According to its publisher, Dr. Seuss’s “story of the Star-Belly Sneetches is the perfect guide for kids growing up in a multicultural world.” Indeed, despite some of his earlier work (he drew a number of racist cartoons, including World War II-era propaganda caricaturing Japanese Americans, which he regretted later on), when the Sneetches first appeared as a poem in Redbook magazine in 1953, it was an original, thoughtful way to address prejudice and discrimination, using fictional creatures to stand in for people of different backgrounds.
But Seuss’s familiar parable, in which otherwise identical Sneetches discriminate against one another based on who does or doesn’t have a green star affixed on their belly, is not without shortcomings: It oversimplifies by presenting constructs such as race, in all their complexity, as being primarily about superficial outward appearance. And the story undermines its own message by relying on a device, “a very peculiar machine,” that can add or remove stars at will, allowing Sneetches to modify their previously immutable characteristics “for three dollars each!” For all its charm, the story lacks what Rudine Sims Bishop, professor emerita at Ohio State University – whose students and colleagues have dubbed the “mother of multicultural literature” – calls “the issue of authenticity.”
“Literature,” Bishop wrote 30 years ago, “transforms human experience and reflects it back to us, and in that reflection we can see our own lives and experiences as part of the larger human experience. Reading, then, becomes a means of self-affirmation, and readers often seek their mirrors in books.” But the work that black children must do to affirm themselves in a world that frequently rejects them isn’t reflected by the experience of a Sneetch. And more recent kids’ books remain trapped in a similar framing – using an inauthentic metaphorical racial dialogue that superficially addresses the problem of prejudice.
Lisa Mantchev’s 2015 “Strictly No Elephants” likens people to a menagerie of animals: “Pets,” says the book’s promotional message, “come in all shapes and sizes, just like friends.” It sounds sweet, but it effaces the humanity and dignity that ought to be at the heart of what we teach children. In 2018, “The Big Umbrella” by Amy June Bates employed a different metaphor: An umbrella so big that when it starts to rain there’s room for everyone underneath, whether you’re “tall,” “plaid” or “hairy.” This month, actress Kristen Bell and her co-author released their children’s book, “The World Needs More Purple People,” a call to bridge differences by emphasizing commonalities. “Purple people come in every color you can dream up,” the book says. Its inspiration, in Bell’s words: “We wanted to create a road map for kids to first look for sameness.”
Like the other books, Bell’s is well-intentioned and kindhearted – and she has been a constructive voice in recent weeks, as Americans have grappled with how best to address systemic racism. She has urged her white social media followers to check their privilege and pledged to “not ignore this conversation, even when it gets uncomfortable, even when I misstep.” She bowed out of her role voicing the character of a biracial black girl, “Molly,” in the animated series “Central Park” so the part could be recast with a person of color. She laudably vowed to raise her children as “anti-racists.” But the “Purple People” message works against that goal, flattening out the beauty and individuality of diversity instead of celebrating difference. However unintentionally, it reduces equality to the notion that we all must adhere to one norm.
On the surface, an ode to sameness might seem timely: Protesters from different communities and different generations have passionately coalesced around the idea that “Black Lives Matter” – an idea that should always have been beyond debate, but that was widely derided just a few years ago – and made it a rallying cry for a desire to live in a more equitable society. But when we’re helping children understand how people from different walks of life can coexist, prioritizing common ground too often obscures or erases uncommon experiences. What might seem like a balm – teaching colorblindness – can have the effect of washing out all colors except white, subtly inducing everybody else to present neutral, rather than vividly-realized, versions of themselves.
Instead of opening an avenue for parents to talk about diversity, the colorblind “purple” metaphor steers parents toward talking to their kids about race without ever having to say the word “black.” It’s the Sneetches all over again, a euphemistic take that papers over uncomfortable conversations that all parents – white parents, in particular – should be having with their children if they want them to grow up as anti-racists. By indicating that harmony is achieved when everyone becomes more alike, rather than when people learn to embrace themselves and others for their complexities and differences, “purple” doesn’t offer a path to talk about race so much as a detour around it. The only authentic human experience this reflects back to us, to borrow Bishop’s construction, is the discomfort white Americans feel when talking about race. It leaves black children out of the conversation entirely, wondering why kids who don’t look like them don’t experience the world the way they do.
This, in part, is why I recently took the leap and became a children’s author myself, and why I read books like Matthew Cherry’s “Hair Love” and Grace Byers’s “I Am Enough” to my daughters. I wrote “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea” because I don’t want my daughters to think in euphemisms. They identify as black, and their great aunt and grandma (the main characters in the book) are role models that reflect the best of themselves back to them. I never wanted my kids – or their peers – to think of themselves as purple; I aspire to bring up children who cherish their own culture and revere that of their friends.
In 2018, according to the Children’s Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin’s School of Education, fewer than a third of all children’s and young adult books in the United States featured a person of color as a main character. Only around one fifth were written or illustrated by a person of color, despite the fact that now most young children in this country are nonwhite. The disparity suggests a lack of industry access and of varying perspectives that emphasize diversity. But even when the subject in children’s literature is diversity, we can still sometimes miss the point: We shouldn’t want children to imagine a world with no differences. We should want children to value difference. Preparing them for a more just world doesn’t mean teaching them to aspire to purple. It means helping them learn to celebrate black.
– – –
Harris is founder and CEO of the Phenomenal Woman Action Campaign and author of “Kamala and Maya’s Big Idea.”