Against Pointless Racism in Children's Stories

I'm taking some flak in the comments to yesterday's book recommendation request post, so let me illustrate what I meant with an example. Lots of people recommended the Andrew Lang Fairy books, which are freely available online. I looked at the first story in the first book, which is plenty entertaining, but also has this bit that stopped me short:

Hardly had [an evil sorceror] reached his own house when, taking the ring, he said, "Bronze ring, obey thy master. I desire that the golden ship shall turn to black wood, and the crew to hideous negroes; that St. Nicholas shall leave the helm and that the only cargo shall be black cats."

This is exactly the kind of stuff I want to avoid-- casual and utterly pointless racism. And, yeah, yeah, product of their time, blah, blah, blah. I'm not explaining that one to my two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

So, how is this different than the editing of Twain that I was basically against last month? The difference is that Huckleberry Finn is telling a story about a specific time and place, and the racist language used by the characters is a significant part of that time and place. Replacing it with more neutral language would decouple it from history, and to some degree even goes against the point of the book.

Fairy tales, though, by definition, take place in no particular time or country. In which case, there's really no purpose to gratuitous racial slurs like the above, other than to reveal something about the time and place in which the story was written down. Dropping the "hideous negroes" bit wouldn't change anything remotely important to the story, and it would avoid some extreme awkwardness that I really don't need.

So, that's what I'm looking for, or more specifically, looking to avoid. I don't need a completely Disneyfied version of the stories, but I do want something that takes out the utterly pointless racism/ sexism/ etc. of a lot of the older stories.

I'll happily point SteelyKid to the Lang books at a time when she's more able to deal with them. At age two-and-a-half, though, no way.

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I recently noticed HP Lovecraft is full of very similar sentiments.

It was pretty normal for the times

By Vince whirlwind (not verified) on 06 Feb 2011 #permalink

Thanks for the report. I've been meaning to get those Lang Fairy books to read to my 8 year old son. I guess I'll have to read any before showing him - yuck! I'd also like to read him the Arabian Nights.

That was one story out of hundreds. Don't condemn them all! Lang collected the stories, he didn't write them.
@#2 Arabian Nights? Not the unexpurgated version, I hope?

It is exactly this sort of thing that makes me think I'll let my kid acquire this particular part of the cultural lexicon until he's old enough to deal with it on its own terms. The most common fairy tales all seem to have started as exceedingly nasty bits of business, the kind of things I'd read without concern in a China Mieville or Iain Banks novel for adults, but which are incredibly inappropriate for children. You can grind the roughest of the rough edges off these stories, but I don't think they've removed all of their essential ugliness. The overt necrophilia may be gone from modern versions of "Sleeping Beauty," but you can't fix the passive female lead waiting for a man to save her without throwing away the entire premise. The solution for me is just that: Discard these stories and find better ones to tell young children. They can find the originals at a later time, when they can handle the violence and scariness, and when the toxic messages will be better resisted.

Look at the old Tom Swift books now available online to see similar things. We as a society really have made progress, and it's right there to see. Read "Crazy '08" about the 1908 baseball season and see how huge racially motivated killing and destruction was just passed off at the time Lang and the Swift authors were working.

The table of contents for the Andrew Lang stories lists their origin, which for "The Bronze Ring" is Middle East/Central Asia. That detail leads me to suspect that the racist bit you flag was introduced in translation. It wouldn't be the first time. Compare the famous couplet from Snow White

Mirror, mirror on the wallWho's the fairest of them all?

with the original German text, and you will find that the German schönste, meaning simply "most beautiful", has been translated with a word that specifically means "light skinned".

The point here is that the story itself might not be overtly racist if you find the right translation. But I agree with you that Lang's translation is gratuitously racist.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Feb 2011 #permalink

