Our favorite childhood stories are always filled with special memories and revisiting them as an adult is never quite the same—especially when we are able to understand the context behind them. While many images, characters and expressions seem filled with innocence at the time we view them through the lens of our youth, we often learn with age that they are reflective of stereotypes or outdated beliefs better left in the past.
One professor is doing his part to bring this to light by examining how racism in children’s books perpetuates harmful beliefs about certain groups of people.
In his new book, Was the Cat in the Hat Black? The Hidden Racism of Children’s Literature, and the Need for Diverse Books, Philip Nel studies the paradox of stories that are meant to nurture but can also do harm. An English professor at Kansas State University, Nel has probed racism in kids’ books in his classes
in previous books, and he uses this volume to highlight how dozens of beloved picture and chapter books leave negative messages in children’s minds.
Much like other, subtler forms of racism in our culture, it is not shocking to believe that these negative images are passed down through reading. After all, racism shows up in TV shows, music and other forms of popular culture. It is often unintentional but the impact is just as damaging. Reading is a very efficient way to inculcate racist beliefs into a population and has a specific target audience. Studies show that parents who read to their children set them up for high school graduation and career success. These are the children who end up being job creators and movers and shakers in society. And there is a direct correlation to who is reading to their kids and socio-economic status. Translation: financially well-off parents are more likely to be receiving and transmitting these messages to their children and this, unfortunately, is one way that continues the very dangerous cycle of oppression in our society.
For instance, one of Nel’s personal favorites, Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, has a big problem in the Oompa Loompas. The characters, which were depicted in early editions as African pygmies, are portrayed as happy slaves, content to leave their native land behind and toil in a factory. Especially for children who are descendants of slaves, such messages can have a pernicious effect on how they interpret their value in the world.
This is a great opportunity for parents to begin to seek out more diverse books for their children—written by diverse authors and with diverse characters. But this isn’t to say that parents should stop reading classic books to their children. What it really means is that this is an opportunity to develop an awareness of things we took for granted and blindly accepted as benign in the past. There is great value is examining how these beliefs show up and what they mean. “There’s also a reason to read them with children, because racism exists in the world.” Parents can explore these with a critical lens and help children develop a critical lens in the world. Now more than ever, it is important to teach children the value of talking about race and racism in order to transform it.