Dr. Seuss Enterprises may have pulled just six books from publication, citing “hurtful and wrong” depictions, but the study that prompted Read Across America and, potentially, Dr. Seuss Enterprises to re-examine the famous children’s author’s books suggests that most, if not all, of Dr. Seuss books have elements of racism and sexism and that the author himself deserves to be fully “canceled.”
The study, which follows the controversial “Critical Race Theory,” was authored by a pair of researchers behind “The Conscious Kid,” which calls itself “an education, research, and policy organization dedicated to equity and promoting healthy racial identity development in youth.”
“We support organizations, families, and educators in taking action to disrupt racism in young children,” says the group.
Dr. Seuss, whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel, is a primary target of “The Conscious Kid,” and the group believes that some of the author’s most beloved characters, including the Cat in the Hat and Horton the elephant from “Horton Hears a Who,” are truly racist metaphors that promote ideas of white supremacy and white paternalism.
Although neither of those books is yet banned, the 2019 study, titled “The Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness, and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’s Children’s Books,” is important context for the current battle, not just over whether Seuss’s works should be published, but whether they should be allowed to be sold or held in libraries.
The report begins with a deep dive into Dr. Seuss’s alleged history of prejudice and the author’s early dalliances with racism in his works, arguably important context for Dr. Seuss as well as relevant to the environment in which Seuss came of age and gained notoriety as a cartoonist during World War II.
The study then explores not just Seuss’s early work, but also his children’s books, through the lens of the controversial “Critical Race Theory,” which suggests that literature be examined with an eye to its alleged inherent racism and connection to issues of racial justice. The specific study examined “fifty of fifty-nine” Dr. Seuss works, analyzing issues such as how many times white characters appeared as opposed to characters of color, which characters are put into positions of hierarchy, whether characters of color are dehumanized or made to seem “exotic,” whether the book embraces racial stereotypes or caricatures, and whether Seuss’s works specifically exhibited racism, sexism, and white supremacy.
Perhaps it is not surprising that the authors, intent on finding problematic issues, discovered problems with the vast majority of Dr. Seuss books and nearly every Dr. Seuss character. Most of the characters Dr. Seuss uses are not human, but of those that are, just 2% are characters of color, the study found. And all of those are deemed problematic.
“Of the forty-five characters of color, forty-three are identified as having characteristics aligning with the definition of Orientalism. Within the Orientalist definition, fourteen people are identified by stereotypical East Asian characteristics and twenty-nine characters are wearing turbans,” the study’s authors say. “Only two of the forty-five characters are identified in the text as ‘African’ and both align with the theme of anti-Blackness. White supremacy is seen through the centering of Whiteness and White characters, who comprise 98% (2,195 characters) of all characters. Notably, every character of color is male. Males of color are only presented in subservient, exotified, or dehumanized roles.”
The six titles ultimately pulled from publication — “And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street,” “If I Ran the Zoo,” McElligot’s Pool,” “On Beyond Zebra!” “Scrambled Eggs Super!” and “The Cat’s Quizzer” — are among those the study identifies as the worst of the worst, for reasons already delineated in a number of reports.
But the study’s authors don’t stop there. Dr. Seuss’s non-human characters are also deemed problematic, and chief among them are the Cat in the Hat and Horton the elephant.
“Horton Hears a Who! is one of Dr. Seuss’ books widely cited as promoting tolerance. Several Seuss scholars infer that the Whos symbolize the Japanese and that the book is an apology for his anti-Japanese WWII propaganda,” the study’s authors say. “Regardless of the intention of the book, the impact is that it reinforces themes of White supremacy, Orientalism, and White saviorism. It positions the Whos in a deficit-based framework as the dominant, paternalistic Horton enacts the White Savior Industrial Complex.”
“Not only does a White savior narrative play out within ‘Horton Hears a Who!,’ Seuss himself is positioned as a White savior for writing it,” they claim. “Although he supported and fueled the mass incarceration and killing of the Japanese and Japanese Americans, he is lauded for his ‘tolerance’ for writing an allegory about ‘saving’ them. In the book, the Whos are ‘helpless’ and need to be ‘saved’ and protected by the bigger, more powerful (White savior), Horton.”
The authors cite a single, separate scholar to buttress their claim, but the scholar attributes the white savior narrative to Seuss seemingly without any significant evidence.
The Cat in the Hat is next on the list.
The cat, the authors claim, was “inspired by blackface performance, racist images in popular culture, and actual African Americans,” citing other Critical Race Theory scholars who suggest that the Cat in the Hat’s appearance mimics that of racist minstrel performers.
While the racism in the first Cat in the Hat book appears limited just to the character’s appearance according to the authors, “The Cat in the Hat Comes Back,” the authors claim, is a complete allegory meant to teach children about white supremacy.
