This week white America finally noticed the disturbing racism of Theodor Geisel. I submit that it’s not merely the appalling cartoons he made for adult audiences, but the complete lack of any human skin tone other than white in all of his books for children. EveryBoy is white. And he outnumbers EveryGirl (also white) by a wide margin. If you are a child of color, the message is you do not exist. At best, these books tell our children that this country, this culture is not for them. They are outsiders. They are unwanteds. They are wrong.
(For the record, Geisel’s racism is not news to the rest of the country. For example, the National Education Association’s Read Across America, which takes place on Geisel’s birthday and was centered on Dr Seuss’s works when I was selling kids’ books a decade ago, began distancing themselves from Geisel four years ago. The event is now a celebration of diversity in children’s literature.)
I spent last summer with John Biewen and Chenjerai Kumanyika Seeing White on Scene On Radio. It was brutal, but necessary. Much like ripping off that bandage over the wood stove burn I got a few days ago, the one that’s now starting to fester. My eyes were opened. Thereafter followed an intense period of reading real history — The History of White People, Puritan Conquistadors, The Half Has Never Been Told, Stamped from the Beginning, An Indigenous Peoples’ History of the United States — and learning the story of this country from perspectives outside the white male mind.
Mind you, I have college degrees in both history and journalism. I’ve spent decades reading and writing. I used to sell books for a living. I pay attention. I’ve long considered myself an anti-racist. And this was the first time I’d encountered the idea that our country not only tolerated slavery — it was foundational. This country would not, could not exist without it. Similarly, wealth and property ownership, here and throughout the EuroWestern world, are absolutely predicated on theft of land and lives and the dehumanizing — often complete erasure — of our victims. If you are wealthy today, you have blood on your hands. This may be true for wealth throughout history. But it is grotesquely magnified in the fabrication of this country and then utterly expunged from our stories. So that someone like me can live over half a century with eyes open and still not see.
This week, I am reading White Fragility by Robin DiAngelo. More pain, but not as wrenching because now I expect the bandage-ripping sensation embodied in this story. However, it is still revealing. And it underlines the normalizing force that is whiteness, that which breeds monsters and then paints them harmless. Theodor Geisel made wonderful kids’ books — for white kids. We call them classics; they apply to generalized human children. And generalized human children are thus colored white. To call them great is to normalize racism.
I’ve always felt the tension between my culture — those people and works of art and literature that are considered fundamental to human thought and history — and my female body. I rarely saw myself in the classics. I assumed this meant I was a freak. And yet women are the majority. But I’ve only recently begun to viscerally feel the jarring segregation between these venerated white men who have generated our culture and literally the entire rest of the world. It almost makes me want to burn books.
But let’s approach this from the glass-half-full position. We have no books, we have no history, we have no culture that is inclusive. So there is a vast need for new everything. Think of the out-pouring of creativity that could flow from remaking our world with eyes wide open. Think of the color and beauty and truth that we may now paint across our lives. Some stories will be terrible and wrenching, but they will heal us. White guys have had their time. They failed. It’s on to everyone else now. So get creating! The world is waiting to see you!
©Elizabeth Anker 2021
Time to talk. The rules of engagement: No rudeness. Absolutely nothing foul. (Herself is quite proper, thank you very much, and expects the same standards from you.) Also nothing personal. If you want to talk direct to me, there is the contact page linked on every post. Send me email. I like it. Most days.
2 thoughts on “Whiteness”
I enjoyed reading your take on this matter. To what extent do you think that reading about the other side of history is about learning something that we didn’t realise actually existed, or learning about contemporary politics and the way the past is now presented to us?
It’s extremely hard to learn about something in the past (the “didn’t realise it actually existed” bin) if you don’t first figure out that our current stories about ourselves hide some really big things. So I think maybe it’s both, but fixing the current narrative is the first step.