First it was Mr. Potato Head. Now it’s Dr. Seuss. We’re definitely living in some crazy times.
For those of you who haven’t been paying attention, two of my childhood icons have been in the news lately. OK, maybe Mr. Potato Head doesn’t qualify for iconic status, so we’ll save his predicament for another time. But Dr. Seuss under attack? C’mon Man!
Like many of you, I grew up learning to read with Dr. Seuss. To this day, I can still recite parts of The Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham by rote. What’s more, I can also picture all the vivid illustrations that accompanied the catchy text jumping at me off the printed page. Just thinking right now about all those warm and fuzzy childhood narratives puts me immediately in my happy place.
So, imagine my surprise when I heard accusations that people were branding Dr. Seuss (whose real name was Theodor Seuss Geisel) as a racist and banning some of his books due to racist imagery. My immediate reaction was disbelief—almost a “you gotta be kidding me” type of denial akin to being told that the Kentucky Wildcats would be 8 – 15 this year.
I hastily started investigating, and sure enough, I discovered that what I had heard was true. The company that oversees the publishing of his works confirmed that six books—If I Ran the Zoo, And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, McElligot’s Pool, On Beyond Zebra! Scrambled Eggs and Super! and The Cat’s Quizzer—would never again see the light of day because they “portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Now I was really curious. Inquiring minds want to know, right? What in the world was hurtful and wrong about my beloved Dr. Seuss?
My curiosity was piqued even greater when word leaked out that there were demeaning Asian stereotypes peppered throughout these publications. Now you really had me going. This was personal. You talk about a man on a commando mission. I had to get to the bottom of this.
You see, I’m an Asian American—a full-blooded Chinese dude who has lived in the United States for over half a century. I was born in Taiwan and moved with my family to America at the age of four as my parents went in search of the American dream. Growing up in Kentucky in the 60s and 70s, there simply weren’t many Asian folks around. In fact, I seem to recall being only one of two “Orientals” in my elementary school and, for a time, I was the only “Chinaman” in my junior high school class.
You know how mean kids can be. They subjected me to every racial taunt and limerick known to mankind. My classmates pulled their eyes back and bucked their teeth out ad nauseum. They spewed nonsense in a sing-song manner as if I understood what they were saying. I was called “Chink” and “Gook” as I went to the bathroom and lined up for lunch in the school cafeteria. I even had to lay low on Pearl Harbor Day—even though I wasn’t Japanese. You get the picture.
So what was Dr. Seuss saying about Asian people that was so horrific that his books would be taken off the shelf?
Upon further review, I discovered that it was indeed his character portrayals that came under critical fire. The Mulberry Street book evidently included a drawing of a Chinese man with slits for eyes. It also contained a supposed controversial illustration of an Asian man holding chopsticks and a bowl of rice whom the text called “A Chinese man Who eats with sticks.” If I Ran the Zoo describes Asian characters as “helpers who all wear their eyes at a slant” from “countries no one can spell.”
Excuse me? I’ve been subjected to far worse cultural derision in my neighborhood potlucks. Besides, all those descriptive examples are kind of true for me. My sloping eyes do often give me a different slant on things, I love eating rice, and I’m a whiz at using chopsticks. In fact, I’m damn proud of my Asian heritage. I’m not offended at all by diverse appearances or customs, nor do I think that you should be either. I bet you can’t spell G-U-A-N-G-X-I.
Look, I get it. Stereotypes are often insulting and demeaning. At the very least, they can lead to some pretty awkward moments. I can’t tell you how many times well-meaning adult acquaintances have unintentionally said something culturally insensitive or hurtful right before my eyes. Left unchallenged, these inadvertent racial gaffes can grow into something far more insidious. The recent increase in violent acts against Asian Americans (or anybody for that matter) is disturbing to me. As part of God’s master creation, we should never face discrimination based on the color of our skin. Red or yellow, black or white, we are all precious in his sight. Those who think otherwise need to be educated and/or held accountable.
But let’s not all go ballistic over a few descriptive words penned at a time when there was far less scrutiny about such things. Let’s not overreact for the sake of twenty-first century political correctness. Geisel’s writing was a product of a different time. Plus, there’s no compelling proof that the guy was racist at all. Just the opposite by many accounts. For good measure, his family and the company that preserves his work have acknowledged the errors, they’ve apologized, and they’ve agreed to take these books in question out of circulation.
So what’s the big deal? It pains me to see the good doctor under attack. There’s no need to skewer the brilliant man’s legacy. You have to think that those who are doing so are just piling on.
Now I hear that many school districts have also decided to no longer promote Dr. Seuss’s books on Read Across America Day. On Monday, President Joe Biden also refrained from mentioning Dr. Seuss in his Read Across America Day proclamation.
That’s disappointing to hear. Because in this world we live in, nobody’s perfect. You have to take the good with the bad. And with all that Dr. Seuss has done—gifting us all those formative hours spent learning to read, broadening all our imaginations in his colorful make-believe world, and leaving us all with those impressionable flashback memories of Horten Hears a Who, or The Lorax, or How The Grinch Stole Christmas—his good FAR supersedes any hint of bad that troublemakers are trying to stir up.
From my slanty-eyed perspective, Dr. Seuss’s stories will always remain Pulitzer worthy.
And here’s a final piece of world-wide truth for citizens around the globe. Chopsticks work better than forks.