In Seuss’ narrative, the Cat uses the White family’s white bathtub and leaves a thick ring of his ink in it. When the Cat gets out of the bath, he wipes his ink on the White mother’s white dress, the white walls, the White dad’s shoes, the hallway rug, and the parents’ white bed. To clean up the ink all over the house, the Cat takes twenty-six “Little Cats” out of his hat to help. These Cats all have guns: “My cats have good guns./ They will KILL all those spots!,” and as they “kill” the spots with their guns, they leave even more ink in their path until all the snow outside of the house is covered in ink (Seuss, The Cat in the Hat Comes 44). Instead of the word “clean,” the word “kill” is used repeatedly: “‘Come on! Kill those spots!/ Kill the mess!’ yelled the cats” (Seuss, The Cat in the Hat Comes 51). The children yell, “All this does is make MORE spots!/ …Your cats are no good./ Put them back in the hat” (Seuss, The Cat in the Hat Comes 46). The story concludes when the last cat, “Little Cat Z,” is able to use a “Voom” to blow all the cats back in the hat and return everything to its “right,” “white” state: “Now your snow is all white!/ Now your work is done!/ Now your house is all right” (Seuss, The Cat in the Hat Comes 61)…The message here is that Whiteness is “right” and Blackness is “bad,” dirty, chaotic, violent, and “no good.”
The authors fail to mention that the “ink” is, in fact, frosting from a cake. And it is not black; it’s pink.
The authors move on to attack “The Sneetches” and perennial kindergarten favorite, “Oh! The Places You’ll Go” as coded works meant to convey the idea that white people are superior to minorities.
If that were not enough, Seuss is not just racist, he’s also sexist:
Intersections of racism and sexism occur across Seuss’ entire collection of literature. White women and girls retain minimal speaking roles, are rarely present, and are presented in subservient roles. The more startling finding is that women and girls of color are completely absent across his children’s book collection. Seuss’ White male protagonist leads dominate the visual space, narratives, and speaking roles. This shows the value in whose experiences matter and whose do not. This marginalization of White women and absence of women of color are rooted in hegemonic notions of White supremacy and patriarchy.
Many critics of the pushback against Dr. Seuss Enterprises’ decision to stop publishing the six “controversial” books claim that only clearly outdated titles are being pulled, and not truly absent from the marketplace.
“What’s important here is that they aren’t asking anyone to stop reading them, taking them out of their personal collections, or library collections or schools,” a spokesperson for the American Library Association told National Public Radio last week. “They just made a decision that they wanted to be more responsible to the communities they serve. There is such a wealth of children’s literature today that celebrates the diverse experiences of children and their families and that don’t confront children with racist images that could be hurtful or traumatizing for them.”
But the study, which appears to have triggered Dr. Seuss Enterprises into a full analysis of the author’s catalog, does not see the crusade to “cancel” the children’s author as limited. In fact, it suggests that nearly all of Seuss’s works are problematic and that educational programs, such as Read Across America, should drop Dr. Seuss altogether. This past year, Read Across America did indeed drop Dr. Seuss as a central part of the program, and even the White House failed to mention Seuss in its Read Across America proclamation.
In the final paragraphs of the study the authors credit themselves for being instrumental in convincing the National Education Association to shift away from Dr. Seuss as the lead author celebrated during Read Across America (though the celebration takes place on Dr. Seuss’s birthday).
“In 2017,” they note, “we submitted this stakeholder feedback, and our study findings, to the National Education Association’s (NEA) Read Across America (RAA) Advisory Committee. RAA is the nation’s largest celebration of reading, with over 45 million annual participants.”
“We advocated that they reconsider their twenty-year focus on Seuss and use their platform to promote anti-racist diverse books by authors of color,” the authors note.
The presentation was catalogued and remains available. That abbreviated version of the paper also takes aim at “One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish” in a selection that reads almost like a parody (though the NEA clearly took it seriously).
The authors claim that “multiple animal characters in One Fish, Two Fish, Red Fish, Blue Fish [symbolize] Black people and Black/white relations, including the reference of the Yink drinking ink, characters depicted as not being able to read, riding in the ‘back of the bike,’ pushing white children on a bike up a hill (‘We like our Mike and this is why: Mike does all the work when the hills get high’), and boxing ‘the great white hope.'” This is the page featuring the character “Mike,” which has been suggested as being a reference to Black people riding in the back of the bus and being subservient to white children.
In 2021, it appears the authors finally succeeded in reaching their goal.
Although the authors do not specifically say they submitted their findings to Dr. Seuss Enterprises, the claims, complaints, and justifications for pulling the targeted works are the same — and the crusade is far from over. Their goal, the authors say, is to engage “stakeholders, including youth, families, and teachers from racially marginalized communities, to identify and document existing forms of resistance to Seuss’ racist works.”