I've never really understood the appeal of the [colour] Fairy Books. My sister loved them. I thought that most of the lesser known stories were missing an essential component, ie. a beginning, middle, or end...and the piece suffered from the same tedium that plagues a lot of Victorian translations of foreign works. Waley's Tale of Genji . The Victorians it seems had an infinite capacity for boredom and a need to make everyone else in the world talk and think just like them, integrity of the original be damned!
Anyway, my thoughts on the fairy books were sealed when I read "A Jew Amongst Thorns." This has to be the most racist anti-semitic story ever. Short summary: young man plays tricks on a Jew, because Jews are evil and deserve it. Then, young man turns Jew over to local police who hang him. Young man is a hero, because Jews==bad. The Jew is still the villain because, everyone knows that Jewish people are inhuman and love money so deserve what they get.
I would never read this story to my kid. Ever. I probably wouldn't let them read it until they were old enough to process it. However, I think it shouldn't be censored from the fairy books like it has been in the past, because to older kids and adults, it's a story which drives home just how pervasive and cruel antisemitism was all over Europe for hundreds of years. There's a reason that the people of Germany let the Holocaust happen. It wasn't just something Hitler came up with one day--the attitudes that led to it were endemic. This is something I had not really appreciated until I read this story.
Off topic, I know...but Little Black Sambo was one of my favourite stories as a child. I love the bit at the end where the tigers chase each-other and become Tiger-Butter (which is good on pancakes apparently.)

Gee, Tamakazura, you think victorian cultural correctness is worse than our cultural correctness. Do you not understand that they were doing to these stories exactly what you want to do to them: to remove the culturally offensive attitudes and make them match current values?

"...and the piece suffered from the same tedium that plagues a lot of Victorian translations of foreign works. ... The Victorians it seems had an infinite capacity for boredom and a need to make everyone else in the world talk and think just like them, integrity of the original be damned!"

You would hardly have to change a single word of these two sentences--- once you change "Victorian" to "contemporary"--- to have a perfect description of what you and Chad are advocating. The past is a different country. People who want to recast the literature of another time or place with our own perspectives and values usually come across as fools or vandals.

By john smith (not verified) on 07 Feb 2011 #permalink

This is actually one of the reasons going with the Disney versions worked for our family. Yeah, yeah, sanitized, blah, blah, blah, but also; pretty much guaranteed not racist,(except for that bit in Fantasia, which they have scrubbed out, and Song of the South, which they've never released on DVD). Also, some of the tunes are pretty catchy.

You could also just, you know, tell them the stories yourself; you'd find that you know the classic ones, I expect.

The real problem is that fairy stories in their rawer forms just aren't very politically correct, by and large. They are sexist. They teach children that if you are ugly, you are bad. The hero lies, steals and kills to get what he wants; the heroine is rescued by a prince. Step mothers are evil and want to kill you. Any book of fairy tales that glosses over these recurring themes will be pretty heavily sanitized.

All that aside, here's a vote for Italo Calvino's "Italian Folktales". Read some yourself first, to make sure they are OK for SteelyKid. They are strange and wonderful. When I was a kid, I always liked Hans Christian Andersen stories, but skipped over the Little Mermaid and the Little Match Girl, because they were so sad; if SteelyKid ever sees the Disney version of Little Mermaid, don't for the love of God read her the HCA version until she is much, much older.

@8: Way to miss the point, Mr. Smith. If you had looked up the Lang translation referenced in the original post, you would have found that it also comes from the Victorian era. Tamakazura is correct in his impression that Victorians had a penchant for projecting their assumptions on the rest of the world. We see this not just in fairy tale translations but in things like the Rhodes Scholar program, which was specifically intended to bring other people to England and have them go home thinking like Englishmen. And yes, it did substantially distort how the English saw the rest of the world.

Chad specifically argued against imposing this modern view on Huckleberry Finn because it actually works against Twain's point. The same logic applies to regarding Victorian translations of fairy tales as definitive, because the Victorians often imposed a viewpoint which similarly works against the original point of the tale. More modern translators generally try to do better, at least with fiction. (There are those who have a political agenda, but they are usually paid to produce propaganda.) I don't see any issue with avoiding pointless racism that was introduced by a translator in a different time and place from the origin of the story.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 07 Feb 2011 #permalink

My main point was that Victorian translations tend to be rather flat and boring. It's hard to connect with the characters in, for example, Waley's translation of the Japanese classic Tale of Genji. I seem to recall Lang doing a volume on Egyptian mythology which managed to take the rather lively and colorful originals and make them really dull. Lang managed to make incestuous necrophilia boring without really even censoring it. I see this as a problem with that particular generation of translations.
On another subject, I'd read The Hobbit to the steelykid. Also, I'd read Edgar Rice Burroughs' Princess of Mars. I liked both of those a lot as a kid, and the mars series is good fun without the cultural baggage of Tarzan. (though I do remember the hero as being overly macho)

By Tamakazura (not verified) on 07 Feb 2011 #permalink

H P Lovecraft was quite notably racist even for time, it was commented on.

