Captain Underpants author withdraws book over 'passive racism'

Captain Underpants author Dav Pilkey has apologised for “harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery” in one of his graphic novels for children, which has been withdrawn by his publisher amid a surge in anti-Asian violence in the US.

The Adventures of Ook and Gluk: Kung-Fu Cavemen from the Future, first published in 2010, follows two cavemen who travel to the year 2222 and meet Master Wong, a martial arts instructor. Last week, publisher Scholastic announced that it would stop distributing the book and remove all mention of it from its website, saying it had “the full support” of Pilkey.

“Together, we recognise that this book perpetuates passive racism,” Scholastic said. “We are deeply sorry for this serious mistake.”

In a letter shared on his YouTube channel, Pilkey said he had “intended to showcase diversity, equality and nonviolent conflict resolution” in the graphic novel. “But this week it was brought to my attention that this book also contains harmful racial stereotypes and passively racist imagery,” he wrote. “I wanted to take this opportunity to publicly apologise for this. It was and is wrong and harmful to my Asian readers, friends, and family, and to all Asian people.”

“I hope that you, my readers, will forgive me, and learn from my mistake that even unintentional and passive stereotypes and racism are harmful to everyone,” he wrote. “I apologise, and I pledge to do better.”

The announcement was made soon after Billy Kim, a Korean-American father of two started a petition demanding an apology from Scholastic, citing stereotypes and Pilkey’s depiction of Wong in his illustrations.

After the announcement, Kim wrote that he had spoken to a senior executive at Scholastic, then Pilkey, who apologised to him and his seven-year-old son.

While he was glad the book was withdrawn, Kim wrote, “the damage has been done”.

“Every child who has read this book has been conditioned to accept this racist imagery as ‘OK’ or even funny,” he wrote. “It is this type of passive racism that has contributed to the continued hate and prejudice experienced by Asian Americans on a daily basis.”

In his apology, Pilkey said he would donate the advance and all royalties from The Adventures of Ook and Gluk to various organisations dedicated to tackling racism against Asian people, and to promoting diversity in publishing.

The decision came days after a man shot and killed eight people at three massage businesses in and near Atlanta, including six Asian women. Stop AAPI Hate, a group formed to document the abuse towards Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders during the pandemic, said in February that it had received reports of almost 3,800 incidents in less than a year. Community leaders and several Democrat politicians have blamed former president Donald Trump, and his history of racist rhetoric towards Chinese people and the coronavirus, for the increase in violence. Last week, the Anti-Defamation League found that Asian Americans had experienced the largest single rise in severe online abuse year-on-year in 2020.

Pilkey is not the only author to withdraw their own work this month. On 2 March, the estate of beloved children’s author Dr Seuss announced that it would no longer allow the publication of six of his books, owing to depictions of race and ethnicities that were “hurtful and wrong”.

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