Where Does Prejudice Come From?
April 26, 2018Hello, Everyone!
I've been busy with a manuscript consultation for a private client but I'm taking a break to tell you what's on my mind.
Of all things, I've been thinking about "South Pacific," the musical from 1949.
Why is that, you ask?
Well, there have been many new instances of discrimination in the headlines this week, such as the black women members of a golf club who were asked to leave. Whenever I hear of someone acting with prejudice toward another person, and after I get over my shock and disgust, the lyrics of a certain "South Pacific" song start going through my head.
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 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.
Before I get back to work, a little update on Streetcar to Justice. This morning I talked with 28 middle-school students who were studying the book. It was clear they had learned a lot! None of them had heard of Elizabeth Jennings prior to reading the book. None of them had known there was slavery and segregation in the Northern states. And all of them were grossed out by the description of Manhattan in the 1850s, from wild hogs in the streets to a lack of a sanitary sewer system. It was an interesting conversation, to say the least.
One last thing: If you're in Chicago, a major revival of the theatrical adaptation of Having Our Say will begin at the Goodman Theatre starting May 5.