Tuesday, August 27, 2013

You've Got to be Carefully Taught…Not

I heard the song often as a kid, as the background music on public service announcements for some organization that was fighting prejudice. You know, the one that goes:

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

The idea was then, and still is now, that kids aren’t born prejudiced, they’re taught it by those around them, and if we can just stop teaching it to them, it will go away.

It’s a lovely sentiment, but it’s not true. I know because I’m living proof of it.

I remember when I started kindergarten there was a girl in my class named Marissa. I remember this clearly because I remember her clearly. Why do I remember her clearly?

Because she was black.

Now…I know what you’re all thinking right now. You’re asking if I’ve looked in the mirror lately. You’re asking if I maybe thought I was Korean. No, no…I know that ethnically I’m black, but this girl visually was black. If we’re talking RGB codes here, I was 139, 69, 19, and she was 41, 0, 0. I had seen other black people before (although we didn’t call ourselves that in 1961), they were in my family and my neighborhood. I had obviously seen white people before, they were all around us. I had even seen what we then called “Orientals,” they ran the China Pagoda restaurant on Main Street (and it’s still there over 50 years later). But I had never seen anyone this dark before, and I was stunned.

Not just stunned, but a little afraid. And a little repulsed. Actually, a lot repulsed. My immediate impulse was to think that she was dirty because she was so dark. My immediate impulse was to think that I didn’t want to sit next to her…or anywhere near her. My immediate impulse was that I didn’t even want to get close enough to her to talk to her…because she was so dark.

Did my parents teach me this? Hell no. In fact, even though I was repulsed by her, I never told my parents about her. I never told them or anyone else about the girl who was so dark that I thought she was dirty and was repulsed by her. Something told me that I wasn’t supposed to feel that way, and that my parents would not be happy to hear me say that, so I just kept it to myself.

Eventually one day she either left our class group or left Ashland School, and I didn’t have to deal with the dark girl that I thought was dirty, and that I didn’t want to be around. But eventually, by high school, I had met other girls who were that dark…and that I had crushes on, so that prejudice didn’t stay with me forever.

But my point is, and it’s a very important one, that you don’t have to be carefully taught to fear or hate someone that’s different. It’s a very natural thing. Children are the perfect little xenophobes. Think about it…where did the first hatred of someone different come from?

Someone who obviously hadn’t been taught that way, but who saw someone different for the first time, and said to him or herself, “Not like us. Must be bad.”

I think that had I mentioned to my parents that there was a girl in my class who was almost black, and who I didn’t want to sit near because she was dirty, they would’ve wondered what they had done wrong. They would’ve worked to set me straight.

In short, they would’ve worked to carefully teach me not to think that way.

Sometimes you have to be carefully taught not to hate or fear.

Would I have been so fearful of and repulsed by Marissa had I been exposed to other really dark people earlier in my life? Probably not. She would’ve just been one of many different shades of people I had grown up around. But I had gone for five years without seeing anyone that looked like her, and to me she might as well have had three heads…and I probably would've been put off by a girl with three heads too.

You don’t always have to be carefully taught to hate. All you need is to never have been exposed on a regular basis to “the other.” And even if you grow up in the most diverse of environments, you’ll still find some way to make some other group…even an identical-looking group…the “other.” Just being from a different side of town is enough to make them “not your people.” It’s human nature.

Yes, it’s a very charming sentiment to think that you have to be carefully taught to hate. And yes, it often does take a little concerted effort to fan the flames of discomfort into a full-blown hate. However, let’s take a more realistic view of what children are like, and how they deal with something that they’ve never seen before.

Yes, you do have to be carefully taught…

…to be accepting of those who are different from you.

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