childrens books

Your Most Cherished Childhood Books Are Probably Racist

The latest furore over racism in classic children’s literature has hit Germany. A publisher announced last month that in their forthcoming edition of Otfried Preussler’s The Little Witch, a German children’s classic from the ‘50s, they would be changing a handful of racially insensitive terms, specifically the word neger, the German equivalent of the word “negro.” The announcement has drawn a storm of controversy, with the publishers being accused of Fascist bookburning. One German literary academic argues, “You can’t act like the past didn’t exist. Take the anti-Semitic children’s books of the thirties. Today, we use those for scholarly research. We don’t rewrite them and give them to children.” Germany, like Australia, is a place where upwards of 40% of people are foreign-born or have one foreign parent. In such circumstances, the stakes are higher. Indeed, one little girl in Germany wrote to a newspaper in response to the story saying “My father is from Senegal, and he has very dark brown skin…You can’t imagine how it feels for me when I read or hear that word. It is just really, really horrible! My father is not a Neger, and neither am I!”

A similar furore has surrounded other children’s books. In one Pippi Longstocking story, a group of black children prostate themselves in the sand before the white children. In The Secret Garden, Mary bursts into tears and screams that black people “are not people”. Tintin In The Congo - which features a Congolese woman bowing and saying “white man very great. White mister is big juju man” –  is now unavailable at most bookshops and kept in the by-appointment-only rare books section of many libraries. The Smurfs aren’t safe either: they’ve been accused of racism, anti-Semitism and Stalinism.

Stephen Marche wrote an article for The New York Times in June of last year attempting to grapple with how to read books like these to his six year old son.  When confronted with books like Tintin, or even Star Wars movies, “the conundrum is how to explain to your kids that Jar Jar and Watto are stereotypes without first introducing the stereotypes that you are hoping to negate.”

Unfortunately, studies suggest that these stereotypes reach children regardless of whether they are exposed solely to politically correct films and books. Even in those who don’t hold explicitly racist (or sexist or homophobic) attitudes, stereotypes embed themselves in our unconsciousness. In that sense, Neil Levy argues, we are all racist because we are all subject to these unconscious associations. The same conclusion was made last year during the Festival of Dangerous Ideas (watch the video here).  “We never rise above these influences,” Levy writes, “all our thought remains utterly dependent on unconscious processes. We live in an environment that is polluted. We breathe this stuff in all the time.”