By Brett Dunbar (not verified) on 07 Feb 2011 #permalink

Chad, I take your point, but I also read comment #13 on the original request thread.

Since SteelyKid isn't reading them herself, some of the Lang collection (and other suggestions) might work well if you read them ahead of time and either expurgate or alter objectionable content. The particular passage you quoted could be changed to:

I desire that the golden ship shall turn to black wood, and the crew to hideous monsters; that St. Nicholas shall leave the helm and that the only cargo shall be black cats."

If you liked, you could even change one or both instances of the word 'black' (though without the reference to 'negroes', the black wood and black cats become much more innocuous, I think).

As others have said, translators and transcribers in the past have adjusted the stories to fit their own values. There's no 'official' version of any of them (or you couldn't even ask the original question) - your adaptation of someone else's version is just as valid as the most (or least) racist/sexist (or raciest/sexiest) version out there.

Not ever having read them myself, I'm not advocating for the Lang books especially, just pointing out that you may be able to get some value out of them - they just won't be quite as 'free' (since they'd cost you time rather than money). If time's more valuable, though, then perhaps it's not a viable option.

I'm not sure I follow the argument. Either it's inappropriate, or it's not, making a story more politically correct by substituting monster for negro makes it palatable to the kid but doesn't remove the racist intentions of the author. Next you could examine is the Hobbit less racist because it calls the fair skinned ones elfs and the dark ones orcs?

have you asked Isis for suggestions?

Eric Lund, YOU missed the point. When we apply the moral standards of our own culture to judge another, we lose the ability to appreciate other points of view and to understand other times and places. The changes that the victorians applied to stories, poems, and art from other times and places were for exactly the same reasons that tempt us to change them-- to cleanse them of views that they found, or we find, morally offensive, so they are morally comfortable for us and our children. Sometimes that just seems quaint and parochial, but in a case like Huckleberry Finn, it can prevent the reader from even understanding the main point of the piece of art.

I called Tamakazura on it because the irony that she was apparently complaining about victorian application of victorian moral standards was so exactly what we are doing when we advocate applying our own moral standards was too irresistable.

By john smit (not verified) on 08 Feb 2011 #permalink

Thanks for sharing this! It reminds me of some opinions of people in Interent about my Tale Of the Rock Pieces. I'm not a native Englishman or American so I used "negroes" as I didn't know it could be offensive for black people... A bit later I changed it as some people acused me of racism though I have nothing to do with it. But I knew what a great influence a book could have on kids and their parents' minds, my Tale Of The Rock Pieces for example was the reason why 2 kids of a friend of mine started taking a good care of their health and did exercises every day! Even now when they are shrewd youngsters they still take care of their health and don't smoke and drink, as they still remember the many adventures and way of life of my good heroes. So, I had no doubt about replacing this word. I didn't want to see some kids hating Afro-Americans beacause of my story... I guess every author should consider what their stories could lead to?

Quoting another person who experienced the racism of The Genetic Atlas the main Y-DNA website:

The Genetic Atlas ( has been used as a source by amateur genetic genealogists in the past few years...The authors made the 'novel' decision of combining pseudo-anthropology terms with specific Y-DNA haplogroups and subclades. Presumably, this approach is favoured by anthropology fans...The Genetic Atlas has invented its' own pseudo-anthropology terms... Phrases like "Meditid"...Lastly, some members of another forum decided to investigate the site's management and discovered a connection with the largest nationalist forum on the Internet...Considering the above, The Genetic Atlas is a horrendously inaccurate site which applies its' own self-invented anthropology terms and even fabricates its' own data...Regardless of the intended purpose, any genetic enthusiast who wishes to learn more about Y-DNA diversity or use it as a source should stay well away.

I don't fully agree with the above poster, not because he is attacking The Genetic Atlas racism website, but because he is making it seem that the only reason the Genetic Atlas should be banned from the internet is inventing some racial term or weak data.

The Genetic Atlas should be banned ASAP because their agenda is very clear:
Destroying cultures, religion, the common racial containment status quo & replacing it with robot like race defining mutations that no one can change!

One of the ways of cleaning out such racist cesspools is by supporting multicultural companies that promote Autosomal DNA (mainly 23 & me) which makes the world a less racist place. For example an autosomal African can work his way into another race by mating with females from the desired race & in few generations his descendants will belong to the new race he desired to mate with. So his grandson gets an autosomal DNA showing a good % of the desired race DNA. While his tests by Y-DNA will always show him as a 100% African making him an easy target for racists.