As a child, I was led to believe that the dark was inferior. And I was not alone. The black society I was born into was riddled with these beliefs.
It wasn’t something most, if not none, would articulate in this way, let alone knowingly propagate. It was more in the air, in the culture. We had been drawn into it, bathed in it, acculturated to hate ourselves.
It happened to children in the most low-key way possible: it was relayed by toys and dolls, children’s cartoons and shows, fairy tales and children’s books.
At every turn, at every moment, I was baptized into the story that all that was white was right, good, noble, and beautiful, and all that was black was the opposite.
The first book I bought was a children’s book on Job from the Bible. Job was the whitest of the white men in the book, as was the white bearded savior basking on a cloud. Indeed, every image I saw of Christianity represented white people. My great-uncle had a picture of a white Jesus with stringy hair and blue eyes hanging above his bed.
Some of the earliest cartoons I remember included Pepé Le Pew, who normalized rape culture; Speedy Gonzales, whose friends helped popularize the corrosive stereotype of drunk and lethargic Mexicans; and Mammy Two Shoes, a heavy black maid who spoke with a heavy accent.
Reruns were a staple in the days leading up to cable, so I watched kids’ shows like Tarzan, about a half-naked white man in the middle of an African jungle who conquers and tames and foils her. the blacks there, who are all portrayed as primitive, if not savage. I watched the old “Our Gang” (“Little Rascals”) shorts in which Buckwheat’s character invoked all the pickaninny stereotypes.
And of course, I watched westerns that regularly portrayed Native Americans as aggressive, bloodthirsty savages that valiant white men were forced to fight against.
As James Baldwin said in a 1965 essay:
“In the case of the American Negro, from the time you were born, every stick and stone, every face, is white. Since you haven’t seen a mirror yet, you assume you are too. It is a big shock around the age of 5, 6 or 7 to find out that the flag to which you have pledged your allegiance, along with everyone else, has not pledged your allegiance. It’s a big shock to watch Gary Cooper kill the Indians, and although you support Gary Cooper the Indians, you are.
But, as the Equal Justice Initiative points out:
“Throughout history, indigenous people have been subjected to more than 1,500 wars, attacks and raids authorized by the United States government. Under the guise of an “expanding civilization,” the drive to amass land and expand borders has sparked decades of racial genocide. “
In elementary school, we celebrated Columbus Day by coloring in pictures of a happy and smiling white man and his three boats, not knowing that Columbus was a brutal slaveholder and slave trader and who wrote in 1500 of enslaved women and girls: easily obtained for a woman as for a farm, and it is very general and there are plenty of merchants looking for girls: those from nine to ten years old are now in demand.
In fact, it’s in the early years that we become aware of breed, and that’s when we can begin to place a value on it.
As the American Psychological Association pointed out last year, new research indicates that “adults in the United States think children should be almost 5 years old before they talk to them about race, even though some infants are. aware of race and that preschoolers have already developed racist beliefs. . “
I was a teenager before I could begin to understand what had been done to me, that I had been taught to hate myself and to start turning it around. The most illuminating – and saddest – achievement came when I learned about the doll tests in which very young children were presented with a white doll and a black doll and asked to describe them. Most of the children preferred the white dolls and described them positively.
About 30 years ago, in my own version of the experience, I grabbed an old yearbook from a school I attended that had a student body roughly evenly split between white and black students. I gave it to my nephew who was 4 or 5 years old and told him to nominate the people he thought were pretty. Every face that little brown finger landed on was white.
It underscored for me that the things we present to children, believing them to be innocent, can be very corrosive and racially vicious.
So, this week, when the company that controls Dr Seuss’ books announced that it would no longer publish six of the books due to racist and callous images, saying that “these books portray people in a hurtful and false way”, I applauded saying some lamented yet another victim of the so-called “culture of cancellation”.
Racism must be exorcised from culture, including, or perhaps above all, from the culture of children. Teaching a child to hate or be ashamed of himself is a sin against his innocence and a burden against his possibilities.
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