Reexamining “The Classics”

By | October 12, 2020

Discrimination isn’t always blatant. Sometimes it’s hard to recognize how what you’re reading may be building bias in your subconscious.

Take Tikki Tikki Tembo, for example, a decades-old children’s book billed as an adaptation of a Chinese folktale. It is not. And there is danger in treating it as an example of Chinese culture. For one thing, no part of Tikki Tikki Tembo-no Sa Rembo-chari Bari Ruchi-pip Peri Pembo’s great long name means “The Most Wonderful Thing in the Whole Wide World” the way the story claims. In fact, there are no Chinese words in the name at all, which critics have called out for reinforcing the stereotype that Chinese words sound like nonsense. And more egregiously, if anything it’s a mangled retelling of a Japanese tale, suggesting that all Asian cultures are the same.

And Tikki Tikki Tembo isn’t the only offender in the canon of the classics. Dr. Seuss is also problematic, not only because of the racist caricatures in his illustrations, but because of a general unwillingness for audiences to see these works as anything but beloved childhood favorites. Nostalgia can be fine, but when it exists in a vacuum without context, it is not. NPR took a quick look into how depictions in Seuss impacted children’s identities in marginalized group, and a 2019 article looked a lot deeper.

The website guides caregivers and educators in choosing anti-bias literature, and offers book reviews that that break books down into “recommended,” “recommended with caveat,” or “not recommended” categories.

There are other things to think about as you choose what you and your children are going to read, and how. For example, what if the work is not as blatantly racist as Seuss’s visuals? Millions of fans have a special place in their hearts for Harry Potter; does it matter now that his creator, JK Rowling, is anti-trans? Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game film adaptation faced a boycott for Card’s anti-gay rhetoric. Do we have to separate art from the artist? Can we? What if we make the mindful decision to NOT separate the two, but to keep ourselves open to recognizing where the authors’ biases may be influencing our own?

Does that seem like a lot of work just to escape into a good book? Maybe. But for those without the privilege of escaping into a good book, we should do the work.