Tuesday, February 26, 2019

Reading Racist Books To My Kid

I ran in to a hiccup at bedtime. It wasn’t actually the first time I’ve run into this particular hiccup, but it got me thinking.

Almost every night, I read to my son. It’s great, for all the usual reasons. He gets to discover characters and worlds I loved as a kid, or we discover wonderful new ones. He hears the stories that helped teach me things about bravery, honesty, loyalty, determination, or silliness. We’ve heard from some titans of children’s literature: Roald Dahl is wonderful to read out loud. C.S. Lewis’s Narnia Chronicles are better than I remember them: the moral choices children make in his stories are valuable discussion starters for father-son talks about responsibility, consequences, kindness, and listening to your conscience.

But then… at bedtime… there are passages like this.

Cover art from the version I read as a kid.
Turbans and scimitars. Source
From The Horse and His Boy:
"This boy is manifestly no son of yours, for your cheek is as dark as mine but the boy is fair and white like the accursed but beautiful barbarians who inhabit the remote North [meaning Narnia].” (Chapter 1) C. S. Lewis. The Horse and his Boy (Kindle Locations 79-80). HarperCollins. HOLD ON! So... C.S. Lewis believes dark people are ugly? Am I reading this right?

"The next thing was that these men were not the fair-haired men of Narnia: they were dark, bearded men from Calormen, that great and cruel country that lies beyond Archenland across the desert to the south." C. S. Lewis. Last Battle (Kindle Locations 263-264). San Val, Incorporated.

Yes, the Calormenes, from Calormen, across the desert south of Narnia, worship the cruel god Tash (with hints of human sacrifice). They feature in The Last Battle and The Horse and His Boy and they are clearly coded as Muslims: they are dark-faced, wear turbans, and wield scimitars. They are also described as cruel and exploitative. Oh... and some Dwarves mock them by calling them "Darkie.” And in case you thought you could omit a few details and remove the racial coding... they're drawn on the cover of the version I read as a kid. No getting around it.

The Silver Chair's treatment of the character Jill Pole in particular falls into many old tropes about what girls are and aren't, can and can't do.

Cover art of the version I read as a kid.
Roald Dahl, whom we’d been reading before reading Narnia, had this buried in Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator:

'It is very difficult to phone people in China, Mr President,' said the Postmaster General. 'The country's so full of Wings and Wongs, every time you wing you get the wong number.' (Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator (Kindle Locations 302-303).

When they do call someone in China... their names are Chu-On-Dat and How-Yu-Bin, and they address the president as Mr. Plesident. Yeah. Roald Dahl went there. Just skip Charlie and the Great Glass Elevator, folks. As sequel letdowns go, it gives Jaws: The Revenge and Kingdom of the Crystal Skull a run for their money.

So what do we do about this?

I don’t believe it’s right to shield my son from some of the lessons about human ugliness throughout history. I don’t look for ways to work it into every single conversation, but I don’t flinch away when it comes up. I explain things on the level of understanding my kid has. When a taxi driver mentioned it was Indonesian Independence Day during a trip to Bali, he learned about colonialism. After seeing a movie together, there’s always question time, so after we saw Black Panther together, he asked why Killmonger was so angry, and whether Wakanda was a real country, and we learned about structural racism and connected it to what he knew about colonialism. We’ve talked about patriarchy, sexism, gender stereotyping and consent at the level a seven-year-old grasps, and he understands that people with power haven’t always used their power for good.
Killmonger. Because Killmonger, obv. Source.

If I want Junior to grow into a  compassionate adult who notices and hates injustice, I believe it’s important to start early. I also believe the really important stuff should be a part of ongoing conversations, not just covered one time during “the talk”. So my son knows what the patriarchy is, he’s had racism explained to him, and colonialism, and corruption.

But at bedtime?

It’s probably shallow to admit, but I didn’t want to get into the fact that while he wrote a great set of books, C.S. Lewis could also be racist or Islamophobic at BEDTIME.

