Rogers and Hammerstein said it best in South Pacific:  “You’ve got to be taught to be afraid of people whose eyes are oddly made and people whose skin is a different 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.”

South Pacific was a turning point in musical theater.  It sought to teach tolerance and understanding while entertaining us.  A really very good way to learn because we don’t realize we are learning something.

Small children have no bias whatsoever.  People are people, dogs are dogs, cats are cats, and so on.  We all fall into general generic categories.   I was in an elevator once with a Caucasian woman, her very young daughter and an African-American woman.  The little girl kept staring at the African-American woman until her mother, embarrassed at what she thought might be asked, told the child not to stare.  “But, mommy,” said the little girl, “didn’t you notice that lady is wearing the same earrings you are?”  so much for biased questions.

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One of my favorite stories is that of my daughter Ilene who, when in kindergarten, had as her “boy friend” Chas, an African-American little boy.  One day their teacher called to share with me what she thought was a very cute story, indicative of how children think.

Ilene and Chas were sitting together under one of the kindergarten tables, deep in conversation.  The teacher, curious as to what they were saying, listened in.  Following is the conversation:  Chas said, “When we grow up we can get married.”  Ilene thought for a moment and answered, “Sure, but we’ll have to be careful about our babies.”  “Why?” asked Chas.  “Because they’ll be polka dotted!” came the reply.  Out of the mouths of babes!

When we lived in Yonkers I was vice-president of the Nepperhan Community Center, at that time an afternoon gathering place where inner city kids could play games, do homework, or just sit around and talk.  Being the only Caucasian on an African-American board of directors was no different than being vice president of the library board which had only one African-American member.  We were all trying to do our best for our children and our communities.

In the summer months my young teenage daughters would walk down to Warburton Avenue to help out with the younger kids.  Some of our neighbors were aghast.  “How can you allow your daughters to walk alone in that neighborhood especially after dark?” they asked.  Lisa and Ilene had no idea what they were talking about.  “What’s wrong with that neighborhood?” they asked me.  “It’s just a little more crowded than where we live and we know a lot of the kids from school.  They help out at the center, too.”  Our children never saw black or white, they just saw people.  We never taught them a difference, so there was none.  

Kids are ‘clean sheets’ on which we engrave our likes, dislikes, hopes, and fears.  They soak up everything we tell them.  It is our duty to see that our children and grandchildren (and great-grandchildren) finish out the 21st century hand in hand, arm in arm, seeing each other as they really are, sentient  and kind human beings.

Remember Oscar Hammerstein’s words as you guide your children:  “You have to be taught to hate”…it doesn’t come naturally.
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