Should We Ban “Little House” for Racism?

Editor’s note: Although the writer originally wrote this post for her blog in the context of Banned Book Week in 2010, the American Library Association (ALA) recently announced that the Office for Intellectual Freedom has released the Top Ten Most Frequently Challenged Books of 2011 as part of ALA’s State of America’s Library Report. Sayantani has updated her commentary for Adios Barbie.

By Sayantani DasGupta

Yesterday, my daughter crossed a milestone I’d been dreading. A big reader who loves stories about girls charting their own destinies, she’s been reading the Laura Ingalls Wilder “Little House” series. She got through Little House in the Big Woods without too much difficulty – save for a bit of anxiety about the description of Pa Ingalls hunting, skinning and smoking animals (“They didn’t have grocery stores back then, sweetie.”). But now she’s on Little House on the Prairie, and yesterday, she got to the chapter I’ve been dreading: “Indians in the House.”

Being Indian – ie. my parents having immigrated from the country of India – myself, I always find the conflation of Native American peoples and Indians from India a bit problematic. I’ve spent a lifetime correcting schoolmates that I’m “the other kind of Indian.” But I do recognize the importance of the word for Native American communities (for instance, no matter how many times I trip on the name, the beautiful museum in Washington DC is called “The Museum of the American Indian” and not, as I keep calling it “The Native American Museum.”)

But that wasn’t my hesitation about this chapter. It was the description of the “red-brown skinned,” “snake eyed,” “smelly,” and “wild” men who come to Laura and Mary’s house when Pa is out hunting. The chapter is filled with real anxiety – after all, Ma is alone with her three small girls and Laura toys in the chapter with letting Jack, the bulldog loose on the intruders, despite Pa’s instructions not to let him free. The thought of my soft-hearted, very brown skinned 7-year old (who looks a little too much like that adorable Rue from The Hunger Games for me to have been able to watch that movie without crying) reading about men who not only look like her, but are called by the same name and yet are framed as so alien, wild, threatening, and frightening was heartbreaking for me. This is where internalized racism happens, I thought, thinking back to my own childhood books, which often taught me that heroes and heroines were fair hued, and evil do-ers were dark skinned like me.

Yet, what is the answer? Is it banning Little House on the Prairie, either from my own personal house, or from our public library and school bookshelves?

Certainly, the history of young people’s book banning is long and terrible. From Mark Twain’s The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn to and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, to more recently, Laurie Halse Anderson’s Speak or Sherman Alexie’s Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian. I am always appalled by these efforts to dishonor the written word – efforts motivated often by desires to sweep America’s racist past under the rug, if not by outright xenophobia, sexism, and racism made modern. I’ve blogged in the past about the writer’s responsibility to protest, stir up controversy and conversation, and challenge society to push itself in more just directions.

But what about written works that do the opposite? What about written works that promote stereotypes, prejudice and fear? As a rule, of course, I would say that freedom of speech means freedom of all speech. But, as a parent and pediatrician, what do I think about those works of classic literature that teach our children prejudice, racism, sexism, or xenophobia?

Oompa-Loompas in 1964 (top) and in 1973 as illustrated by Joseph Schindelman

I got thinking about this more deeply after reading Philip Nel’s excellent blog post about censorship of children’s literature. In it, he discusses Roald Dahl’s portrayal of the Oompa-Loompas as ‘tribespeople’ brought in small crates from the deepest jungles of a far away land. Although the original 1964 illustrations – in which the Oompa-Loompas were dark-skinned – changed by the 1973 edition – by which time they were white – the colonial implications remain. The Oompa-Loompas are a “primitive” people who don’t mind – nay, even welcome – their status as chocolate factory slaves. As Nel discusses, the removal of explicit racial signifiers doesn’t prevent this from being a racist gesture, as it doesn’t change a child’s ability to assume that a non-English-speaking ‘tribesperson’ from a ‘deep jungle’ might very well be from Africa. His discussion of Dr. Doolittle is similarly nuanced.

In my household, it was my now 9-year old son’s fascination with the Little House on the Prairie series that initially raised my neck hairs. To be honest, I LOVED these books as a girl, and was looking forward to sharing them with my children. That is, until we started reading them out loud a few years ago and I began skipping large sections. First, some of the aforementioned stuff about hunting, then about gun care, then skinning animals, and finally — yikes — all those descriptions about the half-naked, frightening, primitive, violent ‘Indians.’ (Had I forgotten all that?) And how much Ma Ingalls hates ‘them’. Why? Because, well, they’re half-naked, frightening, primitive and violent. (Oh, yeah, and mad that the white settlers are taking over their land, but we won’t talk about that.) Even Pa Ingalls’ semi-tolerance of ‘Indians’ is more a tribute to how cool Pa is than anything else.

I edited out passages in our read-alouds, but as my older child began to read the books himself, how could I edit his reading? I certainly wasn’t going to cut out or blacken pages, nor was I going to stop him from reading these classic texts – which have a great deal of good in them – girl heroines, love of family and nature, wonderful writing. Even if I could have – as a publisher, say – edited out those explicitly racist chapters from the Little House series, should I? Would such a gesture remove the overall colonial and racist history of Westward migration in the U.S.? Would such a gesture not re-enact the book banning/burning urges of those who oppose freedom of speech?

