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  • Writer's pictureChristensen

This Racist Little House

This picture was found with a search that limited the pictures to only ones free to use.
Perhaps an impossibly romantic view of a frontier family

***Please feel free to discuss with me or anyone else any points presented in this blog. However, please do so with mutual respect and love.***

In Houston, it doesn’t snow much. Maybe once in seven years. And when it does, it snows just enough to change the green grass into speckled green and white.

So, one winter when I was maybe nigh years old and it did snow, I scooped up a plate full of snow and rushed in-doors. I had it all set up on the kitchen table. Snow. Plate. Maple Syrup. I placed the plate on the table and smoothed out the snow. Then, I took the maple syrup and drizzled it onto the snow in the shape of a funnel cake. Delicately, I lifted it up, opened the freezer and placed the plate into the blizzard within.

I had been reading the novel “Little House in the Big Woods” by Laura Ingalls where she described the snowy treat. She made it seem like this glorious delicacy that any child must have in order to truly enjoy the world they were born into. Unfortunately, I must have read the recipe wrong somehow. It didn’t harden into a savory delight but became this gooey mass that oozed down to the plate and stuck there.

But that didn’t stop me from reading the Little House series! I went back to the books and read all nine in pretty quick succession. I even reread the series a few times.

I’m not sure when I started watching the TV adaptation of the books. But I remember watching it quite a lot! In fact, I remember having a crush on Laura (Melissa Gilbert) and Jenny Wilder (Shannen Doherty).[1] I seethed when Nellie was so bad to Laura and Mary, and I wanted to punch Nellie in the face. I would imagine myself in that wooden house with Pa and Ma calling me down for breakfast and then to do the chores (or vice versa). Could there be any better Pa and Ma? Through the struggles of Laura to grow up, I probably learned some of the morals that I cherish.

The books and TV show are treasured memories from my childhood. And I plan to share these beloved childhood treasures with my son. Even though we do not live in the country of his father’s birth, I want to share that part of his heritage with him (and share his Korean heritage with him too). I don’t have the book series in my home anymore, but I plan on buying it when we are in the States again. And I do have a few seasons on DVD…but no DVD player anymore. ☹ I will need to remedy that somehow.

So, when I found out recently that there were examples of racism in the books, I was shocked and had to do a bit of research to really see what the issue was. I quickly found out that, indeed, there were examples of racism in the books that my young eyes had missed.[2] I began questioning if I could truly read the books to my son or if I would need to skip a few pages. What should I do?

I also found out that the Laura Ingalls Wilder Award was renamed to Children’s Literature Legacy Award. Fair enough. I can actually understand why an award committee would want to change the name of an award if they felt the name no longer held the values they wanted to represent. That would be similar to having an award in Russia named the Lenin Award even after the fall of the USSR (that reference probably dates me). I wouldn’t protest if the award still had the name Lenin, but I imagine there might be plenty of people in Russia who would object to that. In short, I’m okay with changing the name…if that is what is desired by the awarding committee. I personally would not for the simple facts that (1) she was a great writer (2) her ideas, feelings and opinions were from the time and place she lived in (3) no person is without faults, and we can easily find an issue with any writer.

Though, I do have an issue with what I am seeing as a pattern for remaking the past…and even present. I can understand that aspects of the past which are deemed horrific now should not be glorified or immortalized, but they should also be respected as allowing us to see into how people thought and felt in the past. One of the things I enjoy reading is the ancient historians like Herodotus, Eusebius and Tacitus. Yet, I don’t view their works from my own personal sensibilities but from their context.

Pic taken from a bing search and free to use
Laura Ingalls Wilder

For me, Laura Ingalls represents a historical time and place with all its nostalgia and faults. I hope no one wants to reverse the clock back to the time in which Native Americans were vilified and their land and safety were stolen. Yet, the books serve as a time capsule. A look into the past and its thinking, even if today we disagree with it.

Honestly, every book should challenge us a bit. I have taught “The Lord of the Flies” quite a few times in literature classes, and some of the depictions of bullying are cringe worthy. Yet, my students can use these controversial parts as fodder for discussion! What would you have done if you had experienced or watched bullying like this?

And in my classes, I allow complete freedom of thought and speech. I try not to slap anyone on the wrist if they have an opinion that is contrary to mine (I never slap anyone on the wrist for any reason!). And I have heard some crazy things from my students! I have helped my students write essays that basically said that foreigners should be kicked out of Korea. This happened more than once, and I grinned and bore it. Can you imagine a student’s chutzpah to write such an essay in a class taught by a foreigner? Wow! They are brave! Though, I tell my students from the beginning of the term that I value their honesty and will respect their expressions, even if I completely disagree with them. I will just challenge all them to find the facts (as best as they can) and come up with as logical of arguments as possible. Did I mention one student tried to prove how 9-11 was an inside job and another student tried to prove the moon landing was a hoax? I have since taken those of the list of possible topics just because they are too easy to plagiarize but not because I disagree with them.

