Throwing the baby out with the racist bathwater?
February 15, 2010 11:11 AM   Subscribe

Would you read your three-year-old the Just So Stories, given the racist / patriachal / colonialist / whatnot themes and subtexts?

When my three-year-old daughter Lillian was an infant, I went out and joyfully bought all the kids' books that I remember with fondness from my own childhood. One of those books was Rudyard Kipling's Just So Stories, which you can find online here: in case you're unfamiliar with them. I ADORED these stories when I was a child, and they are nice and short and very well cadenced for reading aloud. We have just begun reading Lillian stories from non-picture books, and she loves them.

But as I cracked the book for the first time to read her one of the stories, I suddenly remembered with horror that the edition of the book from my childhood contained the N-word, at least once. It's not used in a cruel or malicious context; the story was just written in 1902, is all, by a colonialist white man. I later confirmed that the sole incidence of the word in the original text has been removed in our edition. But reading through the stories with modern, adult eyes, I was a little distressed to realize just how much colonialism and Noble Savagery and whatnot is really peppered through the stories.

Which, of course it is, right? The stories are more than a hundred years old, written by a man who was shockingly, casually racist.
I am so torn. I love these stories -- I LOVE them. And from a cultural diversity standpoint, well, there are virtually no white people in the stories at all, and the protagonists of the stories are certainly presented neither as devils or children. I mean, except where they actually ARE children.

They are creative and joyful, and a number of the stories center around a father's relationship with his exceptionally clever daughter, which is one reason why they're so special to me. My father read me these stories, and my husband wants to read them to Lily. Bowdlerization is kind of ick, but I can't imagine actually saying the words "'You are lazy,' said the Eldest Magician. 'So your children shall be lazy. They shall be the laziest people in the world. They shall be called the Malazy--the lazy people'" to a three year old. What would you do?
posted by KathrynT to Society & Culture (54 answers total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
I would not read them to a child, who is forming their first opinions of the world.
posted by cashman at 11:16 AM on February 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I have to agree - the stories may be better suited to a later time when your daughter is old enough to see the context in which the stories are written, and start learning to separate the good from the bad. At an early age, that critical analysis isn't so well fleshed out, and the entire thing may get internalized. It won't be so dramatic as "she heard you read the stories -> sixteen years later she's screaming 'Dey took our jerbs!", but sometimes these childhood things can have strange and subtle echoes down the line.
posted by FatherDagon at 11:21 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

If there were only five books in the world and this was the only kids book, I'd say go ahead. But this book doesn't really echo your beliefs. There are other books out there that you can read to kids. Go with Shel Silverstein's books like "A Light in the Attic" or "Where the Sidewalk Ends".

Maybe when she's older and you can have a discussion about what's wrong with the stories, then it makes a little more sense.
posted by inturnaround at 11:21 AM on February 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Did they make you a racist?
posted by smackfu at 11:22 AM on February 15, 2010 [18 favorites]

oh lord, how the leopard got his spots. what a dilemma. I loved the Jungle Book when I was a kid and I don't know if I'd read a kid that, either.

can you look through them and perhaps read aloud only the least offensive, leaving the others for her to read herself once she's older and already indoctrinated to our more enlightened postcolonial mores? (I'm only snarking a little).

for instance, how bad is the one about how the rhino got his temper (I mean skin)? or how the camel got his humph? I haven't read either recently, but I don't remember anything as appalling as the leopard story.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:22 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

Why not tell her your own variations on the stories, minus the Bad Stuff? Every other fairy tale has evolved with the times - why not Kipling?
posted by Sticherbeast at 11:23 AM on February 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

You loved these stories as a child, and didn't turn into a racist, colonialist, asshole. Right? Why do you think your child will?
posted by Irontom at 11:24 AM on February 15, 2010 [7 favorites]

Read them.

Given that you are worried about this your child does not seem at great risk of absorbing casual racism. At 3 any subtext will probably be above her head anyway.
posted by pseudonick at 11:24 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

If you loved them, I probably would, assuming they'd removed the most egregious elements. Partly because of SmackFu's point -- you turned out okay, and partly because three year olds don't understand subtext. Colonialism is a very deep, complicated subject she'll be learning to make sense of for years, but those years don't start at three.

At some point, when she starts to understand race, you can maybe reintroduce the books and talk about them and talk about what some of the messages are. It'll be helpful in teaching deep reading, history, what racism means and looks like...etc. You can even talk about feeling conflicted about reading them to her.

But for now -- she's three.

Cinderella's another example -- if that's not the most sexist little story I've ever heard it's hard to imagine what is. I get that, I get the subtext, but I'm still reading it to Baby Llama and I figure she's going to get her head around it later on. As I did.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 11:30 AM on February 15, 2010

A friend of mine (Indian, from India) gave me a charming little copy of the book because she loves it so much.

She also says that her hatred of cats probably springs from her impression of them as "sneaky", from reading the book as a young child (sorry, don't remember which story).

Does this have anything to do with anything? I don't know. But it seems weird to me.
posted by amtho at 11:30 AM on February 15, 2010

I don't know that it's so much the fear of turning her child into a racist as a fear of letting her child think the casual use of the N-word is (if not exactly ok) likely to pass without the occurrence of a shitstorm, which is not really the point of raising enlightened children.

