By Erica D. Marshall Lee, Ph.D., on behalf of the Atlanta Behavioral Health Advocates
My initial reaction to Dr. Seuss Enterprise’s removal of 6 well-known books was conflicted. The company decided to end licensing and publication of the books due to their portrayal of “hurtful and wrong” images of people.
I grew up, as have many others, reading Dr. Seuss. I have read Dr. Seuss books to my children and my grandchildren, beaming with delight at the pleasure they felt being able to read them on their own. Personally, I am torn, as this is part of what is now “our” family history and I am unsure and uncomfortable attempting to put this in its “proper” place, wherever that is.
The childhoods of Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC)—including mine—have been and continue to be shaped by painful images interspersed in virtually every corner of existence. BIPOC children are often tasked with fending off microaggressions observed in literature, media, and other art forms, which influence their paths and identities. These outlets have informed these children's perceptions of both self and others.
Their developing personalities are the product of the intersection of genetics, environment, parenting, and societal predispositions. The ongoing interaction of these components continues to contribute to personality development over time. For me personally, Dr. Seuss is part of who I am.
Interestingly but not unexpectedly, more movies have recently been highlighted as falling into the “hurtful and wrong” category. Movies such as Breakfast at Tiffany’s and Gone with the Wind, have been identified as potentially causing harm. (I chuckle, because I literally just referenced the “Ms. Scarlett, I don’t know nothing about birthin' no babies!” line from Gone with the Wind.)
This movie and others that display problematic images, employ derogatory terms, and perpetuate the marginalization of BIPOC are underlying factors in their everyday lives. Some BIPOC individuals are very intentional about protecting themselves and their loved ones from these elements; unfortunately, it's not possible to be omniscient or anticipate each affront.
What is the Harm?
Some have argued that these are merely depictions in children’s books, insubstantial cartoons that do not hurt anyone. Unfortunately, not only are they damaging, these portraitures can be traumatizing and result in adverse physical and mental health sequelae.
Racial trauma is a response by BIPOC and marginalized communities to real and perceived exposure to racism and discrimination. This trauma may be experienced by facing shaming and/or humiliating incidents, threats of harm and injury, and/or witnessing racial discrimination exacted toward other BIPOC.
Carter et al.’s 2019 research suggests that stress due to racial discrimination early in life leads to prolonged negative affective states continuing into African Americans’ young adulthood that put them at risk for premature disease and mortality and accelerated aging. Children are potentially harmed from a very early age—perhaps even birth. Even young children can understand these messages in impactful ways.
In our country, and globally, we are witnessing alarming rates of racial disparities in a range of mental and physical health conditions. Some of these disparities can be explained partially by chronic exposure to social and economic disadvantages that, in turn, lead to accelerated decline in physical health outcomes, termed the "weathering effect."
Where does that put BIPOC and marginalized communities who love art and literature? (Note: I'm not implying that all art and literature has racist underpinnings.) I personally love Stephen King's books—however, at one point, I had to cease reading and purchasing his books because I couldn’t find one without an opprobrious racial reference. This was a painfully palpable source of dissonance for me; for me to experience pleasure, I subjected myself to negative racial messages.
There are also seemingly less malignant examples of this conundrum; I love the Golden Girls and Seinfeld and can recite most of the words in each episode. However, my enjoyment is significantly diminished, and guilt intensified, when I reflect upon the largely absent representation of BIPOC characters in these (and many other) television shows. I become angered that these feelings and thoughts arise simply from the desire to engage in leisure, and what should be self-care.
Yes, there are books and movies produced by BIPOC that depict grossly offensive images and spew epithets that also perpetuate racism and discrimination; however, it's important to contextualize that these originated from 400 years of racism and oppression. In 1903, W.E.B. Dubois, an African American civil rights activist, wrote about "double-consciousness," advancing the position that non-BIPOC perception of BIPOC substantially influences BIPOC self-perceptions. He described, "this sense of always looking at one's self through the eyes of others, of measuring one's soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity"—what we refer to today as internalized racism.
BIPOC and other marginalized communities merely desire lives free from the injury created by racism and discrimination through respectable, inclusive, and equitable spaces for all. Psychologists can address this concern as providers and advocates by taking steps to move from racial trauma to healing.
For healing to occur, trust must be fostered, requiring courage on both sides. Psychologists must first acknowledge and discuss racism with their clients. Psychologists can validate their client’s experiences by adopting a curious, non-defensive, nonjudgmental, and collaborative approach as well as openly discussing and listening to clients’ accounts of racially traumatizing situations.
Acknowledgment via perspective taking, self-awareness, reflection, and education effectuating an understanding of race and racism from a social, political, and historical context is critically important. Encouraging and providing clients with opportunities to identify and become exposed to racially affirming literature, images, media, and resources can also be meaningful. Some affirmation can even be realized in the signage, pictures, and magazines displayed in our offices. Additionally, psychologists can proffer and engage in support and self-care for themselves and their clients by minimizing the intake of negative racial information and promoting wellbeing through mindfulness and other practices that counter any negative interactions and messaging.
Finally, psychologists may desire to empower themselves and their clients by engaging in individual and community activities that support pro-social change. United, public, solution-focused endeavors that call out racism and promote healing—such as protests and voting initiatives—can go a long way. Suggestions have already been made to provide disclaimers and advisories acknowledging potential harm that can be experienced by communities of color reading, listening to, and/or viewing some of these platforms. For some this may be too little too late; for others, it may be a small step toward acknowledgment and progress. What is important is that action is taken to heal all our members, BIPOC and non-BIPOC alike.
Carter, S. E., Ong, M. L., Simons, R. L., Gibbons, F. X., Lei, M. K., & Beach, S. R. H. (2019). The effect of early discrimination on accelerated aging among African Americans. Health Psychology. https://doi.org/10.1037/hea0000788
Forde, A. T., Crookes, D. M., Suglia, S. F., & Demmer, R. T. (2019). The weathering hypothesis as an explanation for racial disparities in health: A systematic review. Annals of Epidemiology, 33, 1-18.e3. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.annepidem.2019.02.011
Mekawi, Y., Carter, S., Brown, B., Martinez de Andino, A., Fani, N., Michopoulos, V., & Powers, A. (2021). Interpersonal Trauma and Posttraumatic Stress Disorder among Black Women: Does Racial Discrimination Matter? Journal of Trauma & Dissociation, 22(2), 154–169. https://doi.org/10.1080/15299732.2020.1869098
Mekawi, Y., Watson-Singleton, N. N., Kuzyk, E., Dixon, H. D., Carter, S., Bradley-Davino, B., Fani, N., Michopoulos, V., & Powers, A. (2020). Racial discrimination and posttraumatic stress: Examining emotion dysregulation as a mediator in an African American community sample. European Journal of Psychotraumatology, 11(1), 1824398. https://doi.org/10.1080/20008198.2020.1824398