Tuesday, February 12, 2013

To Censor or Not to Censor: Does Racist Language Have a Place in Children's Books?

Die kleine Hexe

A huge row recently erupted in Germany over racist language in a children's book. I won't take too much time to recap the situation here (you can follow the link), suffice to say it began when a German father wrote to the publisher of Die Kleine Hexe, a classic German children's book, about how he could not continue reading the story to his seven-year old daughter after encountering the word "neger" (from what I gather, it is the German equivalent of both the word "negro" and the "n-word," now considered offensive). He requested the publisher revise the text. The publisher, after reviewing the book, said they would edit future printingsand all hell broke loose.

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 itit'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.


For further reading on this specific incident see this additional piece from The Guardian and this piece from The New Yorker.


  1. Thanks for a thought-provoking post Stephanie! I guess my first question is when you say "childrens books", what age exactly does this refer to? For example, I do not think young children should be subjected to racist words (and that also goes for sex, violence, and other adult themes). Children need to remain innocent however long they can. But if we are talking teenagers, that's where I have a tougher time. Now IN NO WAY would I ever promote racism. It is vile and wrong and it is a travesty for anyone to be subjected to it. I can think back to some texts I have read while in school and have come accross racist language. It always made me uncomfortable and cringe, yet it was a good reminder of what was going on in the story (whether fictional or fact-based). Whether we like it or not, racist talk/actions have been a huge part of history. While words like the "n" word are despicable, it sometimes has the most powerful effect to hear that word uttered in a story to get the full picture and feeling of what someone has gone through. It gets right at your heart and (at least for me) makes me empathize with those who were the subject of racism. People need to understand what different people/ethnic groups have had to endure over the years.

    1. Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Ashley! When I said "children's" books I was speaking broadly. I don't think I would cap the age at a certain place--I know that for teens and even adults reading racial slurs can be hurtful--so I'm not sure where to draw a line, if one need be drawn.

      That reading racial slurs actually worked to drive home the wrongness of racism for you and helped you to empathize with the characters experiencing racism is very interesting. Thank you for sharing your experience!

  2. I know it probably seems sort of strange to say racist words helped me. Even thinking about how ironic that is is strange to me, yet hearing horrible words and phrases used against people does indeed make me want to turn from ideas and thinking like that. It is so sad people have been subjected to any types of racism, and I hope other people are turned off by that too when reading such dialogue. Can't wait for more posts Stephanie!

  3. Your experience is completely valid, Ashley, and we're glad you shared it! It's good to remember that children/teens can be very subversive in their reading and, as in your case, a positive result can come from something negative. Thanks again for reading and commenting!

  4. I love this post. I think I'm going to have my students read it. You explain the "ejection" phenomenon so articulately:

    "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."

    This is a convincing argument, and one that readers who haven't experienced such exclusion can't necessarily see if it's not pointed out to them. (I include myself here.) I can see how an inflammatory racial slur, encountered once, can startle a reader out of the story -- and encountered over and over, can absolutely deflate/traumatize the reader (and no, I don't think "trauma" is too strong a word).

    It's not as if we're burning the originals, anyway... they will live on in academic libraries.

    I think Ashley's question about age is a good one. I do think it's different if we're talking about literature a nine year old reads for pleasure versus a text discussed in an eleventh grade English class. You might disagree, but I think a sensitive teacher at a first rate high school or college might be able to have just this discussion with his/her students. Maybe they could even vote on whether or not a book gets read and studied. (I do think it should be upper high school and college, though. I taught Huck Finn to a class of ninth graders -- I probably wouldn't do that again.)

    By the way, the guy in blackface from the New Yorker article really missed the mark. Yeech.

    1. So good to hear that my point got across, Elaine!

      I think there is an argument to be made for reading these types of novels with older teens--though I'm not willing to make it. College, yes, high school... not sure. If all teachers were sensitive, perhaps. However, your idea about asking the students what they're comfortable with--specifically the students who would be directly affected by whatever slurs are in the text--might be the best answer. That way they can decide themselves whether they can handle it or not.

      And yes, that guy completely failed in whatever he was trying to do. Why would anyone ever think blackface would be a good idea?

      Thanks for sharing your thoughts!