Political Correctness in Literature Appears to Be Universal

No, not another censorship article, but close! Once again, wandering around the net with no clear destination, Pippi Longstocking popped up. Not because she is a funny, strong, fantastic read for kids of a certain age, but because someone finds the books to be ‘racist’. Sigh. From The Local–Germany’s News in English: “A German theologian has sparked controversy by calling Sweden’s beloved Pippi Longstocking children’s books racist and demanding additions to prompt parents to skip over or explain certain passages.”

Dr. Eske Wollrad from the the Federal Association of Evangelical Women put her foot in it while discussing racism at a state conference on anti discrimination in Leipzig Germany. Two things stand out here. First, she’s from an association of evangelical women, and two, it was said as a speaker on the topic of  discrimination. The first only solidifies what many people think of evangelicals, that their viewpoints are skewed–but in the US, it’s usually tilted to the right, which usually doesn’t include outrage over racism. The forum was encouraging conversation about discrimination, so Dr. Wollrad could be given a little lee-way. In my opinion, despite online dictionary definitions to the contrary,  discrimination is not synonymous with racism, as much as people tend to substitute one word for the other. Discrimination is an action against someone or group, racism is a warped viewpoint about someone or a group. If Pippi Longstocking refused to hire someone based on color or race, or wouldn’t allow blue people on her porch, that’s discrimination. Descriptive words or sentences in a story can be racist. And more than likely the books are riddled with racism. When written, racism was the norm, the typical, the way people thought and wrote. Wrong? Yes. 60 years later we hope to have made major strides in these types of thoughts and viewpoints. It’s doubtful any book would be published today that included descriptions of the type complained about being contained within the Longstocking stories.

““It is not that the figure of Pippi Longstocking is racist, but that all three in the trilogy of books have colonial racist stereotypes,” Wollrad told The Local on Tuesday.

“The publishers had already changed the original phrase used for her father as king of a South Seas island from Negro King to South Seas King, noted Wollrad, who is advisor for equality and social responsibility at the Protestant women’s group.”

Great, they’ve already altered the original text. And if the word really is just Negro–where is the racism, exactly? Is the word that is used on job applications and such considered racist now? Is Caucasian racist? Naturally, there are no Negroes in the South Seas, if that is where Pippi’s imagination has landed her father. I don’t remember specifics of the text, I read the books eons ago, and loved them to pieces. I also don’t remember being unduly influenced by such passages–for example, I didn’t go around calling people of color Negroes after reading the book–maybe the US editors had translated without these terms? Way back then–censoring the book? I’ve no idea. You know, tons of baby boomers read myriad’s of literature that is now considered racist, and I am pretty sure those who hadn’t already been programmed by parents to hate people who were different from themselves, didn’t spontaneously break out in racism hives after reading Little Black Sambo. What I remember about Little Black Sambo were tiger pancakes! The color, ethnicity, sex, or nationality was of no real interest. To  kids, the action could have taken place in Iceland with some kind of frozen tundra mammal, and we’d still be thrilled over those pancakes!

So just what does Dr,. Wollrad want to see happen to Pippi?

“The black children throw themselves into the sand in front of the white children in the book,” she said. “When reading the book to my nephew, who is black, I simply left that passage out.” 

She would like to see footnotes applied at the bottom of the pages to help guide parents who may be reading the books to children, or for the children themselves to read explaining the wrongness of such passages. To spark discussion about the racist passages.

“The question to ask yourself is whether you could read a certain passage out loud to a black child without stopping or stumbling,” she said. “Only then can you say whether it is okay or not.” 

The problem as I see it–who decides what is racist within literature? The Dr, Wollrads? The editors? The publishers? Should we have general voting on each and every book written from such and such year until ? to decide the offending books and passages?

Would a passage such as the one above be registered by children black or white as racist, within context of the entire book? One commenter on the article made the case that the black children were bowing not because of race, but because Pippi is naturally awesome and demands respect from all–and from the little I remember, that seems possible. Do adults really believe that these passages in books influence how kids think about one another after having been read? I could believe that point if the entire book was nothing but racial slurs, but a few sentences that may make an adult uncomfortable is reason to skip or delete or footnote the books?

