Are Racism, Hatred, and Bigotry in Our Genes? Or Are We Taught?

WHERE DO RACISM, HATRED AND BIGOTRY COME FROM?

Always you’ll see a news item involving one or more of these emotions or themes. Racism, hatred, bigotry–it seems they will never go away.

Do you ever wonder why that is? We’ve even stopped watching anything other than the 11 o’clock local news to avoid some of the media coverage.

Friday night we even decided to go out for a change.

WE LOVE HIGH SCHOOL MUSICALS

As luck would have it, something was available we both enjoy. We attended a high school performance of Rodgers & Hammerstein’s South Pacific, a timeless and beautiful Broadway musical debuted in 1949. Based on James Michener’s book, Tales of the South Pacific, a collection of wartime stories, the musical played a large role in constructing America’s post-war patriotism and deconstructing racial prejudice.

Was this intentional on Michener’s part, or was it something Rodgers & Hammerstein chose to do? 

If South Pacific assisted in deconstructing racial prejudice, why then are we experiencing violence all around us, some racially motivated and some not?

AS AN EXAMPLE

The following night, Saturday, a gunman in Kalamazoo, Michigan, shot and/or killed six innocent people in yet another shooting. The ethnicities of the six shooting victims here are unknown to me, but only hatred or mental health issues could drive someone to commit such heinous acts while driving others to their Saturday evening destinations.

BACK TO THE MUSICAL…

Program from Tualatin High School 2016 Production

Program from Tualatin High School 2016 Production

Two high school students performed admirably in the roles of Emile de Becque, a French plantation owner on the island, and Lt. Joseph Cable, a young American soldier stationed there temporarily. There is only one problem, or two I suppose:

  • Emile de Becque has fallen in love with Nellie Forbush, a lively nurse from Arkansas, who is happily considering married life on the island when Emile shares with her he was formerly married. Married to a Polynesian woman, now dead, and the two young children living with him are the result of that marriage. Nellie begins to think about the folks back home in Arkansas. What would they say about her stepchildren and the color of their skin?
  • Likewise, Lt. Cable, madly in love with Liat, a young Tonkonese girl, begins to think about the consequences of his marriage to a dark-skinned girl when he returns to the U.S. Will his family and friends accept her?

During this sequence, dialogue between Emile and Joe goes as follows:

Emile: What makes [Nellie] talk like that? Why do you have this feeling, you and she? I do not believe it is born in you. I do not believe it.

Joe: It’s not born in you! It happens after you’re born…

And here Joe launches into a song I’d never paid attention to before, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” Here are the lyrics and a YouTube video (John Kerr singing in a 1978 production):

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade,
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate,
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

 

Think about six small words: “You’ve got to be carefully taught.” 

A HIDDEN THEME OR MESSAGE?

Rodgers and Hammerstein knew there was a hidden message in this musical. In fact, in a 1958 interview with Mike Wallace, Hammerstein stated:

South Pacific had two love stories in it. They both concern, in a different way, race prejudice.

Later in the interview Hammerstein touches on Nellie Forbush’s reaction to Emile’s revelation about his past. Hammerstein sets up the following quote by describing Nellie’s reaction when she learns Emile is in danger. Suddenly, her feelings change and her priorities shift so their relationship rises to the top. Hammerstein explains it thusly:

What we were saying was that … all this prejudice that we have is something that fades away in the face of something that’s really important.

SIX SMALL WORDS

What resounded with me on hearing this song performed the other night were those six small words. Even though some acts of prejudice occurred in my childhood home surrounding the “help,” I did not learn to own these feelings and opinions. In fact, as I grew older my memories of them turned repugnant.

Hatred, racism and bigotry are not always taught by our use of words. They can be learned by observing our actions.

  • How often is the man or woman standing a street corner talking to him- or herself stared at by others?
  • How often in our childhood did we see a neighbor snubbed by another neighbor, maybe one of our parents?
  • In school, did we watch our teachers to see how they treated other kids? What about in Sunday School or Church?
  • Did anything happen at home that was unkind or ill-tempered by siblings or your parents?

All of the examples above are simple, teachable moments. Accidentally teachable moments. Not because anyone intended to teach someone else to be unkind, but simply because someone, often a child, saw the act committed.

Did you ever wait to see or hear what kind of punishment the person who mistreated another person received? There was teaching here too. If the person doing the harm didn’t receive punishment, a clear message was sent the behavior was permissible, A-OK.

THE TRAGEDY

The tragedy is that over time acts of hatred, racism, and bigotry don’t shrink and disappear. Unfortunately, left alone and without repercussions, they multiply or are taken for granted. This will continue generation to generation if something isn’t done.

To those of you reading this, I hope you will begin to look around and take note of some of the acts of hatred, racism, and bigotry–large or small–you see in your community, workplace, schools and churches, your own family. [ctt title=”Look for ways you can make a difference in silencing hatred, racism, and bigotry today.” tweet=”Look for ways you can make a difference in silencing hatred, racism, and bigotry today. Via @Sherrey_Meyer” coverup=”124vV”]

We must be the change makers. If not, there will be more Kalamazoos, Roseburgs, Sandy Hooks, and Columbines, not to mention mall, theater, and church shootings. Is this what we want? Do we want to leave a legacy of continuing tragedy?

What can we do? Share some ideas about how changes might reshape our country and our world on these issues.

Has your town or your child’s school been the object of a shooting? Share how your area is responding.