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You’ve got to be taught

Boy, the haters and the bigots sure came out of their holes when they saw Coke’s Super Bowl ad. I was tempted to immediately sit down and fire right back at them. Never a good idea, as evidenced by the bigots who couldn’t tweet, blog or e-mail their anger fast enough and ended up putting their ignorance on display for all to see.

So I took a few breaths and thought about the progress I have seen in my lifetime. When I was a little tyke in suburban Washington, D.C., my mother was a member of a neighborhood ladies book club. One of the women was African-American. That meant they couldn’t go out together after their meeting. No restaurant would serve an interracial group. At parks, there were segregated water fountains. At the bus station, there were segregated waiting rooms. Of course, it was illegal for interracial couples to marry. Gays? They were so far back in the closet, they were effectively invisible.

When I was 9 years old, I saw what was, for me, an eye-opening movie. I must have had some awareness of the fact that there were people who hated people who weren’t like them and been confused by that. In “South Pacific”, I learned how that happens, in just a minute and 10 seconds. A young, handsome American lieutenant falls in love with a Polynesian girl and she falls in love with him. He is white, she is not. He doesn’t have the courage to deal with the discrimination he knows he would face at home and so ends the relationship. When he does, he says something like, “racism isn’t born in you. It happens after you’re born.” Then he sings:

“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 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.”

When I think about how far we’ve come since 1949 when “South Pacific” premiered on Broadway (and when I was born) and 1958 when the movie version was released, I am heartened and remember words spoken by Dr. King, “The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice.”

I know that the bigots are still teaching their children, but fewer and fewer are listening, because they’re also learning from their peers, from the diversity they see on television and now in the Oval Office. We aren’t there yet, but given how far we’ve come, I think we can take a moment, clink our bottles of Coke together and sing “America The Beautiful” (with words written by Katherine Lee Bates, who was almost certainly gay.)