As a society, can’t we expect equality and freedom from discrimination? How can we respect freedom of thought and speech – even in the written form – and still desire a society that values individuals in spite of the “happy accident” of skin tone or birth place? I’m not really sure. For me, I place my egalitarian viewpoints as being an outgrowth of my faith which says that “there is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus (Galatians 3:28, NIV).” As well, the Bible says that we are to love our neighbor as ourselves (Matthew 22:34-40) and your enemies (Matthew 5:44). This enables me to see my enemy, not as someone I need to push aside or demand they think exactly like me, but to love them even when I disagree with them. So, I give equality and freedom of expression to even those who want to curtail that for someone else.

And we need a marketplace of ideas. We need to hear the off-the-wall crazies who might actually have some wisdom to share. I remember going to college in the small town of Stephenville, Texas and there being a big debate on whether or not the KKK could have a rally in the public square. They got permission to do so, and there were protesters against them that screamed back at them. Sadly, though, no one was persuaded. Nothing was changed. No racism or discrimination was further eliminated. In fact, I’m pretty sure the KKK representatives dug deeper into their beliefs and maybe even got a few more people to join them.

What would have happened if no one but the KKK had shown up? Or if a creative counter-measure was implemented?[3] Wouldn’t those approaches speak louder and maybe more convincingly to the people in the KKK than denying them their freedoms?

I personally believe that if you do not allow the full expression of any idea, no matter how abhorrent, those ideas will just bury themselves deeper until the day that someone gets elected who shares the ideas or the pendulum of society moves back to where their ideas are now favored. They will then resurface with a vengeance. But they were never fully removed because the full discussion of ideas was not allowed. We cannot learn together if we are not allowed to fully express ourselves and search the truth together.

And I believe the thinking behind this poem applies to everyone, even those we disagree with:

First they came for the Communists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Communist.

Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Trade Unionist.

Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out—

Because I was not a Jew.

Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.

-Martin Niemöller

For some of you, I just lost you with the word “communist”. 😉

This does not mean that a person can act in a destructive way and get away with it. Society can and must have laws that create a safe environment for all. Though, a person should not be arrested and/or harassed for just expressing ideas. If you are offended by their ideas, speak up! Or move on.

How is this censoring different from countries that make religion or the lack thereof as the litmus test? Or when a dominant political group vilifies another and runs them out of the country?

Back to my student who wrote the essay on kicking out foreigners, his ideas (along with all my students) were challenged in my class. He had to prove to me with reputable sources and logical arguments that his position was credible. I kept pushing him. I kept showing him how his arguments were not true, biased or incomplete pictures (such as that foreigners are committing more crimes, so immigration should be curtailed – especially from China. Here is a good short article that goes over this.[4]). Now, I might be wrong in my own conclusions, and I have been persuaded by my students to change my opinions. However, if I limited what they could express, then there would be no exploration of the truth. There would just be trying to discover what the professor believes and parroting that.

So, will I read the Little House on the Prairie to my son? Yes. Even though, it seems Laura Ingalls was racist? Yes. Does that change my views of her as a person? Yes and no. We always want our childhood heroes to be perfect, but, in my belief system, only one person was perfect. And it seems her prejudicial views of Native Americans were the norm back then. If we were to be completely honest, when I was a kid, there were still stereotypical and prejudicial views of Native Americans and just every “other group” (should I list the views here? Or will that get me fired for writing them?). If she was alive today, we could sit down and discuss all of this and hopefully improve in our views of other people. And if I was a publishing house, I wouldn’t publish her work unless she edited that out (that’s the right of a business). If she was working for me, I wouldn’t fire her if it didn’t affect her work because…where do you draw the line of acceptable ideas? The most abusive comments she writes are not her words but her relating what someone else said, so I’m not sure if we should hold her to those comments (I personally am struggling with how racist and verbally abusive I want to make some of my characters in a novel I am writing).

Let me end with a quote from the TV show:

Laura Ingalls: Ma, how long is all this learning going to take?

Caroline Ingalls: We start learning the minute we’re born, Laura. And if we’re wise, we don’t stop until the Lord calls us home.

Laura Ingalls: THAT long?[5]

Longer. Much longer… We, humans, should always keep learning.






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