This conversation is one in which I am well-versed. I have debated with fellow children's literature scholars and enthusiasts about whether antiquated racist language should be purged from children's books. The arguments I hear most often in favor of keeping the racist language (and that has been cited in this most recent resurgence of the debate) is that by removing racial slurs from texts we are rewriting the past, denying history, and even that we are "whitewashing" the literature in question (though clearly this definition of whitewashing must be very different than the one discussed in a previous post). While I understand where those who hold these beliefs are coming from, I always come back to the question, "Yes, but what about the reader?"
I can't begin to tell you the myriad ways reading hurtful racist language negatively effects readers of color. There is something deeply fracturing and violating about being suddenly and violently ejected from the world of the book you were inhabiting by the presence of a racial slur. If this has not ever happened to you, it would be great if you would take my word for it—it's a horribly exclusionary experience that no one should ever be subjected to. And while I do believe that historical texts should be available in their original form to preserve the past for scholarly study, I do not see how it benefits anyone to have them available, in their full horror, on bookstore shelves today. In addition to the ways these words can damage readers of color, the idea that anyone would want to put these books in the hands of white readers, to plant/reinforce the idea that racism is acceptable, is simply shocking. What I find the most mind-boggling though is that a book's value as an historical document would ever been held in higher esteem than a living, breathing human's experience. This belief itself seems like a form of racism. Why would we want books on our shelves that promote ideologies our society has (for the most part) evolved away from?
Another popular argument is that it is the job of adults to discuss the historical context of racism within a book with the children they are reading with. However, not all children have the advantage of discussing what they read with an adult. There is no reason to believe that books like Die Kleine Hexe will always be read to children by parents, teachers, and caretakers who will explain the historical context of the racist language found within. Furthermore, there is no reason to believe that explaining the context will make a positive difference to readers. Even if every child were able to discuss the racism in historical texts with an adult, I can guarantee that it would not negate the (dare I say it?) trauma that can result from reading such words and having such damaging ideology planted or reaffirmed in their psyche.
If you are one who believes racial slurs should remain in historical texts I would urge you to consider why the need for books in their original form trumps a readers' experience. Racism is not a problem that is going away any time soon, but it all of our responsibility to ensure that reading is a safe experience, in this regard, for as many readers as possible.
Agree? Disagree? We'd love to hear your thoughts in the comments.