“Since August 20, the young Red Guards of Peking, detachments of students,have taken to the streets. With the revolutionary rebel spirit of the proletariat, they have launched a furious offensive to sweep away reactionary, decadent bourgeois and feudal influences, and all old ideas, culture, customs and habits. This mounting revolutionary storm is sweeping the cities of the entire nation.Red Guards and revolutionary students and teachers in Lhasa have proposed to change the names of places, streets and houses which are tainted with feudal serfdom and superstition. They also propose that literary and art groups forbid the performance of operas and plays which reek of imperialism and feudalism. The waterfront of the Whangpoo River in Shanghai was, until the liberation, the centre of imperialist plunder of the Chinese people. The buildings here have still carried many reminders of the imperialists and here the Red Guards and revolutionary workers and staff have gone in for revolutionizing in a big way. They have taken down all the imperialist signs from walls and removed the bronze lions outside one of the big buildings. Peking (“Beijing”) Review, 1966
PREFACE: My grandson is a mix of Amazonian Indian, Brazilian, Portuguese, Indian (India), Trinidadian and Irish. Certainly, in all the cultures his genes arise from, there is current and historical racism, slavery, discrimination, class issues and so on. Does he bear any responsibility for all the sins of the past other than to be consciously aware of it all and be sensitive to how it affects the present (will influence his present one day)? The grandkid looks non-white, and I know this means, unfortunately, in parts of the United States and certain regions of the world, he may be mocked and subjected to racism/discrimination. Does this mean I know what it is like not to be White and have had a revelation thanks to the probabilities that my grandson appears as a non-White? No. It just means chance and evolution were at work. Perhaps the world will reboot over the next 17 years. I wrote a bit about this subject in 2015 which can be read here: White and Guilty of the Crime of History? I’m not Going to the Reeducation Camp.
And I agree with Teju Cole’s point about the White Savior Industrial Complex theory. That starts with protesting against tortuous US foreign policy that makes it worse for nations on the African Continent. “Let us begin our activism right here: with the money-driven villainy at the heart of American foreign policy. To do this would be to give up the illusion that the sentimental need [of White people] to “make a difference” trumps all other considerations. What innocent heroes don’t always understand is that they play a useful role for people who have much more cynical motives. The White Savior Industrial Complex is a valve for releasing the unbearable pressures that build in a system built on pillage.” Cole refers to Haiti and Nigeria, two countries that have borne the brunt of the American government’s harshness. You could list most central American countries in that category too, including Venezuela.
So Long Dr. Seuss of Dartmouth, You Did it to Yourself
No more Dr. Suess’s Sleep Book before bedtime, I guess. I once read the book myself in bed–as the instructions at the beginning of the book required (“this book is to be read in bed”)–and I used to read it to my son. I still have the book and, I’ll admit it, I look at it now and then. I still am fascinated by the Biffer-Buam Birds, the Oft Aloft and I imagine what it might be like to be able to sleep in the Bed of the Jed, “The softest of beds in the world it is said.” It still makes me sleepy.
And then there is the Cat in the Hat Comes Back. I read that book often myself and then, like Dr. Seuss’s Sleep Book, I read that to my son too. I used the book to explain to my young one some of the intricacies of particle physics. You could not see VaVoom but you could see the results of its presence: The ink disappeared and so particle collisions, interactions must have taken place.
Anyway, those were the only two Dr. Seuss books I really favored. The rest were too preachy for me. Little did I realize that racialist undertones permeated many of the books and, alas, I was not politically or culturally attuned, like millions of others in the United States and around the globe, to the the dismal facts set forth in a study by Ramon Stephens and Katie Ishizuka titled the Cat is Out of the Bag: Orientalism, Anti-Blackness and White Supremacy in Dr. Seuss’ Children’s Books. Their study has garnered 163,626 downloads and has had the positive effect of causing the publisher’s of Dr. Seuss’s books to stop pushing out the titles with the most offending cartoons.
Stephens and Ishizuka also noted that a mere 2 percent of Dr. Suess’s characters were not White, or appeared to be non-White. “In the fifty Dr. Seuss children’s books, 2240 human characters are identified. Of the 2240, there are 45 characters of color representing 2% of the total number of human characters.”
That small act of atonement by Seuss’s publishing house will not matter though. Ultimately, Dr. Seuss’s (Ted Geisel) titles will be banned by public and in-school libraries. As a children’s book collection, they will become oddities used for further studies by enterprising critical literary and racial theorists for further analysis. The same fate awaits thousands of titles authored by “Whites” to include novels, cinema titles, cartoons, and corporate products displaying implied racial insensitivity.