“I would certainly not condemn the book completely – on the contrary, there are many very positive aspects to the book, as well as being very funny, it is instructive for children as it not only has a strong female character, she is against adultism, grown-ups being in charge, and she is fiercely opposed to violence against animals – there is a very strong critique of authority in the book.”

Wow, well thanks for not condemning the book completely–Pippi would have been devastated. The curious passage about being ‘against adultism’ is simply bizarre. Why would that be a plus? Descriptive word Negro, bad, defying parents in all things, good. So, let me get this straight. There should be footnotes, and explanations about why some passages are not politically correct, and at the same time perhaps notes on how wonderful  it is that Pippi is teaching kids to defy their parents when they tell them to not stick their fingers in sockets, or they can’t have a be-be gun because they’ll shoot their eye out?

Once again, it seems as though the desire to eradicate all prejudices among people is being carried to a fervent extreme. It’s not that Dr. Wollrad is a bad person, or even a fanatical one. Her ideas and beliefs are in the right place. But instead of focusing on the past and trying over and over again to change history, she should put that energy into scrutiny of the present–there are still dark spots of discrimination throughout the world she could be trying to wipe out and away.

Book cover from:


3 thoughts on “Political Correctness in Literature Appears to Be Universal”

  1. Such a provocative post!

    And I have some questions of my own. Why would a parent read a book to children that had sections they were not willing to read aloud? Don’t parents read the books to themselves first? If I found something disturbing in a kid’s book, I would not read any of it to kids, I would put it back on the shelf and choose another. So I , as the parent, am deciding what is racist/sexist/problematic in some form… and maybe I would listen to an authority’s opinion, but I would decide for myself. And decide for the kids, too, obviously.
    I honestly don’t know where to draw the line but I do agree that old literature is not the place to take a stand; it’s a place we can learn how not to act.

    (BTW, “tiger pancakes” made me laugh!! I remember that I felt really bad for the tigers and didn’t like the book because they “died”.)

  2. Maybe this discussion needs to slow down a bit, rather than rushing to take positions on whether or not it is racist. The character of Pippi is individual, even iconoclastic, but the same is not true of the black children on the beach, who embody stereotypes. Can we say that much, without putting a label on the book because of it? Now, still leaving aside labels but being aware of the racial stereotype presented, would you choose to read this book to a young child? I can imagine doing so and discussing it with the child in depth afterward. Black children hearing the story will already have plenty going on in their heads, and if white children don’t, the story creates an opportunity to get them thinking past stereotypes, if the adult reader encourages reflection and discussion.

    Changing the author’s text is not only unfair to the author but also constitutes an erasure of history.

    Who decides what is appropriate, what cannot be passed over without discussion? The adult reader, one hopes. There I agree with Nancy. I also agree with Diane and would want to discuss the anti-authority stance with young children. Funny–I remember my sister loving the Pippi Longstocking books, while I, the older sister, looked askance at the lessons Pippi was teaching my little sister!

  3. I remember the butter more than the pancakes.

    Diane, I appreciate your bringing to light the definitions of discrimination and racism.

    I remember chatting with a (black) friend during the O.J. trial and I (I happen to be white) asked him if he thought Mark Furman was racist. He replied that the word racist was meaningless. Simply a word used to stir up emotions. That it used to have a meaning but has been misused so much that it literally is meaningless the way most people use it.

    For an example he said, “If I call you a dirty, no good, white boy who is gonna care? But if I call you a racist they are gonna get the news trucks out and fly helicopters overhead and everybody will be shouting and screaming about you being a racist.”

    I agreed with him.

    One time I was in a store and a black man was upset at the clerk. Started calling her a racist. In front of the clerk (making sure she heard me) and the man doing the name calling I told him he was wrong. I said she was not racist but was simply rude and she was as rude to me as well as him. I had shopped there before and knew her. She had problems and he should not take it personally and realize she was just not a nice person. He and I had quite a nice chat over the issue as I made my purchase.

    One thing about discrimination that is different from racism is that one can discriminate in a good way as well as bad. Although people will have different opinions of what is good and bad and that can cause a blurring of the word.

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