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Navigating Childhood Racist Memorabilia

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The nostalgic keepsakes of our childhoods are meant to remind us of a period of innocence and idealism, so some people are in disbelief when these treasures are rebranded as racist. 

Disney has removed several classic films from its Disney Plus streaming service, such as “Peter Pan” (1953), “Dumbo” (1941), and “Aristocats” (1970). To the same end, Dr. Seuss enterprises stopped the production of six lesser-known titles that contained racist caricatures. 

Whatever controversies Dr. Suess had in the past, the average person would regard him as having a pristine reputation, given the anti-racist themes of his better-known works “Horton Hears a Who” (1954) and “The Sneetches and Other Stories” (1953).

Many have taken to social media to butt heads over his books’ discontinuation, with some defending Dr. Seuss and others admonishing his legacy. 

So, here where are wondering, was Dr. Seuss racist? According to Philip Nel, one of the nation’s leading Seuss scholars, it’s complicated. In the same breath, Dr. Seuss could make a statement against racism and narrate his work with descriptions of minorities as animals. Even in his time, many accused him of being problematic while others regarded him as staunchly against racism. 

As is still true today, one isn’t simply (A) a perfectly anti-racist person who has never disrespected anyone OR (B) a knowingly and intentionally malicious racist. By the same logic, we don’t have to (A) unquestioningly support everything someone we like does NOR (B) discredit every act of good will by someone we don’t like. 

Photo by cottonbro from Pexels

Many people refuse to see the racism in Dr. Seuss’ works (which have portrayed a Chinese character in yellow face, used racial slurs, etc.). It’s unsurprising that racism can, even subconsciously, influence artists’ works especially in past times when racism was even more overt and acceptable. With any given accusation of racism, it’s best to ensure a knowledge of the cultural and historical context and connotations around the subject matter before dismissing the accusation. When we cannot understand something, that doesn’t necessarily invalidate it; and when understanding fails, it’s best to defer to the population being represented as to whether said representation is disrespectful. 

Ultimately, there are two potential wins in this situation — ease of access to six children’s books that most people haven’t even read versus accurate, compassionate representation of a group of people. I would forfeit the former in favor of the latter — speaking on behalf of myself, not because it’s something that I’m made to do nor that I would make anyone else do.

As to what Dr. Seuss would’ve wanted if he were alive today, one shouldn’t really put words in a dead man’s mouth. But removing his more explicitly racist texts would sooner honor his legacy than harm it. His best works are still being published. 

Dr. Seuss isn’t being “cancelled” because it’s not as if his entire legacy has been besmirched nor do most people refuse to engage with him on any level. The discontinuation of publishing six of his 60+ children’s books was not a call to action from the Left, but a personal decision made by his estate. Further still, to say Dr. Seuss’ legacy has fallen victim to “cancel culture” is to trivialize the negative impact of racist works. The phrase “cancel culture” carries a purposeful tone of condescension, implying that people are being unjustly ostracized for their actions (which, yes, does happen) rather than fairly held accountable for them. 

This isn’t “censorship” either, because the owners of the property were not forced to withhold statements that they wanted to make. Of course, it hasn’t been outlawed to consume these materials, and it would be unethical to do so, but stores, schools, publishers, and other institutions are not obligated to provide them. Dr. Seuss will continue to remain relevant to our culture. His works will continue to be preserved and available in some way but select outdated texts will not continually be reproduced by members of his private estate if they don’t think that said texts are positive contributions to our society (or if they don’t think said texts will remain profitable in today’s climate of anti-racism). 

Children’s media comes under particular scrutiny, because we want the best for our kids. Some beloved texts of the past will not hold up to our modern standards. Plus, it’s easy to be picky when there are so many enjoyable, educational children’s books by creative, talented, and diverse artists. Of course, it’s ultimately up to the parent what they will have their child read, but handling material like this can be tricky. 

Some insist that racist material can serve as teaching tools to show our kids examples of racist stereotypes and to give parents an opportunity to explain why these depictions are wrong. I’ve always believed in children’s ability to rise to the occasion when given the chance to be compassionate and reasonable. Children will undoubtedly encounter racist materials in their lives, and they’ll need the critical thinking tools to identify poor representation. These conversations should come up as racism presents itself, but it seems very unlikely that anyone ever intended to buy these Dr. Seuss books with the intention to teach their kids about racism, especially when other children’s books confront racism in a more overt and useful manner. This reasoning seems like an afterthought to justify a prematurely set conclusion to support publication of the racist texts. And if we’re going to argue that some texts are worth navigating around the racist components, then they oughta be really good — not these six books that haven’t inspired not even one heartless, cash-grab film adaptation.

What if a Chinese child confronts a racist depiction of a character who’s meant to represent him and others of his race? Studies have shown that negative representation in media can have negative psychological outcomes on children (Tukachinsky, Mastro, & Yarchi, 2017). Children are constantly surrounded by content, and it’s easy to say that fiction is powerless, but on some level, these fictions shape our perception of reality (Gerbner & Gross, 1976). If we cultivate confidence in our children whenever possible, then they’ll be more prepared for mistreatment — mistreatment that would happen less often if we didn’t just claim that racism was in the past but if we actually left behind racist language, structures, beliefs, behaviors, and cultural artifacts. Such artifacts do belong in informative contexts like museums, but not in our daily lives in such a casual way as to normalize or palliate racism. 

Some reactionary behavior may be due to the emotional fatigue that comes with our age of heightened accountability. We aren’t only expected to hold ourselves to a higher standard, but we use social media to flood our consciousness with countless exposés on racists from around the world — alleged racists for which we’re expected to serve as judge, jury, and executioner. Many people are exhausted with putting everyone’s character under a microscope. To know of someone’s misdeeds is to make us guilty by association — guilty for buying their products, consuming their content, marveling in their image, or perhaps even for letting them exist without retribution. 

To love something that has been decried as hateful, what does that say about ourselves? What does that say about our parents, who raised us with it, and our community, which praised it? Why won’t our precious childhood experiences — the ones we always dreamed of sharing with our children — be good enough for them? How will the childhoods of new generations (childhoods without Peter Pan?!) shape the future? How will it make the generations feel different and distanced from one another?

These are the frightful questions that come to mind when confronting racist childhood memorabilia. When our favorite books, movies, and public figures go from famous to infamous, the world becomes more unfamiliar; it challenges everything about us and makes us feel irrelevant or disconnected. But the human race will always strive to be better, and we can all choose to be a steppingstone or a hiccup in that progress. 

With a nuanced approach, we can both do the right thing and stay true to ourselves. Good people do bad things, and bad people do good things. These difficult discussions around racism don’t always have to be about picking a side, but instead fostering a community. We can continue to cherish our childhood memories, recognize what flaws there were in our upbringing, and also expect more going forward. And don’t worry, every generation will find unique ways to traumatize their children, so no one will get off scot-free. 

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