So while reading The Horse and His Boy and The Last Battle, I dropped a few words, changed a few phrases (scimitar became sword, turban became hat, dark face became mean face), thanked my stars I was reading the Kindle version without cover art, and figured I’d more or less removed the racist/Islamophobic aspect of the book’s messaging: there’s a lot of other stuff in Narnia that’s good!

Henry Huggins, childhood version. Source.
And to get away from such risky material, I picked something I thought would be resoundingly safe. The everyday life relatability of Beverly Cleary, another writer I enjoyed when I was small in a different way than Narnia. Henry Huggins was about a boy and his dog, and we have a dog!

Cue Henry Huggins, by Beverly Cleary, Kindle Location 506-509:
"In September he had been Second Indian in a play for the Westward Expansion Unit. That hadn’t been too bad. He had stuck an old feather out of a duster in his hair and worn an auto robe his mother let him take to school. It was an easy part, because all he had to say was “Ugh!” First Indian and Third Indian also said “Ugh!” It really hadn’t mattered which Indian said “Ugh!” Once all three said it at the same time.”

Indians saying “Ugh,” white kids dressing as First-Nations, and school plays about “Westward Expansion” where First Nations are treated as savages. Avoiding or talking around this stuff was harder than I’d thought it would be. Or at least hoped it would be. At least when trying to introduce my son to the stuff I read as a kid.

What’s the best path when there are great works of children’s literature, but they were written at a time when misogyny, bigotry, racism, homophobia, or transphobia were considered normal, or fit for joking? I would be sad to deprive my kid of Narnia, but I really really do not want him to absorb casual sexism or racism during our visits. On the other hand… how is my kid going to feel if I regularly pause the books I’m reading him to talk about, say, the genocide of the first nations? That ruins the bedtime flow, and I don’t look forward to getting “the eyeroll” when I feel the need turn a critical eye on an aspect of a film or book we’re working on.

What is a conscientious parent to do?

I’m talking here about that incidental stuff, by the way. If I wanted specifically to talk about North America’s legacy of structural racism, I can find a book that tackles it head-on. I can find thirty on the first page of google results, even without resorting to white-authored classics like To Kill a Mockingbird or Huckleberry Finn. There are scads of books that specifically, intentionally examine the ways sexism has distorted women’s lives through history to start conversations, if I go looking for them. Those books will one day be fodder for age-appropriate parent-son conversations. Right now though, I’m not talking about that kind of intentionality. I’m talking about getting blindsided: being in the middle of a great story when suddenly the male hero praises the female hero’s archery: “Nice shot!” and then adds “for a girl.”

Say "For a girl" again. I dare you! (source)
For example:
“It’s an extraordinary thing about girls that they never know the points of the compass,” said Eustace.
(The Silver Chair, CS Lewis, (Kindle Location 117). HarperCollins.)

It’s not a particularly original thought, but these bedtime reading incidents have really brought home to me just how much times have changed. And because times have changed, here is a hard truth it is time to face:

Parents, humans, haters of injustice, and especially those over age thirty-five… this is a bitter pill, but in 2019, you probably need to reread or rewatch stuff you loved as a kid, because our collective idea of what is OK has changed. This is especially true if you are white and male, because all of Western society is engineered for us not to notice the ways it (including media) marginalizes people who don't look, sound and act like us.

There is stuff that passed without comment when we loved it as a kid, that should not pass without comment any longer. Coming back as an adult, we have the tools to spot that, and it is our responsibility as parents to help our kids decode what they see if we decide to watch old films or read old books with our kids, in order to make sure they don't internalize ugly messages we might have internalized, and now have to do the work to eliminate from our thinking.

And this is the hard part:

You might have to change your mind about some stuff you really loved. You might have to decide not to show it to your kid, or at least prepare to have a talk about it. You will not be able to pretend you are a kid again for everything you used to love as a kid. Sorry.

I ADORED this guy. Source
I’ll give an example from my life: one of my heroes when I was four was Peter Pan. I ran around the house with a wooden toy sword fighting Captain Hook for months.

