Op-Ed: The Dr. Seuss debate should be about the kids, not the ‘cancel culture’

Last week, you probably heard about Dr. Seuss and cancel culture. On March 2, Dr. Seuss Enterprises announced they would halt publication of six titles. Pundits immediately launched into the cultural fray, hurling accusations of silenced voices, saying the images are “debatable,” that a single problematic illustration shouldn’t provoke the disappearance of a beloved children’s book, and positing that our entire society is in a state of regression. 

I believe these arguments are incredibly irrelevant to the real issue at hand: the internalization of racist stereotypes by children and its effect on their well-being. Children of color exposed to racism are more likely to experience adverse health outcomes. Their nascent sense of self is vulnerable to myths propagated by the media of intellectual and moral inferiority. 

We have a responsibility to expunge racist media from existence, especially that which is perpetrated for children. We must treat children as the most important stakeholders in this discussion, for to consciously do otherwise in the pursuit of scoring points in culture wars is simply malevolent.  

Racist societal views have a heightened ability to harm young students of color, as children are more prone to be affected by assaults on the intelligence and morality of people who look like them, according to educator Lisa Delpit. Delpit writes in her paper “Lessons from Teachers” that when presented with the lie of racial inferiority, “children readily internalize these beliefs about themselves.” 

James Baldwin was keenly aware of this. In “Begin Again,” Eddie S. Glaude Jr. says Baldwin forged a pact with Howard University students to “never believe the lies the country told about them, because he knew that the lie would do irreparable harm to their souls.” 

And the consequences are devastating. Racism is a social determinant of health, and its exposure to children has profound repercussions which perpetuate health inequities. In 2019, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a journal article linking the impact of racism to chronic stress which leads to mental health problems and chronic disease in children. They recommend parents teach their kids to “identify racism when they see or experience it” and to “oppose the negative messages or behaviors by others.” If we let Dr. Seuss slide, what are we teaching our children about how to react to virulent stereotypes?  

Dr. Seuss was racist. Not like a Nazi, not with a white sheet, but the far more insidious and subversive variety in contemporary culture. The kind that makes people say these stereotypes are “debatable” without consideration for the audience of picture books: children. Children with big dreams whose wings are clipped by a racist narrative. In order to fight back, we must help the students who have internalized this message understand that our current education system works to oppress them and nourish the confidence for them to challenge racism when they experience it. 

Ceasing publication of these books wasn’t censorship; it was a moral necessity. And we can all do better, every day, for the sake of our kids.