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Carefully Taught; All I Really Need to Know I Learned from Musicals

I’m doing a series this summer with my blog highlighting the many lessons I’ve gleaned from Broadway. I’ve learned history, culture, politics, and social issues (just to name a few) from musicals. I hoped to start the series with a really fun lesson about friendship or joy, but we all know that hasn’t been the kind of week we’ve had as a nation. I began to sift through the musicals that deal with racial injustice and there are many. Sometimes there’s a perception that musicals are “old-fashioned” or passe, but historically, Broadway musicals are known for being much more progressive than any other media. The first musical to address racial intolerance was Show Boat which premiered in 1927. So, yeah, Broadway’s been at it for some time.

Off the top of my head I thought about Porgy and Bess, Big River, Ragtime, and Scottsboro Boys, but the musical that I want to talk about today is South Pacific which opened on Broadway in 1949. Set during World War II in (you guessed it) the South Pacific, this musical follows two budding relationships where race comes into play. One is between a white Lieutenant (Lt. Cable) and a young Polynesian girl named Liat. The second is between a white nurse, Nellie Forbush, and an older Frenchman (Emile de Becque) who has two Polynesian children from a previous marriage. Both Forbush and Cable hesitate to marry their lovers because they aren’t comfortable with the mixing of races. Cable is pressed on his bigotry and he delivers a song that stops the audience dead in it’s tracks.

Take a listen.

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!

When I was a kid, we thought of “carefully taught” as racist jokes over dinner or being a part of a hate group. It's not enough anymore. Today, if white parents don’t educate our kids on anti-racism, we are carefully teaching them racism. If we don’t address the injustice outside our door, we are saying it’s okay. Not worth mentioning. No big deal.

It’s not just the words we say and don’t say. The media we consume in front of them will color their views. The things that outrage us will ultimately become their values. If we’re much more outraged by the destruction of property than senseless murders, we are teaching them to value things over certain kinds of people.

I’m no expert on race relations. But I’m reminded of the times when I taught stage make-up to high school kids. We would randomly choose a student to make-up and inevitably, we’d have trouble with the base color. I’d choose a color that was too pink or too gray and we’d have to start again. The kids in my class would get super uncomfortable because many of them had been raised to be “color blind”, which meant never talking about color. I think we thought by never talking about color, they’d automatically love everyone. But that doesn’t make any sense. Look at any book marketed to toddlers and you’ll see a lot of color identifying. We want them to know all the colors, but never notice all the beautiful colors in the faces around them. When I taught stage-makeup, I asked them to look at the faces of those around them and see all the beautiful shades represented. Those from the pinkest white, to the darkest brown. If it wasn’t a public school, I would have said that we are all created by and loved by God. And he uses these beautiful colors to give our world and our country beautiful diversity and richness. I did tell them that it’s because of our diversity we are rich, not in spite of it.

White parents, it’s time to carefully teach our children to see the richness of our diversity. A phrase we say a lot in our house is, “You’ll never meet a person God doesn’t love.” It helps when talking about mean kids on the bus, gossipy middle school girls, and people that don’t look like us. It goes without saying, but when talking about race, it’s important to emphasize that God loves his children. I know that seems obvious, but that’s a good starting off point when talking to your kids. Imagine a world where adults believed that and allowed it to govern their actions.

I so wish I could listen to this 70-year-old song and say, “Well, that’s outdated. We fixed that one.” But, unfortunately, it’s just as relevant today as ever. Maybe more. What are we carefully teaching our kids about race? Are we teaching them to fear? To misunderstand? To hate? Avoiding the conversation isn’t a solution. It’s part of the problem.

I’ve learned a lot from Broadway musicals. This lesson is a tough one. We have a long way to go to make this nation safe and just for all citizens. Be careful what you teach your kids. Teach them to love and revel in the diversity that makes this a beautiful nation, not a divided one.



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