Re-watching as an adult, I saw the song sung to Peter by the “Indian” tribe who live in Neverland, and folks, mass media does not get much more racist than this.  I won’t embed this on my blog because it really is that bad, and click it at your own risk. I had completely forgotten this song was in the film, but a First Nations kid watching Peter Pan sure wouldn’t. And I sure as hell don’t want my kid absorbing stereotypes about First Nations from a film I chose to show him. Add to this how petty the female characters are in competing for Peter Pan’s attention, and the weird way Wendy wants to be Peter Pan’s mother and girlfriend at the same time, and Peter Pan is just out. There are other swashbucklers that are also hilarious, that don't have all that crap in there, too.

When we look at stuff from the past, the media attention cycle goes the same way: some people point out some stuff in old media that is bad, or questionable. Stuff that would have been cut if it were made today. People who loved that thing when they were young get mad and gripe that "PC Culture is even ruining my childhood now!" ... a conversation follows where nobody is really interested in changing their mind.

It's safe to do this about stuff that is open-and-shut, indisputably awful, or old enough the number of people still nostalgic about it is vanishingly small: you can say Birth Of A Nation was racist, or that the blackface in The Jazz Singer is bad.  Not many people on Twitter grew up on that.

But if you find something iffy in Mary Poppins, people will come at you!  They took the author of Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder's name off of a children’s literature award and people lost their shit.

Tin-tin,  Dr Seuss, the VJ Day Kiss in Times Square photo: times have changed, and that's good, but it's requiring some treasured bits of the bad old days be left by the wayside, or at least discussed in a new light, and it can be hard to let go. You are gonna be shocked by what I learned about The Cat In The Hat while preparing this piece. Unless you aren't, because you grew up with a perspective I lacked.

(Here is a podcast about the Cat in the Hat thing, which touches on Bugs Bunny, Mickey Mouse, and more!)

(It's hard to miss once it's been pointed out, though.)
source: see link above. Big bowtie, striped hat &
oversized white gloves are all markers of minstrelsy
The Cat in The Hat is about as tough a pill to swallow as we're going to find in this. On the bright side, from here on, everything's easier. But let's remember: if the image above is upsetting, it is because we care more now about respecting oppressed groups and remembering past injustices than we ever have before. That's good! It shows we're getting better, collectively!

Let's also remember: nobody is calling for a ban on The Little House On The Prairie, Tin-Tin, Dr. Seuss, or Mary Poppins. They can still be found in libraries and bookstores if YOU want to read them to your kid. Different parents will draw lines in different places. Nobody will raid your house and check your bookshelves to remove offending material. The goal here is just for people to be thoughtful about their choices, and be ready to have a talk with their kids about stuff if they see fit, or maybe do some self-reflection.

attempted rape. that is what Biff did.
no getting around it, either.
Some parents will, and some won’t decide they need to decode the corporal punishment and casual treatment of bullying in A Christmas Story. Or the lack of developed female characters. Maybe you think your kids can handle the attempted rape in Back To The Future, and maybe you’ll want to comment on the lack of even a single character of color in The Princess Bride. Maybe not. It depends, I guess, on which issues are important to you as a parent, and the context in which your kids are growing up.

Peter Pan is nowhere near the only example I could give, but as I go through old stuff to decide what my son does and doesn't engage, I’m now bracing myself to slot the stuff I loved as a kid into a few different categories:

Top level: completely fine to show/read to my kid (Matilda, The Emperor's New Groove)

Next: Still OK, but we’ll have to pause and talk about a few things (Islamophobia in Narnia, fat shaming in Harry Potter and Goonies, consent in Sleeping Beauty casual sexism in… everything.)

Below the water line: Times have changed, so I’ll be enjoying this one without my kid. (Ace Ventura: Pet Detective builds its entire plot around a transphobic joke… I don’t think I can recommend that to friends any more.)

And finally, “I can’t even like this anymore” (I’m worried that Peter Pan is here. I’m afraid to even rewatch it so I don’t have to put it there quite yet.)

