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3 February 2022

Emily Tamkin

Banning books means some children learn about racism the hard way

From Maus to The Bluest Eye, US conservatives seem to want to shelter pupils for ever. It won't work.

When I was nine years old someone drew a swastika in a restroom stall in my elementary school. There was a school assembly about it. I was one of a small handful of Jewish people in that school. I went home and cried.

I thought of this moment last week when a school board in the state of Tennessee voted 10-0 to remove Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, from the curriculum for 13-year-olds. It uses illustrated cats and mice to tell the story of Spiegelman’s fraught relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor.

The school board objected to the book’s crude language and naked images (to reiterate, the images in question were of mice). After a media outcry the board put out a statement insisting that it voted to remove Maus “because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole, the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.”

The banning of Maus is not a lone incident; it needs to be seen in the context of a United States that is in the midst of a book-banning frenzy. In Southlake, Texas, a school administrator told teachers that, if they were to teach a book on the Holocaust, they had to teach another book with an “opposing” view. The chair of a state legislative committee in Texas put together a list of 850 books that he suggested would make students feel “discomfort”, including The Handmaid’s Tale. A bill recently introduced in Virginia would keep “divisive concepts” out of Virginia’s public schools — chiefly aimed at critical race theory, which states that racism is embedded in US social and legal institutions, leading to unequal outcomes for different races.

In one Florida county, a conservative group is trying to ban 16 books, complaining of “pornographic” material (on the list was The Bluest Eye, Toni Morrison’s famed first book, which is about a woman who believes whiteness is beautiful and her own blackness is ugly). In Oklahoma, a state senate bill would keep books dealing with sexual identity or activity out of public libraries.

This is all in the last few weeks.   

In each of these cases the claim is that parents don’t feel their children should be exposed to things that might be too mature or might make them feel bad. Children should feel proud of their country. They should be sheltered from bad language and crude imagery. They shouldn’t have to feel guilty. What children can read, according to this logic, should be about what parents — good, nice parents — want to teach them. Greg Abbott, the Republican governor of Texas, has introduced a Parental Bill of Rights for this reason. Much ink was spilled over this very issue during the Virginia gubernatorial election: parents should have a say in what their children learn. One mother in Loudoun County, Virginia, went viral after she said, at a school board meeting, that her six-year-old had asked her if she was evil because she was white.

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And it’s true: children should feel safe, and secure, and loved, and protected. No child should feel evil.

But I did not get to choose the age at which a swastika was drawn on a restroom stall in my school. Children who are not white do not get to choose when they smack up against racism. If one is more offended by Toni Morrison’s book than the racism she describes, that is an education in and of itself.

Racism in schools — and in the world — is not banned along with the books. Book bans just keep children from learning about them in a potentially productive, educational environment. The question is not whether children get to delay when they learn about wrongdoings. The question is whether some will learn about them early on while others never learn of them at all.

And there is another question, too: are the parents pushing for these laws worried that their children will think less of themselves, or that they might think less of their parents? What I learnt from that swastika was that another person — another child — in that elementary school had already learnt, somewhere, what it meant. Perhaps from his nice parents, the kind who wanted to make sure their child never learnt anything too upsetting too early.

[See also: Stephen Bush: What Whoopi Goldberg got wrong about race and the Holocaust]

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