The Cat in the Hat and Embedded Racial Bias in Schools

The Cat in the Hat and Embedded Racial Bias in Schools

Recently a school librarian gained national attention when she refused a gift of 10 books to her school on the premise that the books’ author has demonstrated racial bias against African Americans in several of his publications.  The event was a project headed by first lady Melania Trump to donate a set of books to one school in each state to highlight National Read a Book Day and promote childhood literacy. 

A popular book specifically mentioned in the librarian’s response to Trump was The Cat in the Hat.  The author, of course, is Theodor Geisel, better known by his pseudonym of Dr. Seuss.  To support her case, the librarian cited in her letter to Mrs. Trump two recent critiques -  an article written by Grace Lynch (2017) and a book written by Phillip Nel (2017).  Critics responded quickly with photos of Michelle Obama reading The Cat in the Hat to children, an earlier video of Barrack Obama proclaiming his support for Dr. Seuss, and an image of the librarian herself dressed in Dr. Seuss garb to promote literacy. I am not a scholar of children’s literature, and neither, I think, are the Obamas.  Nonetheless, I’m wondering if the claims of bias in The Cat might be an overly aggressive application of a conceptual paradigm.

Cries to protect students from racial bias and offensive language within literature are not new, and calls to remove popular and classic titles from reading lists have been so common that the American Library Association devotes several digital links to the topic of Banned and Challenged BooksCelebrated tomes in this category include Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Toni Morrison’s Song of Solomon. My purpose here is neither to defend nor attack these authors or their works.  Nor is it to lambast the affronted librarian or the scholars she cites.  Indeed, through their application of a conceptual lens they raise an important aspect of racism within the curriculum and culture of our schools. Often school leaders, teachers, and students are blind to such elements because we are so immersed in them.   

Many scholars have documented racial prejudice buried within the broader curriculum through topics highlighted or ignored.  Results of those illuminations include, among several positive changes, the creation of African American History Month and calls to implement curricula better suited to the characteristics and needs of the changing racial demographic of American public schools.  Likewise, the framework and application of Critical Race Theory are widely documented.  Each of these is a significant topic far beyond the scope of this discussion.

The librarian’s lament, however, reminded me of bias that extends beyond reading lists and programs to the cultural mores expressed by children.  These are elements embedded subtly and deeply into our collective psyches.  In the words of psychologist and narrative researcher Jerome Bruner, they are “so familiar and ubiquitous that (they are) likely to be overlooked” (1991, p. 4).

 Students in middle school span an age range of 11-14, and their emotional spectrum ranges much wider than these few years suggest.  It is common for children of 11, 12, or even older to carry book bags, notebooks, and other paraphernalia emblazoned with characters from popular culture.  I was often bothered to see African American and Hispanic girls carrying items that featured Caucasian heroines.  Prominent were Disney’s Tinkerbell, Cinderella, and Nelle from Beauty and the Beast. All are White, and the first two are blue-eyed and blonde.  They seemed to me to be antithetical role models for young women of color. The same concern applied to boys who sported emblems of Superman, Batman, and other Caucasian super heroes. I was puzzled that they did not choose icons with which they might more closely identify.  Perhaps they did not have other options.  I wondered how their choices reflected an endemic cultural bias that favored the racial characteristics of white icons over those of their own ethnic groups.

A non-Caucasian colleague of mine posits that children choose these icons for their personal characteristics of independence, strength, and ability to overcome extreme adversity.  That is probably true.  Scholars who have studied the phenomena have posed similar explanations (Craven, 2002; Towbin, et al, 2004). Thus, there may be a danger in overthinking the point.  That is my concern regarding the exasperation of the Massachusetts librarian in rejecting Melania Trump’s gift of The Cat in the Hat and other Zeusian tales.  It may well be that the description of the cat derives from caricatures of African American minstrels, which is the argument posed by Cat critics.  Even so, my guess is that children do not make a conceptual link to the character’s historical genesis.  In the many times I read the book to all three of my own children, I never made the connection.  I was more concerned that the children’s mother had left them unattended and susceptible to an intruder. 

