You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught
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, from the musical, South Pacific (1949)
I sit stunned in silence for several days before I can begin to write. I know I must speak, say something about this most despicable crime. By the cover of my usual middle of the night “morning pages” routine, the thoughts and words begin to form. How could any person enter a church, sit and pray with people and then kill them in cold blood? As a former social psychology professor and researcher who studied race and ethnic identity, I cannot ignore this atrocity and others like it that occur daily around the world. See the sickness of Dylan Roof is not just his alone. Clearly he is troubled and possibly mentally ill. But the hatred he possesses about Black people is representative of many people who cultivate and nurture hate like his in their hearts and minds.
In the US, frequently the category chosen for hate and oppression is race whereas in other countries it may be ethnicity, clan, caste, religion, or gender. No matter where one lives or travels, there are people stigmatizing and devaluing individuals and thus giving them license in their minds to hate, dehumanize, and kill. Some psychologists would argue that racial stereotyping and bias are natural cognitive processes frequently operating unconsciously which is why stigmatizing is so prevalent. Yet infants are not born with hatred in their hearts. As the song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught” suggests, hating people who appear to be different is learned. This cultivation of hatred is helped along by talk around the dinner table, teachers who hint at or speak of the inferiority of Blacks, portrayals of Blacks on the news and in the media including television programs, movies, blog sites, and books. And it is not new. From my shock at viewing the movie, Birth of a Nation to watching a video tape of a policeman shoot an unarmed black man running away from him, racial hatred is supported if only indirectly everywhere. I’ve spent many years wondering why, why would one racial or ethnic group need to dehumanize another? What purpose is this enmity serving?
One thing we rarely talk about in our discussions of race relations is the undercurrent that supports the notion of White supremacy. Even those words give people chills Yet if I speak truthfully about what stimulates racial hatred to sprout and grow, I believe the source lies in the meanings we attach to race in America–being a White person means you are inherently better than a Black person. I suspect many people feel uncomfortable with this notion about how race is constructed. Yet everyone in the US has racist tendencies. Sometimes even I feel wary of young black males for no good reason which is ridiculous. Now that I am aware that I’ve internalized this meaning of race, my goal is to undo this inclination. Among the many reasons touted for racial tensions recently, one of the socio-cognitive processes that has not been proffered is “othering.” Yes, othering happens and continues to operate even in spiritual and religious domains. What is othering you ask? The technical definition of othering is any action by which an individual or group becomes mentally classified in somebody’s mind as “not one of us.” (James Norriss, https://therearenoothers.wordpress.com/read-this-first/–Also see Centre for the Study of Otherness, http://www.otherness.dk/journal/). It is a way for members of a dominant racial, ethnic, or even gender group to psychologically or socially exclude a person.
As an African American woman, I frequently find that when I join an all-white group of strangers, I eventually become othered. This typically happens when Whites perceive me to be of equal or higher social status as them. This fact alone violates the “Whites are better than Blacks” meaning that we attach to race thereby creating tension. The process usually begins with a discussion of my name, Lerita and how unusual it is and maybe I said “Letitia.” I try to help people by saying that I believe that my name is some variation of my father’s name, Leroy. It is similar in spelling and pronunciation (Loo-Roy, Loo-Rita, not Lo-Rita, Lolita, or LaQuita). As the conversation proceeds, I sense from those gathered that, “You are not one of us” and I begin to feel like “I don’t belong.” There is a distinct difference between sitting down with a welcoming group of people and those who feel uncomfortable with my race combined with my intellect, educational background and social status and thus must “other” me.
Race is an easy category to use for othering yet sometimes the category may be more subtle like social status, college attended or membership in a fraternity or sorority, neighborhood or region of the country. With race, the phenotypic differences are obvious and mixed with some cultural distinctions it becomes perfect for the process of othering. Othering is not difficult to do in fact it feels quite natural. We learn how to other as young children often on the playground or in a playroom. Othering is the basis of cliques that form in middle and high school and later in college. It is a way the ego uses to maintain our specialness and keeps us from recognizing our interconnectedness.
Yet it is the opposite of othering that we must learn. How do we embrace each other and begin to realize that we complete each other? Its like ying and yang—we need all of the parts that we’ve psychologically exiled and projected onto others in order to feel whole. Othering is one path toward developing the kind of hatred that Dylan Roof held in his heart for people who appeared different from him. He obviously could not perceive the shared humanity that he has with all sentient beings—his hate was fueled by different physical attributes and his projections. Isn’t ironic that he labeled African American “stupid and violent” when that was an apt description of him? He knew if only unconsciously that he was “stupid and violent,” projected his own self-hatred onto a group of innocent people gathered together for prayer. Perhaps the question is not whether one engages in othering because most people do but to what degree and how frequently.
Are you “othering” anyone in your life? Is it your Latino sister-in-law or African American brother-in-law? Maybe it is your White uncle or Asian cousin or multiracial neighbor. Perhaps someone at work intimidates or makes you feel uneasy? Possibly you feel uncomfortable to have a “foreigner” in the family or work environment—someone who possesses distinctive physical attributes and cultural traditions. What prevents you from perceiving your commonalities with individuals instead of your differences or experiencing the humanity in everyone? What were you carefully taught and who taught you? Is “othering” keeping you from the Peace in your heart? Even a fleck of hate can take up space, a place for more Love, more Peace, and more Joy in your heart.