I love musicals.
While sitting through “Glee” is more than you can ask from me, I love old musicals like “On The Town,” “The Wizard of Oz,” “Oklahoma,” and “Carmen Jones.”
But one of my favorite musicals is the Rogers and Hammerstein classic, “South Pacific.” For those who have never seen it, the story is set in World War II and two of the central characters are a Navy nurse and the Frenchman with whom she falls in love.
For the purposes of this discussion, however, I’ll focus on another couple in the film. Lt. Joseph Cable and Liat, the native girl he falls in love with. Because he’s white, and she isn’t, he feels that bringing her home to meet the parents would be, well, complicated.
When she asks why, he tries to explain through the song, “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 diff’rent 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!
This song came to mind when the Janelle Ambrosia Show premiered on my Facebook newsfeed on Wednesday. Ms. Ambrosia, who is apparently the preferred exotic dancer for the Cheektowaga, New York Police Department, spent at least three minutes calling a man several variations of the word “n*gger” for the heinous offense of starting his car.
Because everyone has a camera phone these days, Ambrosia’s tirade has hit several news sites and is probably viral by now.
Now while any video that includes the sentence, “He says he’s going to call the cops! Do you know how many of them I’ve stripped for?!” is going to make my inner wiseacre come out, what stood out for me was not Ambrosia’s language, which I’ve heard before, but her audience.
That audience included her kids…one of whom started repeating Mommy’s salty language. They couldn’t have been more than 9 or 10 years old and I’m pretty sure that this wasn’t the first time they had heard this kind of language.
Because “You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught.”
I was in the 5th grade when someone threw the N-word at me for the first time. I remember the kid’s name was Eddie and as someone who had spent the summer reading the “Ebony Encyclopedia of Black America,” I knew what that word meant and why it had been directed at me.
So I responded in a way that nearly got me suspended.
I broke his nose. When I explained to my teacher what brought my inner Muhammad Ali out, all wasn’t necessarily forgiven, but it was excused.
But by the time that I got to 7th grade and had that word thrown at me by another little kid, I realized that Eddie wasn’t to blame.
His parents and probably his grandparents were.
It’s hard to fight your programming. It’s hard to go against how you’re raised.
And we’re all raised with a prejudice or two. We’re raised to mistrust people of different races, creeds, colors, religions, sexual orientations, etc.
Fortunately, there are folks like The Leadership Conference, a civil rights organization based in Washington, D.C., that can help us out with that.
Here are some suggestions:
*Make sure that your life and the lives of your kids are filled with people of diverse backgrounds. If you live in an integrated neighborhood, this is easier. But if not, put your kids in situations that connect them to people of all kinds.
*Expose your kids to media and toys that are multicultural. Also, visiting museums that feature exhibits about a variety of cultures and religions is a good idea. Gives your kid a chance to get the history education that he or she probably wouldn’t get in school.
*Go to religious services and culture events with friends of different faiths. If your child is invited to a Seder, or a breaking of the fast for Ramadan or even a Catholic mass, let him or her go. Invite your child’s friends (and their families) over for Christmas or Thanksgiving dinner, if that’s what you celebrate, so that they can learn about your family’s cultural experiences.
*Become an active parent in your child’s school.
Remember that you as a parent are your child’s first and most important role model. Children learn what they live.
They must be carefully taught.
Featured Photo © by Canstock Photo
Denise Clay is a journalist and adjunct professor. She is active in the Philadelphia Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Black Journalists.