I think everybody should read Huckleberry Finn, too, or have it read to them, but not when they're three.

but I'm with Sticherbeast. just retell them your own way. the books still exist - she can read them later and y'all can talk about it.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:31 AM on February 15, 2010

Read them. Artistic values are more important than political orthodoxy.
posted by grobstein at 11:31 AM on February 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

This is a matter of personal ethics, but I would definitely read them to my child. I might even feel MORE incentive to read them due to the racist content. My only pause might be the fact that the child is only three. But if she's a smart three-year-old, I might go ahead anyway. I would certainly read them to an older child. (Of course, I would stop reading if the stories upset my child.)

We do children (and adults) a huge disservice by sanitizing the past!

I hear the opposite opinion all the time, because I run a theatre company that specializes in producing plays by "dead white males." People want to know what I'm going to do about the antisemitism in "Merchant of Venice" and the sexism in "Taming of the Shrew"?

What am I going to do about it? Nothing. Shylock will lose his fortune and be forcefully converted to Christianity, and Katherine will be tamed. That the content of those plays, and -- what's more important -- that's the content of the past. We were begat by racists. That's just the truth. It doesn't mean that we have to be racist. Nor does it mean we have to pretend like people in the past weren't racist. And it certainly doesn't mean we need to decide that all the writers of the past were evil, evil people.

No, they were normal people who held some horrible ideas. Just as we normal people hold some ideas that our descendants will find horrible.

So let your daughter start learning about the past. And please don't try to correct the stories by lecturing. You'll kill her enjoyment of the story if, after it ends, you launch into a rant about how racist people were back then. Nor do I think you should question her: "Do you think it was okay for the writer to use the N word?" Just let her have her own reaction to the stories. In any case, lecturing and questioning your daughter won't achieve anything except making stories into school lessons.

Instead, bring up your daughter with good values by modeling good behavior. Which I'm sure you already do. My parents never censored or lectured. My dad was an Englist Lit professor, so I grew up reading all sorts of stories by writers of the past. He then became a film-studies professor, specializing in older movies. So I grew up reading and watching all sorts of stories with racist and sexist values.

But I grew up fine. I did not become racist or sexist. Why not? Because my parents were unfailingly kind to people and I saw them acting that way. I also saw their outrage when real-life people -- not people in stories -- were treated unfairly.

I bless my parents for (a) teaching me, by example, how to treat people and (b) making no restrictions on my imagination and never turning stories into moral lessons.
posted by grumblebee at 11:31 AM on February 15, 2010 [27 favorites]

Um, are YOU racist? You read these/had them read to you as a child. If it didn't harm you why would it harm her?
posted by thekiltedwonder at 11:33 AM on February 15, 2010

I loved the Just So stories as a child, and in my memory, the people were just as fantasy-based as the talking animals. I saw Taffy and Tegumai as cavemen who might as well have been white, because I saw them as cavemen versions of me and my own Daddy. The story about the leopard was edited in pen in our copy, with "Oh, plain black's best for me" instead of "for a n*****". I didn't come to be racist any more than I lived in fear of being eaten by a whale. (although the drawing of the giant Crab Who Played With The Sea was pretty scary!)
Maybe you should also worry that your daughter will grow up unable to believe in evolution because clearly the camel got his hump by magic, not by adaptive traits being selected for over time. :)
posted by The otter lady at 11:34 AM on February 15, 2010

My parents read me the Just So Stories when I was a kid (but not necessarily when I was three; maybe when I was an older kid, like seven or eight). They didn't take out any of the language or other elements that are unacceptable to a modern audience, but we did talk a little bit about some of the language in the stories. The kids in our family definitely understood that although the stories are wonderful, that some of the attitudes in the stories are most emphatically Not Okay. We had a number of books that got this treatment (including most of the Rudyard Kipling catalogue).

Kids are incredibly sensitive to non-verbal as well as verbal cues, and form value judgements based on race at an incredibly early age (like, as young as 5). If you don't openly discuss issues like racism with your daughter, she's going to form opinions based on things like the portrayal of other races and cultures in the media, which might not always jibe with the values you want to instill in her. I guess what I'm trying to say is that the Just So Stories might actually be a good vehicle for that kind of discussion, but maybe hold off on that particular book until she's a couple years older and can actually understand why it's not okay to use the N-word.
posted by kataclysm at 11:37 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I made this same decision. There are so so so many wonderful books, too many wonderful books to read them all to any child. You were only exposed to a small fraction of the wonderful books out there. Since there are so many wonderful books, why not share the beautiful wonderful books which embrace the most important values for you? Don't grieve the loss of the narrow selection of books you (and I) had, celebrate sharing the most wonderful books that are available.
posted by kch at 11:37 AM on February 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

Response by poster: Smackfu, Irontom, thekiltedwonder: I try not to be racist, but I've had to do a fair bit of work to excise unintentional prejudice from my attitudes, and I'd like my daughter to need less work in that regard than I did.
posted by KathrynT at 11:38 AM on February 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I think with Just So Stories you can pick and choose a little more than with some other works. Like, many of the poems are awesome and not full of casual racism unless you find away of putting it there.

"I keep six honest serving men" in particular is one of my favorite children's poems.

If you came in here asking if you should read "The White Man's Burden," I might blink a moment and question that, even given the speculation that Kipling wrote that with a satirical bent. But I don't think it's worth getting worked up over Just So Stories for a three year old.
posted by zizzle at 11:41 AM on February 15, 2010

can actually understand why it's not okay to use the N-word.

totally not the hill I'd want to die on, to my daughter's kindergarten or Pre-K teacher, or the kids in her class, or to her, after she has to deal with the fallout of being The Kid That Said The N-Word.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:43 AM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

The Cat Who Walked By Himself makes me cry. It doesn't bother me that it assumes that men like dogs and women like cats.

