Whenever I hear of someone acting with prejudice toward another person, and after I get over my shock and disgust, the lyrics of an old song come to mind. It’s not a song that many people know today because it dates to a play (and then a movie) called “South Pacific” that was a huge hit with the Greatest Generation. A copy of the record album was among my father’s possessions.
The song is, “You Have to be Carefully Taught.”
The point of the song is that prejudice isn’t something you’re born with. It’s learned behavior from early childhood.
“You have got to be taught before it’s too late…
To hate all the people your relatives hate.”
Sung by the character Lieutenant Joe Cable, the lyrics stunned audiences in 1949 when the play hit Broadway. Some theatergoers and critics felt the topic wasn’t “appropriate” for musical theater but the producers, Rodgers & Hammerstein, insisted on including it.
Some of us are lucky and were not raised to have anger in our hearts, or to habitually blame someone else for our problems. Some of us have parents, grandparents, and aunts and uncles, who set us on the right path.
But plenty of others grew up under different circumstances. They have been “carefully taught” to hate.
It must be extremely difficult to overcome an upbringing in which one is essentially brainwashed into having such hostile viewpoints. It can be done, however, and clearly it takes a combination of willingness and exposure to a broader world.
This is where reading can make a difference. Recent studies show that reading increases a child’s empathy toward others. A child can explore entire worlds through the pages of a book. When a white child reads a book about Harriet Tubman or Rosa Parks, for example, he or she may be acquiring more than a history lesson. It may very well be that child’s first opportunity to see the world in a different light.
Amy Hill Hearth is the author, most recently, of “Streetcar to Justice: How Elizabeth Jennings Won the Right to Ride in New York.”