You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a different shade . . .
- Rodgers and Hammerstein, South Pacific
As an infant, my child cried each time someone without glasses tried to hold him. All the adults in the household wore glasses. The familiar brought comfort; the unfamiliar or different, distress.
The 1949 musical South Pacific is not just a war story and a love story. It’s also a story of well-meaning, previously sheltered young white Americans struggling with difference. Nellie says racism was born in her. Lt. Cable says no, we’re taught it from childhood. Rogers and Hammerstein refused pressure to remove Cable’s controversial song, saying “You’ve got to be taught” was the point of the show. Georgia legislators called its rationale for interracial marriage a Communist-inspired threat to the American way of life.
Is it true you have to be taught? I think we’re born to distrust difference, a survival trait stronger in some people than others. Parents and others teach us which differences matter. Glasses? Race? As a separate trait on its own bell-shaped curve, babies show varying degrees of curiosity, which their parents then nurture or discourage. If we’re lucky, high curiosity and low fear of difference will offer us a lifetime of learning, fascination, and growth.
Image: Anonymous parent with glasses.
I'm a historian who writes novels and literary nonfiction. My home base is Madison, Wisconsin.