020, December 06). Roald Dahl Family Apologizes For Children's Author's Anti-Semitism. Retrieved from https://www.npr.org/2020/12/06/943698406/roald-dahl-family-apologizes-for-childrens-authors-anti-semitism
Sullivan, J., Wilton, L. S., & Apfelbaum, E. (2020, August 6). Adults delay conversations about race because they underestimate children’s processing of race. Adults Delay Conversations About Race Because They Underestimate Children’s Processing of Race. doi:10.31234/osf.io/5xpsa
Ted Geisel (Dr. Seuss) Racist Controversy. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.drseussart.com/dr-seuss-use-of-racist-images