Living Long and Prospering: A Response to “How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids”

You’ve heard it said that white people are fucking crazy. Having spent 22 years as a member of this decidedly unselective group, I can attest to that.

And here’s one thing I’ve learned over the course of my short life: White people tend to get even crazier when they begin discussing the ways in which they might become better white people. To become better Caucasian citizens of a changing world. To better appropriate the ways of their inherited, unearned social privilege in, well, appropriate ways. To be less offensive to all the people of earth, with whom they just want to be pals.

This line of thought was further confirmed when I read an article by Stephen Marche, called How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids, which was published in last week’s New York Times Magazine.

This guy Marche is Canadian and is, like, a famous culture columnist for Esquire. He also once wrote a series of online articles for Toronto’s Globe and Mail in which he made fun of a mayoral candidate for being overweight.

Ohhhhhhhhh shit — looks like we’ve got a well-educated white person on our hands!

So in this piece, he’s writing about the deep inner turmoil he goes through while reading old children’s books and watching popular movies with his six-year-old son. And since one wouldn’t want to “waste your children’s precious young lives [by] sticking to ‘approved literature’ and Winnie-the-Pooh,” Marche must “negotiate around” the racist stereotypes built into basically anything published before (arbitrarily inaccurate post-Civil Rights Movement date).

I can’t fault the guy for trying to articulate something here. I also have no idea what it’s like to be a father — thank god — so it’s somewhat difficult for me to speculate how exactly I would handle the same situation.

But I do think it’s possible to reach a point, in this kind of moral-intellectualish discourse, at which you begin to do little more than make a mockery of yourself. Just as the images Marche references in his article — from the ape-like portrayal of an African in the Asterix comic books, to what he calls “the fiasco that is Jar Jar Binks” in the Star Wars franchise’s Epsiode I: The Phantom Menace — intentionally play off crappy cultural generalizations to get a chuckle, so does he unintentionally turn himself into just another caricature.

It’s the cleverly progressive white guy, who works so hard to excise his feelings of “white liberal guilt” via criticism that he ends up thinking himself into a wimpy, adjective-laced, self-serving, academic hole. It’s no more than a reminder that certain people have the luxury of analyzing history from a position of privilege before they choose whether or not to personally confront it.

As for old children’s lit and its racist relics, I think criticism can only go so far when you feel the need to use 50+-year-old books to introduce your kid to 21st-century progressive morality. If Marche really wants to employ literature to get his son look at race relations with an open mind, why not just make sure he’s exposing him to contemporary books for young children — which I would think are, now, often written to teach kids about tolerance and diversity — alongside the old ones and their bad stereotypes?

Or maybe he could, with a little tact, just talk about the basis for his personal dilemma with his son, rather than with his readers. Maybe Marche wouldn’t have to call himself a coward in his own article if he were actually able to resist publicizing his “white guilt” — if he were able to confront a personal issue personally, rather than giving us all the theory-backed reasons why it’s okay for him to face so scared about all of this stuff.

Near the end of his piece, Marche writes:

No doubt I want to shelter my son and also myself, but I think, in some vague, indefinable way, I want to shelter the past too. I’m embarrassed for humanity at all this nonsense, and I don’t want to submit the world to the complete and perfect judgment of an innocent.”

Well, Mr. Marche, if you were black, your son he wouldn’t need to read a 50-year-old comic book to learn about racism. He’d learn the hard way, and he’d probably already have gotten a taste of it by the time he turned six.

So maybe, in this case, you’re better off dropping the theory and sticking with the practice.










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1 thought on “Living Long and Prospering: A Response to “How to Read a Racist Book to Your Kids”

  1. Hear, hear!! Such a lucid and thought provoking approach to a very complicated subject. Or, as Mr. Spokony points out, maybe not as complicated as we tend to make it. Love this analysis! Thank you.

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