We all know and love Kristen Bell, right? She’s the star of hit shows like Veronica Mars and The Good Place. She’s the voice of Gossip Girl and Anna from Disney’s Frozen franchise, which, admittedly, has some incredible music. She is hilarious and kind, and she’s an outspoken advocate for women’s rights and the reduction of global poverty. Kristen Bell is a charismatic celebrity who people genuinely admire. So, when she came under some serious heat for something as seemingly harmless as writing a children’s book (which is a very Kristen Bell-like endeavor), I was confused and curious.
Bell co-wrote a children’s book with creative director of BrainsOnFire, Benjamin Hart, called The World Needs More Purple People. It was released on June 2, 2020 and is now at the receiving end of a heap of criticism.
Angry critics have completely denounced the book, calling it an ode to colorblind racism, which is a counterproductive narrative that needs to disappear from race-related discourse. When I read the reviews, tweets, and articles describing the hate, I was shocked that Kristen Bell would write such a book, especially now when debates about racial rhetoric and policy are at a height and frequency they haven’t been in years.
This fabrication of a people that are “purple” and how that is misguided in a racist society where people of real color are marginalized are at the heart of this critique. “Purple people don’t exist.” says one tweeter in response to Bell defending her book. “They aren’t oppressed and actual BIPOC aren’t asking for white people to find the similarities with them in order to be humanized.” Another tweeter asks, “Now why, in a world full of actual people of actual colors, would Kristen Bell need to make up purple people to teach children about living in a multicultural society?”
Purple people don’t exist. They aren’t oppressed and actual BIPOC aren’t asking for white people to find the similarities with them in order to be humanized. Also BIPOC don’t get to dance around the topic of race to their own kids. 🙃
— aut (@lektokijkla) June 12, 2020
Now why, in a world full of actual people of actual colors, would Kristen Bell need to make up purple people to teach children about living in a multicultural society? And why does she think she has the range to do that anyway? Most White people don’t know anyone but Whites.
— Thicc Harington (@MusingsHistory) June 12, 2020
Critics are recalling the old proverb of, “I don’t care if you’re black, white, yellow, green, or purple” – the motto of colorblind racism and apparently, also the message of Bell’s book.
I had to see all this with my own eyes. So, I put my English Lit skills to the test and actually read the book. I gotta say, a lot of this criticism is unwarranted.
What is a purple person, according to The World Needs More Purple People? Well, first of all, “being a purple person has nothing to do with what you look like,” says the book. In fact, “purple people look all sorts of ways.” There are five steps to becoming purple. Purple people ask a lot of questions and are extremely curious about the world; they also laugh a lot and like to enjoy life; they use their own voice to help someone “who is having trouble finding their own voice” and they also listen; they work “super-duper” hard; and finally, purple people should always try to be their real selves.
There is actually no overt lesson about race in this book, at all, which begs the question: Did those criticizing the book so harshly even bother to read it?
The book features lovely illustrations by Daniel Wiseman that depict children of all racial backgrounds. There are no actual purple people in the book. That’s because the term “purple people” is referring to an ideology, not a physical characteristic. The book undoubtedly holds a clear political message. Bell and Hart specifically state, “purple is a magic color made when red and blue work together.” Red and blue are the colors of the two political parties the United States, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, respectively. Red and blue mixed make the color purple.
Judging the book as a whole means to understand it is calling for collectivity and empathy. However, there are parts of it that can be problematic because of differing interpretations.
One line in the book has triggered a slew of furious commentary. It says we should “remember the things we share and forget what we thought made us different.” This is interpreted as a call to look for similarities and ignore our differences.
Let’s get one thing straight: similarities and differences co-exist. We live in a world of differences within differences, but we also share a lot of similarities. Everyone is aware of this. The problem is that historically, we have spent far too much time focusing on similarities. Right now, we, as a society, are redefining the importance of accepting diversity and difference.
All of which means that this book, like all of literature, is a lesson in intention versus impact.
In the context of the entire book, I believe the above-mentioned line is more meant as finding common ground in our ideologies and working together. At the same time, I completely understand how this well-intentioned message could get misconstrued in the way it has been in the context of our current racial discourse and the misleading title of the book.
But, let’s remember that this is a children’s book, and its message is largely dependent on the way it is taught to kids. Knowing how current political discourses are unfolding, we should utilize this book in a way that maximizes its worth. However, it is not the book to use to teach your kids about race.
Is this a perfect book? No. But does this book have some value in how we teach kids about collectivity and empathy? It definitely does. We should learn to find the value in things with proper analysis and thought before tearing them apart.