By Norris Burkes March 14 2021
The literary world erupted last week over the decision to discontinue five Dr. Seuss books because of potentially offensive racial depictions.
In a statement released on the author’s birthday, Dr. Seuss Enterprises defended their decision saying, “These books portray people in ways that are hurtful and wrong.”
Whether you agree or not with the Seuss organization, I ask that you set aside your judgement to consider the similarities with the confession my wife made this week.
I’m pretty convinced she’s not a racist, but I should let you be the judge of that.
She tells me that she once participated in the singing of a song called “Fried Rice” at her Jr. high church camp.
Fried Rice. Fried Rice
Cheese and bologna
And after the Macaroni
We’ll have onions, pickles and pretzels
And then we’ll have some more Fried Rice.
Fried Rice Fried rice.
The song isn’t offensive until heard with the mannerisms the campers gave it.
Apparently, they sang first in a slow pace, then at fast clip, then with infantile inflections and then … wait for it … in “Chinese” style.
In that version, a few kids stretched out their eyes, while the full choir gave the song a stereotypical accent of an Asian attempting English words. The title became ”Flied Lice” and then they used Rs and Ls to inject a bigoted impression into the lyrics.
Yup. They sure did. At church camp!
No, not so much. I didn’t write this to call out my wife for bigotry. In fact, we wrote this together to uncover what we might learn about our own hidden biases from racial impressions we’ve shared in our past.
Becky confesses that she sang in the pervasive culture of 1960s childhood. But as she matured and learned of other cultures, she awoke to the hurtful nature of the accent that bullied and separated people.
Moreover, she learned to change her tune.
She invited exchange students into our home from Japan, Germany and France. She took a classroom full of Cambodian immigrants and learned all their names in the first day. As a teacher, she stocked her classroom library with storybooks that represented her students.
In short, when she realized how the musical impression was shortsighted and damaging, she took responsibility for what she learned.
I guess that’s the meaning conveyed in the current expression, “Woke.” It’s an aha-moment when one realizes that something ain’t right and it needs to change. It’s not a state of being, but a decision we continually make.
By all accounts, Theodor Seuss Geisel was a political radical for a guy born in 1904. His books covered ecology, nuclear proliferation and the imprudence of America’s isolationist view.
However, when you do a quick Google image search of “Seuss,” you’ll see his advertising work of the 30s and 40s that relied on a heavy use of racial caricatures. So, like all of us, he had some learning to do.
Fortunately, by the mid 70s the good doctor showed signs of an awakening. In a 1976 interview he called those cartoons, “embarrassingly badly drawn, and they’re full of many snap judgements.” By 1978, he agreed to remove the character’s pigtail and the yellow coloring from the character’s skin in Mulberry Street.
I wish Dr. Seuss Enterprises was a quicker learner, but like my wife, his company showed some responsibility toward the truth as they were awakened to it.
To be clear, I don’t see my wife or Seuss as racists. They were a product of their culture. I respect the fact that when faced with the issue, they started to change.
It’s a principle the Apostle Paul so eloquently expressed in his writing to the Church at Corinth. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became a man, I put away childish things” (1 Corinthians 13:1).
In the matter of systemic racism, this column doesn’t even touch the tip of the proverbial iceberg. There are many conversations yet to be had and many more childish things to put aside as we continue to get “woke” and being the people, we truly want to be.
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