The only thing I could do was to explicitly discuss with my children my feelings about those parts of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s books. (Yesterday, when my daughter got to that chapter, we actually read it together.) As well as to make sure their literary diet was varied, and consisted of plenty of other images of people of color. Of course, the lack of multicultural children’s books with multicultural protagonists out there (and their lack of humor and variety) is a whole other blog post.

Now, this doesn’t mean I’m not squeamish regarding the unquestioning portrayal of racism. A few years ago, when my kids and I watched Disney’s Peter Pan on DVD and the film got to that awful Native American (um, American Indian?) village scene – yeah, I still fast forwarded over that.

When my daughter asked me why, her older brother told her, “It’s because it’s promoting stereotypes. And stereotypes hurt people.”

Well said, my boy. Well said.

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9 thoughts on “Should We Ban “Little House” for Racism?

  1. I think that the question of WHY Caroline Ingalls had such negative opinions of Native Americans might be a good topic for discussion, especially with a child of age to read these books on their own. According to my rudimentary internet research, Mrs. Ingalls was born in Wisconsin in 1839, which was not very long after some very serious conflicts between Native Americans and local settlers. Her parents most likely would have been very fearful of local natives and the conflicts would have most assuredly a topic of discussion among adults of the time.

    It seems like a teaching moment could be had there on the topic of how people come to be prejudiced or hold opinions which are based on stereotypes.

  2. Thanks so much for your thoughtful comments, Alison, April and James! I agree, Alison, “We will, undoubtedly, find racial stereotypes in literature that will be difficult to explain, but walking them through that is what being a parent is all about, no?” And April, I agree, it’s important to find a variety of representations of people of color in literature – for all our benefits! Check out Color Online for a good resource for books by women writers of color. And James, what concerns me about the scene in Peter Pan is the stereotypes perpetuated about Native American communities, not so much the “accuracy” of their costuming, etc. But thank you for posting that article link.

  3. I found this blog very interesting. My girls haven’t started reading those books yet (being ages 5 years and 16 months). However, many of the books I read as a child may contain passages or themes that, as a parent, I wouldn’t want my kids to read. I do not think these books, or movies, should be banned. Instead use the passages as a teachable moment. For instance, in Little House on the Prairie, discuss how
    “Indians” were viewed then and the role they played in US history. I have African American and white blood and my kids also have Mexican-American blood. We will, undoubtedly, find racial stereotypes in literature that will be difficult to explain, but walking them through that is what being a parent is all about, no?

  4. Thanks for your post. I’m finding that many of the books I enjoyed as a young girl now make me cringe when I realize how racist they are (case in point: The Horse and His Boy by C.S. Lewis)!

    “Of course, the lack of multicultural children’s books with multicultural protagonists out there (and their lack of humor and variety) is a whole other blog post.” I’ve been struggling with this as a I look for adult fiction that isn’t just super depressing or strictly about the acculturation/assimilation of recently-arrived families to the U.S.

  5. As promised, here is a great article on the representation of the American Indians in Disney’s Peter Pan, courtesy of world-renowned Disney historian Jim Korkis. (He was writing for MousePlanet under the pseudonym of Wade Sampson at the time due to contractual issues.) Injun Trouble: The Neverland Tribe (Wade’s Wayback Machine)

  6. Regarding the portrayal of American Indians in Disney’s Peter Pan, you should probably have done a bit more research into how accurate that portrayal is. Certainly they are caricaturized, but otherwise the portrayal of the dress, war paint, battle customs, and even dance are accurate portrayals of the Blackfoot tribe. Once I get to a desktop computer I’ll provide some links to give you more information.

  7. Thanks for the insightful comments, Shannon and Amber! It’s so complicated – we want to protect our children so much, but in the end, I’m discovering it’s really fruitful to expose them to some things, but just come along with them, use those exposures as fodder for family discussion, learning for both the adults and kids involved!

  8. It’s funny, I was recently thinking about these books. My reading was almost entirely unsupervised as a child, so I mostly had to draw my own conclusions. The skinning animals thing didn’t perturb me at all. But I remember wondering about those Indians—it made no sense to me that they were constantly Othered. I empathized with them strongly, because as the odd one out in school, being a social outcast was what I knew. I wanted to read stories about the people no one was telling me about. Especially I wondered, if we’re living on Native American lands (Canada, in my case), where did they all go? I only got my (un)satisfactory answer in late high school. Just for context, I am as white as is possible, and my mother was born in Europe. I think books like this are valuable because they point out these emptinesses in our lives. I was lucky, because I had a fairytale book of world folklore that did not focus on European tales, so I’ve always been fascinated by culture and history. I think it’s valuable to look at these books and have a conversation about them, so that children (and adults!) can learn that some portrayals are not cool—but that they also are historically accurate in terms of prejudice. And understanding historical prejudice can lead to a better understanding of current prejudice. But banning books outright only makes them attractive, and forbids the important conversation.

  9. Hey, great minds think alike! I’m currently reading the series to my six-year-old daughter, and I’m catching not only the obvious race-based fears but Laura’s intense dislike of her own dark hair compared to her lovely blonde sister’s. She certainly put the Aryan ideal up on a pedestal!

    When my daughter and I read “Little House on the Prairie” we talked a great deal about the very real threat that the Indians posed to the Ingalls–it’s so deeply woven into the text it’s impossible to ignore–but we also talked about the desperation that the Indians themselves felt when white settlers helped themselves to their land. Even a six-year-old understands that Pa should have asked permission before building that house! The lesson at the final chapter was that when you take something, you have to give it back.

    Now if only that were true in the rest of American history and literature….

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