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

 

Comments

Joseph Pollock's picture Joseph Pollock | November 23, 2017 5:29 pm MST

Dr. Lane:

 I just read your blog from the Center for Educational and Instructional Technology Research about the Cat in the Hat and Embedded Racial Bias in Schools and your closing paragraph resonated with me.  I am currently teaching a unit on the middle passage and my students consist of all latino/a or black students.  As I teach this unit, I feel like the students focus on the punishments and submissive nature of the unfortunate Africans brought over on the slave ships.  I always try to emphasize the ability of the enslaved Africans to persevere, but I don't feel like the students focus on that aspect of this group.  Your last paragraph in your blog mentions your 'perch as a white male making it difficult for you to explore this issue as deeply as you might as those who more closely identify with racial discrimination'.  I agree with you on this point, and find that I struggle finding a way to reach my students beyond the common teachable points of the 'struggles' of the Africans brought over on slave ships.  I feel that part of the problem is the focus of texts and videos (past and present) on the punishments inflicted on this group.  Students are inundated with images of slaves being punished to grab their attention and this is what they associate with the topic.  My perspective of the first generation of Africans enslaved and sold by the Portuguese and Spanish as one of the most determined and strong-willed people in the history of mankind seems irrelevant in the eyes of my students.  My guess is that most 9th graders do not have the life experiences to make connections to the unseen staying power of the enslaved over the visual violence common in both text and video.  I don't believe this is a case of racial bias, but your blog made me think about this topic from a different perspective.  

Dr. Joseph Pollock 

James Lane's picture James Lane | December 4, 2017 11:44 am MST

Thanks for your comments, Joe.  I think this is a rich and important topic worthy of exploration.  I welcome a variety of views on the topic.  We hope to develope this into one or more research topics after the first of the year.

Paula Alvarez's picture Paula Alvarez | January 13, 2018 10:45 am MST

Hi, Dr. Lane!

I enjoyed reading your blog, “The Cat in the Hat and Embedded Racial Bias in Schools,” which you posted November 2, 2017.  I am very beginning stages of planning my dissertation research.  I am also Anglo.  Bondi (2012) states that some critical race theorists caution against the use of critical race theory (CRT) by Whites.  Unfortunately, Caucasians have a history of using researched information to disadvantage people of color.  However, after much research, consultation with people of color, and self-reflection, I have decided to pursue a dissertation topic on the persistence of Latinx males in higher education.  I am fluently bilingual and bi-literate in English and Spanish.  Spanish is my second language.  I have immersed myself in the culture of Mexico, and I am married to a bilingual Mexican American male.  I have both observed and been a target of racial/ethnic discrimination in the 22 or 23 years I have been with my husband.  My husband is very intelligent, but never completed his education.  I believe that his inability to achieve his desired educational goals is related to his experiences of institutionalized racism, discrimination, and microaggressions.  My husband is 66 years old.  He still carries the scars of outright and aggressive discrimination as a child and youth.  For example, he was the family interpreter as a child and Spanish is his first language.  When he attended public school in Colton, CA in the 1950s and 1960s, children and adolescents were punished severely for speaking Spanish on school grounds.  He had a difficult time talking to me in Spanish for the first few years we were together.  He explained that he had internalized so strongly that is was not acceptable to speak Spanish in front of a White person, that he felt uncomfortable talking with me in Spanish due to his fear of rejection.   

References

Bondi, S.  (2012) Students and institutions protecting whiteness as property: A critical race theory analysis of student affairs preparation, Journal of Student Affairs Research and Practice, 49(4), 397-414.  doi: 10.1515/jsarp-2012-6381

Lynn, M., & Dixson, A. D. (Eds.).   (2013).  Handbook of critical race theory in education. [VitalSource ed.]. New York, NY: Taylor & Francis.

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