If you're really going to edit what your daughter reads according to what she might learn from it, you're going to have to eliminate vast stretches of kids' stories. "Beauty and the Beast" is about a girl who falls in love with the abusive monster who keeps her prisoner. Shel Silverstein's book The Giving Tree is about a tree (called "she" and "her") who gives everything to a boy, and gets nothing in return, and is thrilled when, after he cuts her down for planks, he becomes old and sits on her stump. I'd hate to think what the implications of most of the Disney movies are.

I would find a replacement for the "n-word," but I don't think your daughter is going to pick up racist attitudes if you read the stories to her. I think she'll take them for funny stories. She probably won't connect the dots the way you do. Kids don't think of Jar Jar Binks in STAR WARS I as a racist stereotype because they've never seen Stepin Fetchit and it wouldn't even occur to them that anyone would see black people as anything like Jar Jar. Kids tend to leave it to the adults to draw the moral for them.

Likewise, the story doesn't say all native peoples are lazy. It says these particular people are lazy.

Likewise, kids can tell the difference between the Wicked Witch of the West and the nice Wiccan lady who lives down the street. So long as you don't equate the two for her, I think THE WIZARD OF OZ is okay.

I don't think racism comes to kids naturally. So long as you're not drawing racist morals for your kids, I don't think old fashioned fables will turn your kid into a racist.
posted by musofire at 11:44 AM on February 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

I think it has helped me to understand the history of racism better, to have grown up with colonialist books like Babar. I can look back to my childhood and visualize the cartoon savages, which make a good reference point.
posted by thelastenglishmajor at 11:48 AM on February 15, 2010

I think what we are doing here is falling into a discussion about whether RK's Just So Stories are harmful, only some of us are talking about the ideas and others of us are talking about the language.

I think there's enough to worry about on both sides, but if you think your kid will love the animal story and ignore the subtext, go on and read them and I guess just don't read the most egregious words, or substitute them.

Or if it's the content of the ideas you're worried about, don't read them, tell an abridged version that's literally just about the animals, or save it for later when you can talk about it more knowledgeably.

or, if you want to be "That Mom," just go ahead and read them to her verbatim, and damn the torpedoes.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:49 AM on February 15, 2010

I wouldn't read them to her. It's not about whether she'd go on some sort of colonializing mission. It's about the everyday. Take that as you will.

Here's my question. At what point WILL you introduce her to racism -- to the fact that it still exists and to the fact that in the past it was THE NORM?

Despite the fact that my parents let me read whatever I wanted to read (and read me stories from the past without censoring them), I grew up with a false notion that, even in the past, only "bad" people were racist and sexist. I figured that a racist would inevitably be the same sort of guy who would beat his horse and molest his own children.

Whenever I discovered that an classic writer I admired was racist or sexist, I was thunderstruck. Instead, I should have been thunderstruck upon discovering that someone in, say, Elizabethan England WASN'T racist or sexist.

I resent the fact that I was lied to about the past. (I wasn't lied to in an overt way, but various teachers and contemporary movies did their work to whitewash the past.)

But it's not just a matter of my anger at the cover-up. When we whitewash the past -- when we don't expose it, warts and all, to the naked eye -- we risk worsening problems like racism and sexism.

Racism and sexism don't thrive due to super-villains like Hitler. They thrive because everyday, normal, "good" people are racist and sexist. It's terribly important that we grow up understanding that!

Again, your daughter is three. That's very young. So you should temper any advice you get here by your own understanding of what she's capable of understanding.
posted by grumblebee at 11:51 AM on February 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

You are a parent not a filter.

If you can confirm that these books didn't turn you into a monster and remember them fondly - by all means - read them to your kids.

Explain to them in whatever terms you deem appropriate for your spawn... "This is a word they used to use and it wasn't nice then but it is ABSOLUTELY NOT allowed NOW"

If you're going to start here, you're creating a long hard road ahead. Do you have any idea how many books you won't be able to let them read with this line of thinking?

Just read them.
posted by mittenbex at 11:53 AM on February 15, 2010

I think it has helped me to understand the history of racism better, to have grown up with colonialist books like Babar. I can look back to my childhood and visualize the cartoon savages, which make a good reference point.

I'm only picking on your post because it was the first one I scrolled up to - FWIW, my reading, growing up, was much the same as yours. But, how do you think your/our schoolmates thought of us while we were getting it together.
posted by toodleydoodley at 11:55 AM on February 15, 2010

Response by poster: Also, just to clarify, our edition does NOT include the N-word. It says "Oh, plain black is best for me," instead.

This discussion is being really, really helpful for me. There are many good answers but I'm reluctant to mark any of them yet because I don't want to shape the conversation!
posted by KathrynT at 11:59 AM on February 15, 2010

For what it's worth, I had very liberal and anti-racist parents, and I wish they'd talked to me about racism at a younger age. I mean actually told me about it, in detail, and then told me that it was bad. Mostly they avoided the subject altogether, or presented me with platitudes like "Everyone's the same" that didn't really connect, in my mind, with the fact that nobody wanted to play with the one black kid in my kindergarten class.

And so when I started seeing examples of racism in the real world, I didn't ask my parents about it — I assumed they didn't know about it either, and I tried to draw my own conclusions, some of which were painfully incorrect.