My perch as a white male makes it difficult for me to explore this issue as deeply as might those who more closely identify with racial discrimination.  I would be interested in hearing observations from others about cultural bias they have witnessed, whether as students, school leaders, or both.  I believe that such a discussion could add important insight into a significant problem of racial bias that is both subtle and endemic within the culture of our schools.

 

References

Amazon. Was the Cat in the Hat black? Retrieved from https://www.amazon.com/Was-Cat-Hat-Black-Literature/dp/019063507X/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&qid=1507151052&sr=8-1&keywords=was+the+cat+in+the+hat+black

Bruner, J. (1991).    The narrative construction of reality. Critical Inquiry, 18, 1-21.

Chason, R. (2017, September 28). Racist propaganda’: Librarian rejects Melania Trump’s gift of Dr. Seuss books.  Retrieved from   https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/education/wp/2017/09/28/racist-propaganda-librarian-rejects-melania-trumps-gift-of-dr-seuss-books/?utm_term=.2e3081e1e0bc

Craven, A. (2001). Beauty and the Belles: Discourses of feminism in Disneyland. European Journal of Women’s Studies, 9(2), 123-142.

Donnor, J. K. (2016). Lies, myths, stock stories, and other tropes: Understanding race and whites’ policy preferences in education. Urban Education, 51(3), 343-360. doi:10.1177/0042085916628613  http://journals.sagepub.com.contentproxy.phoenix.edu/doi/full/10.1177/0042085916628613

Library of Congress. African American History Month. Retrieved from http://www.africanamericanhistorymonth.gov/

Lynch, G.H. (2017, September 12). Is the Cat in the Hat racist? Read across America shifts away from Dr. Seuss and toward diverse books [Web log post]. Retrieved from   http://www.slj.com/2017/09/industry-news/cat-hat-racist-read-across-america-shifts-away-dr-seuss-toward-diverse-books/#_

Orfeld, G. (2008, Spring). Race and schools:  The need for action.  NEA Research Visiting Scholars Series.  Retrieved from http://www.nea.org/home/13054.htm

Politics. (2015, April 30). Obama: ‘I am still a big Dr. Seuss fan.’ Retrieved from https://www.washingtonpost.com/video/politics/obama-i-am-still-a-big-dr-seuss-fan/2015/04/30/dc000a38-ef56-11e4-8050-839e9234b303_video.html?tid=a_inl&utm_term=.08f89420deff

Soeiro, L.P. (2017, September 26). Dear Mrs. Trump [Web log post]. Retrieved from  http://www.hbook.com/2017/09/blogs/family-reading/dear-mrs-trump/

Sawchuk, S. (2017, October 4). The Cat in the Hat and racial bias in children’s literature. Education Week.  Retrieved from http://www.edweek.org/ew/articles/2017/10/04/is-ithe-cat-in-the-hati-racist.html?cmp=eml-enl-eu-news2&M=58222687&U=1897944

Towbin, M.A., Haddock, S.A., Zimmerman, T.S., Lund, L.K., & Tanner, L.R. (2004). Images of gender, race, age, and sexual orientation in Disney feature-length animated films. Journal of Feminist Family Therapy, 15(4), 19-44. Retrieved from https://doi.org/10.1300/J086v15n0402

Zorthian, J. (2017, October 16).  People are not happy that this school district banned Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird. Retrieved from American Library Association Banned and Challenged Books  http://www.ala.org/advocacy/bbooks/frequentlychallengedbooks

The White House. (2017, September 6). First Lady Melania Trump celebrates National Read a Book Day.  Retrieved from  https://www.whitehouse.gov/the-press-office/2017/09/06/first-lady-melania-trump-celebrates-national-read-book-day