Ask ARP: Is “The Story of Little Babaji” racist?

Dear Anti-Racist Parent,

I am stumped and was wondering if I could get your opinions or suggestions – hell, I’d love to see this discussed on the site.

My partner loves the book The Story of Little Babaji and I am really uncomfortable with it. I was wondering if you all had heard of it or had an opinion?

It’s a “retelling” and re-illustration of Little Black Sambo, but with Indian characters instead of the original awful caricatures. The publisher claims that this is the story as it was originally written by a white British woman living in India.

My partner loves the fact that it’s a story about a clever boy from India, and feels that since we have no other books with Southeast Asian protagonists, that we should keep this one around. He also loves the story, remembers it from his childhood (in the Sambo version – ugh) and thinks that Babaji, the protagonist, is a very clever and resourceful boy.

I feel that the story is clearly the point of view of a white person living as a colonizer in India. It seems totally condescending to me – “ooh, look at those cute, naive, clever native people with their silly ways!”

I also frankly am really pissed off by its history as Little Black Sambo, even if the illustrations are changed. It just gives me the willies.

I don’t want to read it to my white son because I don’t know how to talk about how uncomfortable it makes me, and I don’t want him to think that this is how Indian people look and act. There are plenty of respectful books about Indians and Indian-Americans that I feel give the message I want to give.

Can I get some outside opinions? Am I over-reacting?

Thanks for any help,

Torey

From the Editor:

You are not over-reacting. Good parents look out for race-biased messages and other harmful things in childrens books and media. But isThe Story of Little Babaji problematic? I don’t know. I am unfamiliar with the book. Knowing that the story has its origins as Little Black Sambo surely raises a red flag, but it is not enough for me to dismiss it.

Readers, what do you think?

Hear a reading of the story and a discussion of its origins on NPR.

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About Tami

Tami Winfrey Harris writes about race, feminism, politics and pop culture at the blog What Tami Said. Her work has also appeared online at The Guardian’s Comment is Free, Ms. Magazine blog, Newsweek, Change.org, Huffington Post and Racialicious. She is a graduate of the Iowa State University Greenlee School of Journalism. She is mom to two awesome stepkids and spends her spare time researching her family history and cultivating a righteous 'fro.
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