In a couple years, she'll start sorting out the difference between fantasy and reality. When she hits that stage, you'll have to teach her that nobody actually inherits their personality or their intelligence from their parents. You can't just hide the idea from her and hope she never starts wondering on her own.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:03 PM on February 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

This is a really hard one. On the one hand, I both loved those stories as a child, and as an adult still find them valuable and interesting to read. On the other, I can completely understand the desire to not expose a child to the values the stories are based in, and the content they have that is objectionable to the modern eye.

I'll say this in answer, though it might not help. When I was young, my mother read me a great variety of things. The Just So Stories, the original Faerie books (Red, Blue, Yellow, etc), Mother Goose, Poe's poems, Ole Possum's Book of Cats, etc. I think I gained a very rich and well developed imagination thanks to her wide range of stories. I also think I gained a very adult attitude towards the world very early on from them as well. I knew bad things happened, I knew people weren't always nice, and I knew that sometimes things didn't work out for a good ending.

I think what helped the most is that my mother not just read the stories to me, but talked to me about the stories as well. Why did I feel sorry for the wolf in the Red Ridinghood story? What did I think this poem meant? Was Puss in Boots right for tricking people, or was he mean? We talked them through. So maybe, just maybe, its ok to read these things to a child, so long as you also talk to them about what you read to them.
posted by strixus at 12:04 PM on February 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

We bought this book, which is a lightly edited version of the original stories for just this situation.

It's a very common belief that children are naturally colorblind, and racism is a result of social conditioning, and all we need to do is make sure that media images reflect diversity so that no implicit white privileging occurs and all will be well, but this hasn't turned out to be true. This Newsweek article looks at what works and what doesn't when trying to teach kids racial equality.
posted by AlsoMike at 12:14 PM on February 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

My father read me both the Just So Stories and Little Black Sambo, which was his favorite book as a child. Honestly, looking at both books through the eyes of a child, all I remember was that the tigers turning to butter terrified me. Other than the text itself, having my father share something with me that was significant to him when he was a child meant the world to me.

I came in to suggest an edited version of the tales for exactly that reason, but AlsoMike beat me to it. Of course, edited versions of these sort of stories hasn't been without controversy (see, again: Little Black Sambo) but I think the generational connection you want to forge through these books is valuable enough to find some middle ground. While I agree with grumblebee about censorship of past values when addressing older children, teens, and adults, I can see why implicit messages feel much more dangerous when directed at a three-year-old.

If it's any help, sometimes authors do later make the decision to change racist overtones of stories themselves. See: oompa loompas.
posted by PhoBWanKenobi at 12:25 PM on February 15, 2010

I honestly cannot recall my parents censoring anything I read as a child, and if I have kids I'll raise them the same way. Three seems kind of young to talk about the racist parts of the Just So stories, but it's important that you expose your child to the fact that racist attitudes weren't questioned for much of history, and that even today people still harbor racist attitudes. Limiting what your child reads or what you read to them just because parts of our past are really ugly minimizes, at least to me, the hard work that it took to get us today to shudder at racism in literature.

I grew up in a context where I, a Caucasian, was the distinct minority. I have been aware of racial and cultural dynamics for as long as I can remember. Trying to whitewash racism in literature and in life does a disservice to your child. Just make sure to talk to her, on whatever her level is, about how she feels about the story. Don't ask her leading questions, but try to understand whether she is fundamentally uncomfortable with certain parts of the story, and help her work through those on her level. I remember that by the time I was four I was already asking my parents about why people were different colors, and why some people get treated differently because of their race and gender.
posted by pecknpah at 12:26 PM on February 15, 2010

Best answer: You are a parent not a filter.

As a parent you are a lens, you bring some patterns into focus and soften and reframe others. This is inherent in the role of a parent. You will be doing this whether you intend or do not intend to do so. As a parent, the OP is trying to be intentional in these processes.

We live in sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, neocolonial cultures. This means by definintion that these patterns of inequality will be integrated in many ways in our ways of life. Are these patterns of inequality inevitable and unchangeable? I do not believe so.

So how are you as a parent going to frame these patterns for your child, and help your child understand these patterns, that there can indeed be other ways, and what is the role of an individual (parent or child) in these?

In my view, one of the hardest barriers to overcome is the belief that there can be no other way beyond the systems of inequality. As a parent, in addition to addressing the other challenges, I make a point of emphasizing that there is another way.

So, which of these important values do you wish this single Rudyard Kipling book or its alternative to address:
-the beauty of the poetry of the story itself in original or modified text?
-the exposure to Great Works?
-the historical accuracy of colonialism and racism?
-the importance of discussing these patterns and how to manage them now?
-the exposure to beautiful books which portray without editing your own values?
-the joy of reading together?
-the importance of presenting and discussing social alternatives?

Of course there are other questions, but you get the idea and the answers could all legitimately lead to YES, or NO, or MAYBE, or MODIFIED.
posted by kch at 12:27 PM on February 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I think you should save the Just So Stories until your daughter is old enough to grasp context. When she is, though, absolutely read them to her--because the conversation you'll have will be a key one in her development as a reader: that literature is a product of its times, that people can think awful things and still create wonderful stories, and that racism is more often subtle than obvious. Talk well about why you loved them and why they worry you, and she'll be the one in her high school English class who wows the teacher with her nuanced remarks on Huck Finn and The Merchant of Venice and (god forbid) the Twilight series.

What particularly do you like about Just So Stories? They're creative and joyful, they are great to read aloud, and they involve a father and his exceptionally clever daughter.

