a rant about racism and censorship and cancel culture

Did you grow up white, in a white town, with only white people around you? If so, you have probably never thought about how easily racism is taught to young people, because you thought your children weren’t affected. You weren’t affected by it. Likely you never noticed it at all.

It’s super easy to just go along doing the same things your parents did, because they were good people and you’re proud of where you came from. And why should you be bothered with this stuff? You already have a life of work and hardship and challenges. You’re a nice person, but you’re also tired. You’re tired of this pandemic, and tired of all the outrage seemingly manufactured by the media and those who think they are better educated than you are, even though you work hard for a living.

The reason you’re upset about Dr. Seuss Enterprises ceasing publication last year of six kids’ books (out of many!) is because you have probably never truly thought about the endemic nature of racism and its foothold in our society and how it is perpetuated. See: Jim Crow laws, voter suppression and gerrymandering, common myths about ‘savages’, the weirdness of racial stereotyping, institutional support, etc.

How do I know this? Because I grew up in working-class white America, in a town that, at that particular moment in time, had few people of color living in it. I never thought about the fact that everyone around me was white, all the books had white characters, and nearly all the tv shows were white-centric (I did not know The Jeffersons even existed until years later). And I certainly never thought about race until the day I moved away, to a big city, and met my first non-white person at the ripe old age of seventeen in an elevator of my dorm. Much to my surprise, he spoke perfect English. I thought he was from a foreign country. He looked ‘exotic.’

He was from Connecticut.

Ceasing publication of a few children’s books by the estate of those books isn’t censorship. Why not? Because any adult can easily buy used copies, check out these books from the library, and read them to children and grandchildren. We can talk about them with our friends. We can save them and have a collection of them in our house. Censorship is when the government bans every copy of a book, discussion, or idea they can find, and arrest/incarcerate those who own those books or speak those ideas, thereby attempting to erase it from the collective knowledge of society.

Restricting speech, by the way, is not censorship. Restricting speech is, for example, when Facebook (a corporation) removes photos and discussions of breastfeeding and romance novels because whoa, boobies. This sucks, but it isn’t illegal. Dr. Seuss isn’t forgotten or canceled even in this fashion, because we are all posting about it on FB and Twitter and elsewhere on the internet. Pundits of every flavor are talking about it all over the place. Dr. Seuss’ larger body of work (the political cartoons, etc.) lives on, digitized on the internet, by the way. It’s easy enough to look up if you’re curious. What you find might surprise you.

Cancel culture is also not censorship. The epithet of ‘cancel culture’ is the plea of people who are feeling for the very first time the weight of society’s disapproval of their ideals, choices, and/or lifestyle. It is a weaponized form of propaganda designed to make you feel uncomfortable. It makes you feel like you’re being judged for how you grew up and who you are. It makes you angry and defensive. It does not mean you are not free, in the USA, to continue to believe and/or speak these ideals. I did a bit of research into what rights the first amendment grants to citizens: “The U.S. Supreme Court has recognized several categories of speech that are not protected by the First Amendment. Among these are obscenity, child pornography, and libel and slander.

I get it. It’s easy to get frustrated when once again, all the stuff you were taught and got used to feeling and doing over your lifetime is being called into question. Maybe ask yourself why you feel so angry over something, be it trans rights, or racist children’s books being removed from reading lists, or gay people being able to marry, or any of the other things that bother you. Are you being directly harmed by these things? If you are, why? If not, why does it bother you? Is it because everyone you know thinks this way? Is it because people on tv and the radio blather on and on about it? I get that. It’s painful to think something different. It’s painful to be different. People get mad at you and make fun of you. Family members think you’re an idiot.

Remember that kid in grade school, the one who wore glasses? The bullied kid? Maybe that kid was you. Remember how everyone made fun of you and called you names because you needed to wear glasses to see the blackboard? Maybe those glasses broke, and you had to tape them together at the temple or the nosepiece, and that just made everything worse. And then you grew up. Got contact lenses. That feeling of not-belonging faded. Whew. Glad you don’t have to deal with that anymore, except, what if you did? What if that bullying just… kept going?

