Nobody is banning, cancelling or censoring Dr. Seuss. Here’s some great context on why the Seuss estate is voluntarily retiring six titles that contain offensive racial stereotypes.
One of the themes across Seuss’ work is the use of exotic, national, racial, and ethnic others as sources of humor. I don’t think he meant that with malice, but to use someone’s nationality or race as a punchline doesn’t land well, especially if you are a person of that nationality or race. I don’t think he thought about how that might be hurtful to the people who identify themselves in that way. I think it’s important for people to understand that a lot of Seuss’ racism here is operating unconsciously. It’s something he learned from being steeped in a very racist American culture, which remains true of American culture today, although in different ways.
In And to Think That I Saw It on Mulberry Street, published in 1937, we see a man who eats with sticks; he is colored yellow. He has a triangular, conical hat, a long pig tail, and of course, slanted eyes. In 1978, in response to criticism, Seuss revised that drawing. He removed the color yellow and took off the pig tail. It’s still a stereotype—just a less egregious one. In describing that change, he would say things like, “I removed the color and the pigtail. Now he looks like an Irishman,” which is supposed to be a joke, but it also diminishes the importance of that change, and the seriousness of making the change. The basic themes of caricature across these six books are people of African descent, Asian descent, Middle Eastern descent, and Indigenous people.
ESQ: The decision that Dr. Seuss Enterprises made has been explosive. You have Fox News running three consecutive days of coverage, and other conservative voices treating this as an example of cancel culture. Why has this become such a political flashpoint?
PN: Those are bad faith actors. Those are not people who are willing to have a serious conversation about race or racism in children’s media. For them, it’s a really useful point of distraction. We’re in a pandemic, we have an economic crisis, and the party they’ve aligned themselves with doesn’t really have anything to say about that, except that they would very much like to continue redistributing wealth to the wealthy, because that will trickle down and save us all. This is a really great way for them to pull in an audience and find an imaginary target for everyone’s legitimate frustration.
People are angry and upset for real reasons. Cancel culture is not actually the cause of their problems, but this offers a way of deflecting that into a problem created by liberals and people of color. Racism is the Fox and Republican brand. It works for them because, with children’s books, you have something for which people feel incredibly nostalgic. These are works that you grow up reading. You incorporate them into yourself as you’re still very much figuring out who you are, what you believe, and what you love. When someone is critical of something that you fell in love with as a child, it can feel as if they’re being critical of you. –Philip Nell, Esquire