Shel Silverstein is creative and joyful and great for reading aloud.
Little Women involves a mother and her exceptionally clever daughter(s).
And a librarian, I'm sure, would have lots of other examples for you.
posted by sallybrown at 12:28 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I did read all these books to my kids and you will find that it is common to find difficulties with most children's classics from a modern reading. As someone else mentioned, Babar has troubling laguage and illustrations, most fairy tales are misogynistic and frightening, Laura Ingalls Wilder has racist overtones...all these are our collective history whether we like it or not.

I would just mention it in an age appropriate way, " People didn't know much about other people that lived far away, so thought they weren't as smart or good as the people they knew. We know better now."

My daughter that loved these stories as a small child is one of the most strident anti-racist, anti-sexist college kids I know. I think it helps to understand where people got their racist viewpoints to begin with and not keep it a dirty little secret.
posted by readery at 12:29 PM on February 15, 2010 [3 favorites]

Children understand the difference between story and real life. They also understand that rules which apply inside of the world of one story may be utterly wrong within another. Similarly, they understand that the rules of the real world are different, yet again, from those within stories. Learning this distinction, and growing used to the changes in rules of different fictional worlds, is just one way that children learn how to cope with the fickle nature of reality. In other words, I don't think that your daughter is going to be harmed if you read these stories to her, as long as you read lots and lots of other stories to her as well.

You may want to choose a few key stereotypes in these tales and find other stories that specifically refute them in some way, and read those to your daughter. For example, there are books about early humans from the perspective of a young child that have a lot more basis in scientific understanding of how we used to live then the charming "Taffy" stories. There are so many books out there written to be read out loud to children by parents; you can find at least one for any niche you can think of.
posted by Mizu at 12:31 PM on February 15, 2010

I'm a little blown away by some of what's being said in this thread. When I was a little kid, I have absolutely no clear memory of even knowing what race was. I knew that some people looked different than others, but that was it. Racism and other "objectionable" attitudes in what I read, and I read everything, pretty much went over my head.

My parents controlled very little of what I read and watched, and I think I turned out better for it. I developed an appreciation for reading the classics (and having the classics read to me) and I developed my own critical abilities. My parents were always willing to answer questions I had about anything, but they never tried to keep me in some protective shell, as if I was going to immediately turn out "wrong" if they exposed me to anything that wasn't completely unobjectionable. Give your daughter a little credit- maybe not as a three year old, but eventually she'll be forming her own opinions and thoughts and have access to media you can't vet beforehand. If you never expose her to anything she needs to make her mind up over, how do you expect her to handle kids at school telling her stupid stuff, or the Internet, or overhearing adults saying dumb things?

Furthermore, no book you read her will have more of an impact on her growth as a person than the behavior you model for her. Do you want to teach her to be scared of ideas, or to look at them critically and head-on? Read her what you want to read her, act like you want her to act, and always be there to answer her questions if she has them.
posted by MadamM at 12:32 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

thanks AlsoMike!
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:37 PM on February 15, 2010

I wouldn't read them to a child that young. I think when she's just a little bit older (first or second grade) will be a better time to read her great stories but with a better grasp of the concept of context. By that time, she will have noticed that people divide themselves into groups and act differently around each other, and she will have more sophisticated (and harder!) questions for you.

I'm a little astounded at all of the "you didn't turn out to be a racist jerk!" answers. This is exactly how prejudice gets passed down through generations -- by normalizing it from the get-go.
posted by desuetude at 12:47 PM on February 15, 2010 [4 favorites]

I grew up white and middle class in a bitterly racially divided major city. I went to private schools my whole life, schools that arose out of the white flight that followed widespread integration. my parents were too busy to pay attention to what I was reading, and I was a voracious reader.

I had access to a huge variety of material, including stuff that was grossly outdated even then, and I read with no discrimination whatsoever. my access to other art was similarly unmoderated. I recall that Warren Zevon's "Exciteable Boy" album came out that year, and I really freaked out my third grade teacher by singing the title song on the playground.

I had similar experiences - some better, some worse - with culture shock where some unsuspecting onlooker had to intersect with my thoughtless expression of some idea or experience I knew of but didn't understand, or had never discussed with anyone more socially experienced.

do I regret my youthful exposure to all kinds of art? hell no. do I think my parents could have made some things easier by at least looking at what I was reading and talking about it with me? it might have helped.
posted by toodleydoodley at 12:47 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

I loved the books, growing up. Oh best beloved... there is a poetry to even Kipling's prose. It's easy to disconnect the talent from the prejudice, because it wasn't until I was an adult (and able to make my own judgement calls) that I even learned Kipling was so blithely racist. Read her the books. When she's older, she'll learn the truth. Hopefully it won't erase the magic the words held, and still hold, for me.
posted by thatbrunette at 12:57 PM on February 15, 2010

Best answer: Okay, why is THIS the choice? Why, if the OP chooses not to read the Just So stories, is the implication that she will never ask her child to learn to make a choice? This is a three year old whose parents are bringing books to her, not a child who pulls a book off a shelf and is told not to read it or that it cannot be read. And she'll handle kids telling her stupid stuff by her parents parenting her.


Now, it sounds to me like the OP is looking for a safe way to read these books, a way to share the stories with her daughter without guilt or fear of transmitting nasty baggage. And if that's the case, then one answer is "Read the stories, and explain that some parts are only pretend and the real world doesn't work like this."