Personally, I’m fine with exposes like that of Stephens and Ishizuka as long as they are not in-your-face, vengeful, punitive efforts at dumping on those in the 21st Century who had no earthly influence on the events of world history before 600 to the present. Racism (to include discrimination against LGBTQ+, in group versus out group, etc.), sadly, is endemic to the human species. We may rid ourselves of this maddening scourge probably around the same time as we eliminate nuclear weapons.Or, perhaps, Climate Change will get us all first.
Stay in Your Whatever Lane
Beyond correcting racial, discriminatory narratives, the core issue in these matters seems to me to be, To what extreme will cultural erasure go? Will Chairman Mao’s or the Red Guards model be adopted here in the United States or elsewhere? At what point does racial and cultural awareness turn into a vindictive purge against all things Whiteness or against those other colors, religions that oppressed the weary? Does an erasure movement become regressive, anti-free speech and inhibit creativity? How far back in history does this dig travel? Who will be the inquisitors, guardians overseeing what clearly is a purge, a reeducation campaign? Should White people be eliminated? At what point does racism reverse to Black on White, Hispanic on Black, and so on. You get the idea.
People in the United States obviously would not be the first to pull down the statues of those who engaged in enslaving people and looked the other way while many of the oppressed were hanged/murdered simply because of their skin color and class position in society. Statues of Stalin, Lenin, and Sadam Hussein were all brought down by citizens, mainly the young and middle class, in the former Soviet Union and the “old” Iraq, who lived under tyrannical rule and were hustled off to gulags or persecuted because of culture-religion or class position. The conquering Americans got into that culture changing gig during the second invasion of Iraq pointing to an interesting fact about human history: the conquerors usually determine the rules and the historical narratives. That changes over time as the conquered assimilate the conquerors or eventually overtake them by revolution. And so the cycle repeats itself. At some point in the future, the same will happen to the United States.
So just how should an author of novels, a screenwriter or a children’s storyteller go about their craft these days? Perhaps characters should be created and colored representing the demographics of the country in which the creative person is a citizen. Take, for example, a person who lives in the United States decides one day to write an epic novel of love, hate and redemption. That work would have the percentage of its characters mirror the Census.Gov demographics. To wit, the novel should contain: White, 60.1 to 76.3; Hispanic or Latino, 18.5%; Black, 13.4%; Asian, 5.9%; Two or more races, 2.8%; American Indian/Alaska Native, 1.3% and Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander, 0.2%. And approximately 4% identify as LGBTQ+
These percentages reflect the population of the United States and so shouldn’t authors, scriptwriters, filmmakers make sure they’ve included the exact percentages? Would that be acceptable to critical race, literary theory. Probably not.
There is another issue here: Authors, scriptwriters, and filmmakers must adhere to the “no lane change rule;” that is, a White author can’t have characters that are Black, Hispanic/Latino or Asian because he/she/person can’t get into that person’s color or look invalidating the character’s credibility. On the other hand, Blacks, Hispanic/Latino or Asian authors can’t create White characters, the same way that Asians can’t have characters who are Black, and so it goes.
The next matter of concern, let’s say for an AMAB author, or “assigned male at birth,” beyond the racial and “stay in your lane” matters, is to be cognizant of the identifiers of sexuality or asexuality and the percentage of LGBTQ+ in the United States (4%). Some include: ACE for asexual; Cisgender, a person whose biological sex matches with their gender identity; and Polyamorous: A person who finds themselves romantically, physically, and/or sexually attracted to multiple individuals, and finds that pursuing multiple relationships is the most satisfying course of action in their lives.
Revolutionary Zeal Required
There is literally no field of study that is not being probed or scrubbed for racist, discriminatory tendencies and, hence, censure and erasure. Consider classical music, for example. According to Nebal Maysaud:
“It is time to let classical music die. Western classical music is not about culture. It’s about whiteness. It’s a combination of European traditions which serve the specious belief that whiteness has a culture—one that is superior to all others. Its main purpose is to be a cultural anchor for the myth of white supremacy.”
Beethoven was actually a revolutionary in his time and place. Well, no more 4th Piano Concerto, I guess.
Math, architecture, Greek and Roman studies, physics, medicine are all undergoing scrutiny. In order to truly purge these and other fields from “Whiteness,” a Red Guard mentality is likely needed going forward. Purging the United States of White Supremacy, White Saviorism, and Whiteness is a herculean task. That effort might be assisted by reading Making Civilizations: The World Before 600 by Harvard Press (2020). Race, religion and violence have been powerful forces in the development of humanity. Completing the work of eradicating all three from society will take thousands of years and an evolutionary leap; or, perhaps, a world catastrophe.
John Stanton can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org