One thing that amazed me about that awful Peter Pan song was that in 1953, the entire creative team at Disney thought it would be a good, cute, or funny thing to put into a children’s movie. 1953 is not long ago. The other thing that amazed me was that it passed as “normal” to me when I saw it as a kid: those kinds of jokes were considered acceptable at the time, and I absorbed all of that. And Lo Pan. And the brownface in Short Circuit 2. And episodes titled Jungle Drums and Japoteurs from Max Fleischer’s iconic Superman cartoon (guess which races are portrayed…just from the titles!)

It’s kind of amazing to revisit the stuff that taught me the the prejudices I’ve been trying since then to unlearn, to realize how it was just in the atmosphere back then. It was the juice we were all pickled in. The pervasive background radiation that turned us all into mutants.

Un-pickling, or de-mutant-ing is hard: it’s much easier to avoid being pickled and mutated in the first place. It’s too late for that for me, but not for my kid.

Author John Scalzi said on Twitter, after the internet found yet another bad thing someone had done in the 80s (this time the case was Ralph Northam’s racist yearbook photo…)
Scalzi doesn’t bring this up to excuse anyone: he brings it up because the world has changed, and people also change, and it’s important to be honest about who we once were, so we can move on and do better.

I’ll second that. I am not 100% confident my old blog posts, yearbook photos, e-mails and ten years of Twitter and Facebooking wouldn’t turn up something that could be context-pulled and used against me. Some things come to mind immediately, in fact. There are times in my past where I’ve done things I now know are wrong, or would be considered wrong today, but passed without comment in 1993, or thought I'd get away with in 2000, or misguidedly defended in 2009. There are some moments I’m not proud of, tons of bad jokes I’ve laughed at,  and some hard apologies I’ve had to make. I’d hate for those to make the rounds on twitter, as they do not reflect who I am today. John Scalzi has this right: there is stuff in the past that we can’t just blow off, individually, but also as a society. Some stuff we loved, or laughed at, would not get on television, or find a publisher, today. And rightfully so. Imagine this sketch idea airing on SNL today (racism warning: Chevy Chase says the N word).

Let's have a white man in a position of power say racist things to a black man! Now that's what I call comedy! (/sarcasm)

 In light of this… it’s probably good Disney is remaking some of its classic movies, partly so that they can take a mulligan those uncomfortable moments. Can we have an Aladdin that doesn’t stereotype Arabs? A Dumbo without a minstrel-style black-talking character named Jim Crow and his layabout friends? Can somebody please edit up a Yunioshi-free "2019 cut" of Breakfast at Tiffany's?

Nostalgia resists looking backward with a critical eye. Nostalgia wants us to gloss over this stuff and give it a pass because we loved it back in the day. To be honest, some of these are hard for me. I’m more ready to cut bait on Little House on the Prairie than The Princess Bride (no people of color and weaksauce damsel in distress tropes) because I didn’t read Little House as a kid, but The Princess Bride is dear to my heart. And The Cat In The Hat? I'm still reeling. Plus, what's done is done: we can’t de-publish the books or cancel their sales figures. We can't un-read them or blot out the love we had for them when we were small, nor their legacies or influence in the industry overall. No one is asking Julie Andrews to return her Best Actress Oscar for dusting her cheeks with charcoal.

Defenders also argue that it’s unfair to hold the past up to today’s norms and values, when a new case comes up. I'd argue the other way: it's unhelpful to zero in on specific cases when old bigotries were so widespreadJohn Wayne endorsed white supremacy and uses a slur for homosexuals. Yes, I condemn such opinions, but don't forget he made those comments at a time when many, maybe most white men would have said the same stuff. It's unfair to single John Wayne out just because he alone said it on the record. Throwing him under the bus risks letting all the rest of us off the hook. Posthumously roughing up the legacy of one guy isn't helpful unless it leads to a bigger conversation to talk about how normal and common those attitudes were, and what we (as a society) must do to move past them. Duke's place in the Hollywood firmament is already set anyway. Why warm him over if his work stays in the past?