But that's not an obligation to read the stories. It's just a way to approach them if she chooses to read them. Anyone suggesting there's an obligation here is going too far — and I hope I didn't sound like I was suggesting such an obligation myself.
posted by nebulawindphone at 12:59 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

When your child is five or six, you start to explain (otherwise, you'll have to forego classics such as Little House or A Little Princess, which are wonderful books for kids with some awful stuff in them).

When she is three, you just read and don't worry about it. At this age, it's all about encouraging imagination; racism and sexism don't enter into it. The connections the child is making are much more primitive than generalizations about race and/or sex.

I say this as a parent of a three-year-old and a six-year-old (and a couple of adolescents).

You're not imparting racist attitudes to your daughter by reading Just-So Stories. She's just not there yet. You can start worrying about this in a year or two--and likely at that point, you won't even be the one starting the conversation. She will. Which is a good indication that she is starting to understand, and is ready to talk about it.
posted by torticat at 1:11 PM on February 15, 2010

Quite simply: yes, read her them.
posted by progosk at 1:21 PM on February 15, 2010

But I object to the idea of this as "whitewashing" (the origins of that word itself strike me as interesting in this context) or "lying by omission." I see it differently.

Ok, actually, grumblebee, here it is: I am not going to bring incredibly loaded stuff like that to a child who is too young to understand it in a meaningful way. I'm going to ask the missus to look at this thread because she works with children this age.

I understand your frustration when you are trying to do something good for a child and you hear someone call it "lying" or "whitewashing." Sorry about that. I didn't mean to imply that you're purposefully trying to mislead. That fact is, people who lie and whitewash almost always believe they are doing it for good reasons. And sometimes they are!

Let's say that your child is terrified of clowns. His uncle Artie is coming for a visit. Artie is a professional clown, but he knows of your child's fear and promises not to bring up his work. You know that when your kid is older, you'll tell him the truth about Artie, but he's not ready for it now. If he hears that Artie is a clown, he'll hide under his bed and refuse to come out -- even to eat. Your decide that if your kid asks what Artie does for a living, you'll change the subject or say, "Artie works in banking."

THIS IS LYING. It is lying for a good reason. I would lie in this situation, but I would not call my lie -- or my lie-by-omission -- something other than what it is.

If you refuse to read some books to your child, you are censoring, whitewashing or lying. You may be doing those things for a good reason, but it's important to call your act what it is, because if you don't, you may fail to examine your actions.

Let's say you choose to censor a story by keeping it from your child altogether or by changing parts of it. Let's say that, in general, you think censorship is a bad thing. The question, then, is this: is the censorship justified in this case? If -- before you even examine the question -- you're already calling censorship by some kinder name, you are justifying already, before you've even thought about it.

I've reached an age when I cringe at those sorts of language games. To me, vets premeditatively murder cats and dogs. That is what they do. And I think they are justified in doing so. If my dog is suffering and there's no way to alleviate his suffering, I'm going to take him to the vet to have him murdered. And, as such, I will be an accomplice to the murder.

If you start calling it "putting him to sleep" before you've even gotten to the vet, you're eliminating -- or making harder -- the task of examining what you're doing as a moral action.

Well, sometimes that's for the best. Sometimes we need to justify in order to get through the day. I understand that. And I understand that parents have to make all sorts of hard decisions, and sometimes it's just too painful to examine those decisions under a microscope.

But in this case, the OP is asking us to do just that. So it's very important that we start by talking about what she's considering: censorship. Censorship isn't "hiding the truth for evil reasons." It's hiding the truth. If you hide the truth for good reasons, that's censorship too.

Is censorship justified in this case?
posted by grumblebee at 1:29 PM on February 15, 2010

The racist / colonial subcontext will go over her head until she's in about 6th grade, which is the first time I remember having to actually criticize what i was reading in addition to just plain remembering it. I read Just-so Stories, Babar, and the Giving tree when i was little, but havent read them since. I had no idea they had any racist sexist colonialist whatever content in then until i read this thread. I actually remembered extremely little about them, kinda like you did - you remembered liking them, but not really much about them.

I am not a racist sexist colonialist because my parents modeled different behaviour for me, no matter what i was reading.
posted by WeekendJen at 1:40 PM on February 15, 2010 [1 favorite]

We live in sexist, racist, heterosexist, classist, neocolonial cultures. This means by definintion that these patterns of inequality will be integrated in many ways in our ways of life. Are these patterns of inequality inevitable and unchangeable? I do not believe so.

I strongly agree with this. To me, racism is the second biggest problem we face as a planet, second only to The Environment. Perhaps my answers here are tainted by my feelings about the issue.

To me, there are two major truths about racism:

1) We can overcome it or at least diminish it. At one point, I would have said that this is an article of faith, not a fact. But I am persuaded it's true by recent history. Sure, the world -- and America -- is still rife with racism, but the fact that we have a black president (in a country in which black people were enslaved less than 150 years ago) means something.

2) ALL civilizations throughout recorded human history have been racist. We're talking about THOUSANDS of years of racism on all continents.

I've notice that people -- even people who hate racism -- like to deny one or the other of those two points. It's vital that we don't. If we don't believe point one, then there's no point in trying to make things better. If we don't believe point two, then we don't know what we're up against.

Were I a parent, I would want my child to understand both of those points. I wish my parents had helped me understand them better.
posted by grumblebee at 1:58 PM on February 15, 2010

I experienced deep racism as a kid. The media and the Government played it up, teachers and parents encouraged it, and kids basically parroted what they've been taught by everyone else. There was no one else with authority to tell them that not all Bangladeshis were thieves or rapists, that being dark-skinned wasn't some sort of mortal crime, that not all Muslims acted the exact same way. And yet they justify their actions by saying "well the papers/Mum/teacher said so".

