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From the Executive Director: Oh the Places You’ll Go (If You Don’t Do Anything to Get ‘Canceled’)

By March 5, 2021March 29th, 2021No Comments

David Inoue

On March 2, the 117th anniversary of Theodor Seuss Geisel’s birthday, the estate charged with preserving his legacy announced it would no longer publish six of his books that included hurtful racist imagery particularly of African Americans, Asian Americans and Inuits.

For Japanese Americans, it is well known that Geisel was the illustrator of numerous propaganda pieces during World War II depicting Japanese and Japanese Americans as subhuman and with racist caricatures.

While some are decrying this as “cancel culture” run amok, as someone who grew up with Dr. Seuss and raised my own two children reading many of his books, this is a welcome announcement.

The images in question are among the worst in promoting racist caricature and, in fact, one of the discontinued books “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street” had already been edited slightly in the 1970s to change the use of “Chinaman” to “Chinese man,” and the caricature was toned down, though not completely removed.

In a 2019 study “The Cat Is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’ Children’s Books” by Katie Ishizuka of the Conscious Kid Library and Ramón Stephens of the University of California, San Diego, they reviewed all 2,240 human characters appearing in 50 Seuss books.

Only 45, or 2 percent of the characters were people of color, and within that, 43 characters were portrayed as Orientalist and the other two as supposedly “African.”

Furthermore, they identified white supremacist themes with the Asian and African characters placed in subservient roles to the white characters. Not only is there a lack of people of color, but also the few depictions present are of a racist nature. There is much more in this journal article worth reading, especially the explanation of the book “Horton Hears a Who!” It is available online (https://sophia.stkate.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1050&context=rdyl).

Research has shown that babies begin to discern differences in racial characteristics as early as three to six months. It should be made clear that discernment of differences in race is not a problem.

It is perfectly normal to recognize differences in appearance, as without this, we would all look alike and be indiscernible from one another. The problem is when prejudices are attached to physical attributes, and those prejudices begin to form as early as 3 years old, right about the age when Dr. Seuss books are likely in heavy rotation of reading materials.

Dr. Seuss’ imagery can play a role in establishing the basis for some prejudices in young children, and it is for this reason that some of the worst offenders have been retired.

Almost immediately, the outcry was loud about “Cancel Culture,” the rallying phrase for those who want to protect the past, what for them are the good old days and the freedom to speak one’s mind regardless of the impact those words might have on others. It is that disregard that makes the cries of cancel culture ring hollow.

They ask, “Why can’t we keep the books and simply explain the offensive imagery to our children?” Clearly they have not tried explaining racism or any discrimination to a 3 year old who does not have the cognitive ability to understand the prejudice that is building subconsciously.

The other retort is “Why not ban the Bible (or some other adult book)?

It speaks of ownership of slaves, men dominating their wives and many other bad things.”

Typically, those passages are not included as part of the preschool Sunday school curriculum, and parents and teachers will filter what is shared with children. With these Dr. Seuss books, there is no filtering.

Where claims of “Cancel Culture” truly fall flat is when put in context of what it really is, objection to responsibility. We are guaranteed freedom of speech by the government, but not freedom from consequence of our speech.

The real “culture” that has developed is one where the past president spread lies about the validity of the election and incited his followers to attempt an overthrow of the government, thus far without any real consequences.

Dr. Seuss Enterprises recognized the consequences of continued publication of the six books was too damaging not only to the children who might be exposed to the books, but also to the legacy of the name they are entrusted to protect.

We can only hope that more of our nation’s leaders take a lesson they should have learned as children, probably as early as when they themselves were reading Dr. Seuss books, that there needs to be consequences for actions. That’s not being canceled, it’s taking responsibility.

David Inoue is executive director of the JACL. He is based in the organization’s Washington, D.C., office.

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