Racism: Learned Because It’s Taught

November 2021

BLMIn the 1958 movie South Pacific, a Rodgers and Hammerstein musical  set during World War II, U.S. Marines are challenged with racism issues in relating to the local South Pacific natives. One song in particular from the musical seems to have nailed the cause of racism quite directly. The song was “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught.” 

Sung by the character U.S. Marine Lieutenant Joseph Cable, the song is preceded by a line saying racism is “not born in you! It happens after you’re born…” and its lyrics go like this:

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!

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II were quite courageous in keeping this song in the show, which started onstage in 1949 and faced much public criticism, particularly on tour in the Southern states. James Michener, upon whose stories South Pacific was based, recalled, “The authors [Rodgers and Hammerstein] replied stubbornly that this number represented why they had wanted to do this play, and that even if it meant the failure of the production, it was going to stay in.”

As a young man watching this film I must admit to missing the racial issue of the song completely when I first watched it. It wasn’t until after I developed a deeper sense of social justice and watched the film years later that I realized the power of the lyrics. Racism isn’t some invisible force that landed willy-nilly, here and there. It has to be purposefully imposed on us by family members, teachers, or peers. 

So hats off to Rodgers and Hammerstein for their courage back in an era when Hitler had been killing millions of Jews and African-Americans were seeking post WWII jobs and meeting with severe prejudice long before the 1964 Civil Rights Act when racism took a giant step toward being illegal.

For those of you too young to remember South Pacific you might consider watching the entire film.

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John Renesch

John is a seasoned businessman-turned-futurist who has published 14 books and hundreds of articles on social and organizational transformation.

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