This goes on till adulthood. I still hear people bitching about "those Banglas stealing our women" or "Bengalis don't do Islam right" or whatever nonsense it is this week when I go back to Malaysia. In Australia I don't get that too overtly, but there's still strong assumptions made about my lifestyle or my beliefs because I'm Indian-looking. ("Oh, so you must have done yoga as a kid!" being one of the weirder ones.)

Part of it was that people get exposed to stuff that comes from a highly racist, colonial, backwards origin - but never stop to think about the context or how damaging it is. They don't consider the massive privilege they have that says that their way of life is normal and mine is "exotic" at best. They were raised with stories, fictional or otherwise, that tell them that this is how the world works; when someone likes me points out "no, not really", they explode and get up in arms about us implying that they're racist. Because being called a racist, or having your actions deemed as racist, is apparently more insulting than being the target of racism (implied or overt).

I haven't read the Just So Stories specifically but I have read others that made me go "o_O?!". There are so many things we loved as kids, absent any other knowledge about the realities of the world, that make us cringe now - and it doesn't even have to be anything to do with racism or politics. There is still such a deep lack of publically-available stories and media that share the other side without being condescending or rude, and even if there are they tend to be shunted to the Special Interests section.

There are so many other stories to read to your children. There are ways to adapt the stories you have without delving into subtle but harmful attitudes that those like us have to fend off (without trying to call their mother racist). There are many stories delightful for children by writers who would never see the light of day in most places thanks to the colonialist attitudes that allowed writers like Kipling to flourish. Seek them out, and share them. Share a mix of stories and be open to your kid's likely natural question about people that are different.

The stories are a red herring. The real issue is in working out that some people think certain things are OK only because everyone else says so, without considering the agendas and values that have shaped their opinion therein, and their privilege in being able to choose which values they are affected by.
posted by divabat at 4:22 PM on February 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

Response by poster: Divabat, that's exactly the perspective I'm looking for, thank you. You mention other writers who would never see the light of day in most places -- can you share some names with me? We're working pretty hard to make sure that our daughter has access not only to stories OF many cultures but BY many cultures, and I am always on the lookout for resources.
posted by KathrynT at 4:49 PM on February 15, 2010 [2 favorites]

I'm late to this game but I read indiscriminately as a child as well, and I read a great deal of "classic" lit from various colonial eras. I can unequivocally say that it helped to establish and reinforce internalized racism and white privilege which I have struggled with for my entire life. Because it's not like everything else in my life was totally non-racist; I was watching 80's TV shows where the villains were always Middle Eastern terrorists and black drug dealers, going to school with mostly white kids who treated non-whites as weird, reading teen novels where the protagonists were blonde white girls, etc. We live in a fundamentally, structurally racist society, and that's reinforced in a million tiny ways. Being told through children's books that being white is better is one of these ways; that's why children's literature is a major source of propaganda in virtually every society on earth. It is naiive to think that racism only propagates through the relationships and interactions of older adults.
posted by alicetiara at 5:12 PM on February 15, 2010 [5 favorites]

I'd also say read your kid the books, if they mean that much to you. There are a lot of things to admire about Kipling's writing without agreeing with Kipling's viewpoint, and look--this isn't the only book that you're ever going to read to your daughter, right? Seriously, a three-year-old can't even begin to understand the subtext in these stories.

Is it lying by omission to avoid saying the n-word? I would say not. If you find the word distasteful, don't say it. Doing what you think is right is not a bad thing. Similarly, if you find the book distasteful, don't feel like you MUST read it. I liked to be read this stuff when I was a kid, but was also exposed to a wide range of other books which meant that I never took seriously the point of view from a story that was about a hundred years old. I don't agree that Rudyard Kipling is fucked up, or that you risk making your kid a racist by reading the book to her. If all you EVER read to her was stories from the colonial perspective, that might be worrisome.

I think the point of this debate is that ignorance goes two ways (well, probably more than two). In one direction, you are so insulated from other cultures and racial/ethnic groups that you don't know how to deal with someone who doesn't look like you, and you listen to fools talk about how different/ lazy/ whatever that person is because you don't know any better. You learn to dismiss the value of people who are unfamiliar. In the other direction, you are so caught up in modern thought that you ignore the diversity of thought and perception that came before us, and will come after us, and dismiss the value of people who are unfamiliar. And that's a shame, because even though he was a product of his times, I don't think that Kipling deserves to be treated like that.

Recommendation: teach your kid how to think critically when she grows up, but also how to enjoy a story for what it is.
posted by _cave at 8:11 PM on February 15, 2010

Best answer: The stories are more than a hundred years old, written by a man who was shockingly, casually racist.

I don't want to get caught up in a debate about Kipling's racism, but to describe him as 'shockingly, casually racist' is way off the mark. Whatever else he may have been, Kipling was a meticulous literary craftsman, and the Just So Stories are written with great precision and attention to detail -- worlds away from the careless, unthinking racism that you seem to be attributing to him.