Or maybe you want to go on vacation somewhere ‘exotic’. What would it feel like to walk into a room full of people in a foreign country where you don’t speak the language? You need to communicate something. You need a ride, or lunch. Everyone looks at you like you’re stupid. It’s exhausting. Uncomfortable. You do your best because you’re a nice person, but it sucks. Even though you planned this vacation for the adventure of it, you look forward to going home where everyone understands you and you can relax.

Imagine what it might feel like to walk into a room full of corporate employees or a parent-teacher association meeting, none of whom look like you, where you are expected to educate them about institutional racism because you’re the token minority hire or parent. Imagine doing this again and again. Imagine doing this for decades. You can’t take off those glasses because they’re not actually glasses at all, they’re skin color or the shape of your eyes or the texture of your hair. You can’t ‘go home’ where everyone speaks your language because you are already home. That’s a hell of a weight. It’s exhausting. It’s a lifetime of stress (with actual measurable cardiovascular risk).

I have no easy answers. No magic potion to make our huge community of diverse individuals all agree to at least grant others the dignity of personhood. The big problem with America’s myth of rugged individualism is the easy slide into the seductive vice of every-person-for-themself. Most of us want the same thing everyone else does: “Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness,” but pursuing this ideal should not cost human misery.

I would like to suggest that we open our hearts to the endless possibilities of joy that we could have as a society. All it will cost is a focus on helping each other towards this common ideal, this pursuit of liberty and happiness, instead of looking at our neighbors as obstacles to our own success.

Links:

Asian-American racial stereotyping: https://www.researchgate.net/profile/Susan-Fiske/publication/8152313_Stereotype_Content_Model_Explains_Prejudice_for_an_Envied_Outgroup_Scale_of_Anti-Asian_American_Stereotypes/links/0c960529d08ca13f6b000000/Stereotype-Content-Model-Explains-Prejudice-for-an-Envied-Outgroup-Scale-of-Anti-Asian-American-Stereotypes.pdf

Jim Crow Laws: https://www.nps.gov/malu/learn/education/jim_crow_laws.htm
American racism: https://news.stanford.edu/2020/06/09/seven-factors-contributing-american-racism/

Institutional racism: https://scholarworks.wmich.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1299&context=jssw

Black hair racism: https://www.teenvogue.com/story/a-brief-history-of-black-hair-politics-and-discrimination

Voter suppression: https://nlihc.org/resource/history-voter-suppression

Gerrymandering: https://prologue.blogs.archives.gov/2018/06/21/the-gerry-in-gerrymandering/

Noble savage myth: https://muse.jhu.edu/article/41718

When whites become a minority in ten years: https://www.researchgate.net/publication/258181104_Moral_Panic_as_Racial_Degradation_Ceremony_Racial_Stratification_and_the_Local-Level_Backlash_Against_Latinoa_Immigrants

Dr. Seuss Enterprises statement: https://www.seussville.com/statement-from-dr-seuss-enterprises/

American Library Association on censorship: http://www.ala.org/advocacy/intfreedom/censorship

History of American censorship: https://www.thoughtco.com/censorship-in-the-united-states-721221

Freedom of speech: https://constitutioncenter.org/interactive-constitution/interpretation/amendment-i/interps/266

First amendment commentary: https://law.justia.com/constitution/us/amendment-01/16-government-restraint-of-content-of-expression.html

Widely cited Seuss political cartoon: https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/object/bb12977599

Library of Seuss political cartoons: https://library.ucsd.edu/dc/search?utf8=✓&xf=%7B%22collection_sim%22%3D%3E%5B%22Dr.+Seuss+Political+Cartoons%22%5D%7D&q=

Cardiovascular Disease Risk: https://www.ahajournals.org/doi/10.1161/CIRCOUTCOMES.118.005284

Declaration of Independence: https://www.archives.gov/founding-docs/declaration-transcript

Poet, novelist, editor—loves alliteration, metaphor, and buttons. Can often be found in the woods looking for a view.

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