However, if I read or show it to my kid, it’s no longer in the past. I'm pulling it back into the present. If that white supremacist attitude shows up in any John Wayne film I show my kid (and it does), I can't let it lie, because I do not want my kid to have to unlearn all the prejudices I had to unlearn as I became an adult. We don’t have any say over what passed a generation ago, but we do get to decide what to do about it today, by making mindful choices.

What can we do? How can we acknowledge the importance of a writer like CS Lewis without passing on his prejudices to our kids? Is there another way than simply depriving our kids of it?

Here are some ideas: We can hold off on it until our kids are old enough to spot the bad stuff on their own. One of my friends read a book with her child that looks at the Westward Expansion from the point of view of the First Nations, before reading Little House on the Prairie. That's an elegant way to build empathy and add context. I’ve paused in the middle of bedtime reading to talk about racism, First Nations genocide and land theft, and the patriarchy. A lot of parents use guided questions to elicit critical thinking about stuff like this. I’m doing my best to read every book to my kid before watching movie adaptations where the cast is always as white as can be (or the Internet gets mad), which makes it harder to imagine the characters as anything else. I’ve got my feelers out for stories I can read to my kid that deal with discrimination or bigotry or the various isms in ways that kids can get. I’m very much in the market for newer books by newer authors who deal with otherness and discrimination in more sophisticated ways than CS Lewis's villainization of his Arab stand-ins. There are strategies parents can use. There are entire parenting articles about those strategies. (See the links below.)

And in 2019, if you really look around… we aren’t actually out of the woods yet. It's easy to shake our heads at John Wayne and the bigotries of bygone eras, though sometimes we choke on our nostalgia. However, Bridesmaids, Black Panther, Crazy, Rich, Asians, and Brokeback Mountain notwithstanding, women, people of color, and sexual minorities are still underrepresented, or badly represented in Hollywood. Game of Thrones still uses violence against women to raise the stakes, and extraneous female nudity to spice up scenes that drag. It took the MCU more than twenty films to make a feature with a female protagonist, and there's been only one with a nonwhite protagonist, and given the rarity of romantic subplots in the MCU, we might be waiting longer still for LGTBQ representation in the MCU (depending on your headcanon). Diversity in literature for children and young people is being discussed within the industry, but there's a long way to go, both in the diversity of characters portrayed in stories, and in diversity of who gets a publishing deal.

Nostalgia is tricksy, but to avoid our kids growing up with the same prejudices once inculcated in us, we need to protect them from the background radiation that did it, and to do that, we have to set our sentimentality aside, and either be willing to talk and provide context for our little ones, or be willing to set some treasured works aside. There is enough great stuff out there that we won't be that much poorer for it, and there's a lot of new stuff that deserves that spot.

I’m not flinching away from this anymore, and I’m having to choose a bit more carefully what I read to my kid. Sometimes it's hard let go of some films for which I still hold great fondness, but jeez. Compared to the pain and sacrifice other people have gone through in fighting injustice, asking a few extra questions while making a reading list is the very tiniest, most insignificant least I can do.

For comments, I'm less interested in defenses of the works mentioned here, and more interested in two things:
1. Ideas on how to present works from the past (or the present) to kids that have troublesome elements, in a way that builds empathy and adds context
2. Suggestions for more books and films parents could show/read their kids that are great, but also center on different voices than the overwhelmingly white and male voices in the children's lit canon, especially works that can counterbalance the white/male/colonial/etc. perspectives of many classic children's books. ("If you're thinking about reading Huckleberry Finn to your kid, why not read THIS book alongside/instead of it it?"-type comments are especially welcome.)

More reading:
Four good questions to ask about a beloved classic that’s aged badly:

How to read Racist Books to your Kids

More on Diversity in Children’s Literature


And film

A list of substitute books you can read instead of diving, yet again, into the white male authors’ canon:

A list of recommended books for parents to help make sure their kids are part of the solution to racism, instead of the problem:

Thanks in particular to my facebook friends Suzanne, Eugene and Jennifer, whose discussions of this topic were very helpful in developing my view on the topic.

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