The most problematic part of the Just So Stories is, as you say, the passage in 'The Crab that Played with the Sea' where the Malays are described as 'the laziest people in the world'. Kipling seems to have intended this as a lightly humorous remark, but for obvious reasons it doesn't seem so funny today. Interestingly, my edition of the Just So Stories, from 1991, silently omits this sentence, even though it retains the word 'nigger' in 'How the Leopard got his Spots'. I'd certainly cut this sentence when reading the story to a child. However, the remaining elements of the story (the crab, the tides, etc) are a respectful adaptation of Malay folklore and don't appear, to my eye at least, to have any racist overtones. The whole thing is presented as a creation myth, and with the exception of that one sentence, 'the Man' in the story is portrayed as a representative of the whole human race ('son of Adam'), not of any single race in particular.

As for 'How the Leopard got his Spots', this is, of course, a fanciful answer to the biblical question, 'Can the Ethiopian change his skin, or the leopard his spots?' (Jeremiah 13:23). There is one unacceptable sentence in the story ('Oh, plain black's best for a nigger') and another in the picture caption that would be better omitted ('The Ethiopian was really a negro, and so his name was Sambo'). But the problem here is more in the language than in the underlying assumptions; I can't find anything in the story that could be construed as racist in the classical sense of asserting the superiority of one race over another. You could argue, I suppose, that it presents white skin as normative ('everybody started fair'), but the general message of the story seems to be that some people have white skin, some people have black skin, and the differences between them are no big deal (literally, only skin deep), which doesn't seem such a bad way to teach a child about racial difference. It's made clear, for example, that the Ethiopian chooses his skin-colour (for good, practical reasons) and that he is pleased with his choice -- hardly the mark of Cain.

Indeed, what strikes me most about the Just So Stories is how little there is about race. At the start of 'How the First Letter was Written', Kipling practically announces that he isn't going to discuss questions of racial origin: 'Once upon a most early time was a Neolithic man. He was not a Jute or an Angle, or even a Dravidian, which he might well have been, Best Beloved, but never mind why.' (And it's pretty obvious, surely, that when Kipling writes about primitive cavemen and their daughters, he isn't dealing in colonial stereotypes of Noble Savages, he's writing about himself and his own daughter.) What we're likely to find most iffy about the Just So Stories, today, is precisely the innocence with which Kipling handles racial issues; the uninhibited way in which he introduces, into a children's book, themes like 'how the black man got his skin' which we, from our vantage-point, know to be very culturally loaded. (This is a deliberate innocence, of course; Kipling isn't unaware of racial theory, he just chooses not to put it into the stories.)

I don't want to make excuses for Kipling, and I'm not going to pretend that imperialism, colonialism and racism don't exist in his work. But I like Neil Gaiman's take on it: 'Kipling's politics are not mine, but then it would be a poor sort of world if one were only able to read authors who expressed points of view that one agreed with entirely. Kipling was many things that I am not, and I like that in my authors.' I hope you will read the Just So Stories to your daughter, enjoy them for what they are (because there is much in them to enjoy), and not feel guilty about having to omit a few sentences.
posted by verstegan at 2:29 AM on February 16, 2010 [7 favorites]

Not to get too chatty here, but in response to MadamM's "When I was a little kid, I have absolutely no clear memory of even knowing what race was." That's sort of the problem.

Most white people try to pretend there aren't races, in an effort to avoid looking racist. Studies have shown this kicks in with white kids around age 7-10; they start pretending to be colorblind. They are well aware of what social cues and taboos are, even if they couldn't explicitly explain racism to you, and these are the roots of the perception of "otherness" in people of other races. Another study has shown that the best way to help children get over this is to actually openly talk about race. Yes, this person is black, this person is white. Platitudes like "We're all god's children" and "don't judge a book by it's cover" doesn't get the message across. It reinforces this colorblindness, and this false "colorblindness" leads to hesitation to interact with other races, and the institutionalized racism* we deal with as a society.

So, full disclosure, I'm young, white, female, and no kids. I say read your 2 year old these stories, and bring them out again at age 5, and let them start a real discussion about race, racial history, and people as individuals separate from their race. Let them know that white people were the bad guy in history. This doesn't mean that all white people are bad, just as it doesn't mean all black people are [X].

Kids have a tendency to believe that people like them are good, and then cast bad things onto the "other". A classic experiment about this was a classroom of kids were split into 2 groups, and for a week they wore red or blue t-shirts. By the end of it, kids thought the people with their shirt color were nicer and smarter, while the opposite shirt were stupid and mean. So, I suggest, giving them something complex to think about and show them that it's not as simple as that essentialist view. Let them know that they have things in common with people of other races. If the tyke starts to like baseball, tell him about Jackie Robinson. He'll understand why it wasn't fair, how Robinson was a hero, how white people used to treat other people, and how it was cool that he was interested in baseball too.

History, (and something like American Girl Dolls) can start these discussions, as well as current events.

*note, I'm not talking about individuals as being racist, or people in an organization being racist individually. Calling people racist is never productive, and more like a witch hunt than progress. What is more important is dealing with institutionalized racism, eg. inherited socio-economic disadvantage, mis and under-representation in media, access to services and education, etc.
posted by fontophilic at 9:07 AM on February 16, 2010 [4 favorites]

Response by poster: You guys, thank you so much for a fantastic discussion. Metafilter is AWESOME.

The decision my husband and I have come to is to take a red pencil to the stories and mark out the problematic passages, and then read them to her. The stories themselves are rich with love and wonder, and the cringe-inducing aspects are truthfully pretty shallow and easy to excise. She has lots of books written both about and from lots of different traditions, and I think we'll be OK.

If anyone wants to continue the discussion, either here or in MeMail with me, please feel free because I've enjoyed the hell out if it. Thank you!
posted by KathrynT at 1:59 PM on February 16, 2010

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