You’ve got to be carefully taught

The other day, my daughter asked me about Abraham Lincoln at breakfast.

I explained who he was, and why he was important, which led to a conversation about slavery. I don’t think she believed me when I described that people had once bought other people to do work for them. I didn’t even get into questions of race and power, but merely the idea of buying and selling and owning people like things. She giggled at me and said, “Mama, that’s the silliest thing I ever heard. You can’t own other people. That’s mean. You’re not making sense.”

While I applaud her faith in humanity, I did explain that sometimes people do things that are very very mean and do not make any sense. I love that her world is one where the very idea of something like slavery is so bizarre she assumes it’s unreal.

We still haven’t really had a conversation about race. A couple of years ago, when Obama won the nomination for president, she asked who he was and why he was important. After his name and the position he was running for, I tried to explain why he was special in this moment in history. I said something like “see how his skin is a different color than mine?” She just looked at me with these big confused eyes and said, “I have skin. I like skin.” I shut my mouth tight. I’d be damned– pretty literally– if I was going to instill that in my daughter.

So now I watch her with her friends, and although we live in the whitest state in the country, there are some kids in her class and her church whose skin is darker than alabaster. And she seems not to notice. I even ask her what she likes or doesn’t like about a classmate, or what makes a friend special or different, and she doesn’t mention skin color. She doesn’t mention if they have one or two parents or if those parents are the same gender. She doesn’t mention how people dress or what part of town they’re from or whether or not lots of other people like them.

Her judgments are restricted to “she’s nice to me,” “he’s on my bus,” and “she took my crayon.”

Which is as it should be. Would that we all saw each other like kindergartners do, and the only judgments we made were based on relationship and behavior.

When I commented about this on facebook, a friend reminded me of the lyrics from South Pacific:

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 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!

That’s true, and I am so honored to have the opportunity to teach two children something different, to raise a generation that can maybe look past race and sexual orientation and whatever else. But I can’t ignore these issues either, because I am not my daughter’s only teacher. Soon peers and classmates will have a huge pull in her life, and even if I have taught her otherwise, they get to have their say. Some of them may try to convince her to look down on others because of the color of their skin, the gender of their parents, their sexual orientation, their economic status, the clothes they wear, the way they talk, how much they weigh. Some of them may try to make her the victim. Kids can be nasty and bully each other for any (or no) reason. We’ve been seeing recently how deadly that can be, but it has always been vicious and violent.

Parenting is a huge and fearful responsibility. Because as much as I believe you have to be taught how to hate, I also believe you have to be taught how to stand up to those who are hateful.

(sermon uploading is stalled while I figure out why Audacity is quitting without saving projects)

In honor of National Coming Out Day, and to honor those who have lost their lives, and to share a message that I believe everyone should hear about bullying and our responsibility for it, I invite you to read a sermon by a friend and colleague of mine, Rev. Bri Desotell.

Becca Clark

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12 Responses

  1. Actually, there’s some recent studies showing that we DON’T have to be taught. Apparently very young children automatically self-segregate based upon gross physical characteristics such as race.

    If you think about it, that makes perfect sense. In all our biological ancestry, different equaled enemy. One can also look at the normal behavior of other primate groups for correlation.

    • That was my assumption, but I haven’t seen it play out with my daughter and her peer group, which is a pleasant surprise. I do notice it when it comes to inanimate objects like dolls. Given the choice between Disney Princess dolls, for example, no matter how many times I push Pocahontas or Mulan or Tiana, she consistently picks Belle and Ariel and Sleeping Beauty. I assume that as the white child of white parents in a largely white community, she is picking dolls “like her.” But when it comes to her playmates, she picks those who are friendly, outgoing, and talkative (like her), with seemingly no consideration of their gender or skin color (and of course no knowledge of more subtle characteristics like social class– that’ll come later, and oh how I don’t look forward to middle school…). It’s blown my theory about tribalism out of the water and made me think that Rogers & Hammerstein were on to something.

    • thanks for reading and for your thoughtful reply!
      Becca

    • Well, your daughter is older than the study group which were toddlers just post infancy.

  2. You’re so busy thinking about Obama’s skin color, you can’t see the marxist/socialist that he is. Is that the future you want for your child in this country?

    • Bren, thanks for reading and commenting.

      You say those like they’re bad things. Let’s see. My daughter must, by law, have access to heath care no matter what happens to us. Her creditor cannot raise her interest rates without her knowledge, and must provide her with information about payoff for whatever debt she has. No more of her classmates will loose parents in Iraq, and many of her friends’ families are going back to work following the worst recession since the great depression. I’d like to see President Obama follow through on more of his campaign issues, further socializing health care with a single payer option, insuring that my daughter can serve in the military and maybe even get married whether she’s straight or gay, and making sure she has clean air to breathe and water to drink when she’s my age.

      In short, yes. That is exactly the future I want for my children. I want her to have every opportunity I have had and more. I want her generation to be one of greater respect and dignity than the one before, where hardworking people have what they need to live and thrive and remain in good health.

      What else would I want?

      • Yes, they are bad things, but you don’t see it that way.
        You don’t realize that supporting socialism or marxism with the progressives will lead to very bad things indeed. Your socialist utopia dream can never be realized. Evil is the force that drives this progressive movement, yet you embrace it with the idea that Government is the answer to our problems on earth. I promise you it would be a nightmare. You would condemn your child to live under tyranny, enslaved to an all powerful government that devours liberty and controls every aspect of life. I will pray for you, that you will see the error in your thinking.

        ” Those who would surrender their liberty for a false security, will attain neither and deserve it.”
        – Ben Franklin

  3. Certainly the monthly reiteration by the minister from the Methodist Sunday pulpit, offering his negative opinions on Roman Catholics is a great way to teach Methodist children that all Catholics are evil.

    • I’m not sure what you’re referring to, but degrading any of our sisters and brothers in faith is contrary to what we are taught. I appreciate the diversity of the Christian tradition, because there’s something that speaks to each of us.

      Thanks for reading.

  4. Yer on the front page of UMC.org!! Welcome to the club!

  5. [...] sermon is my reflection for Children Sabbath 2010, and is based on an earlier blog post by me, and a sermon (and guest blog post) by Rev. Bri Desotell, quoted with [...]

  6. [...] it seeps in, and I’ll be darned if I know how to pull it out by the root. In earlier blog posts, I’ve celebrated the relative innocence of my daughter’s assumptions about ethnicity. [...]

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