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You Have to Be Carefully Taught

 Afrika Afeni Mills •   2

I’ve never seen South Pacific, but I’ve heard of the song You’ve Got To Be Carefully Taught. The lyrics have been on my mind as I think about what learning experiences I want to support educators to create for ourselves and students in the midst of political polarization and social distress. 

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

This is so true! Kids don’t naturally hate other kids. You put kids together, and their natural inclination is to play – tag, hide and seek, build sandcastles, jump rope, splash in puddles . . . and they don’t become hesitant until someone introduces the idea of separation. And even when society/people try to force kids to separate, some kids connect anyway. The Romeos and Juliets.

The Other Side by Jacqueline Woodson is a powerful picture book that tells the story of Clover and Annie who become friends in a segregated community.

While kids have to be carefully taught to be fearful of others, the opposite can also be true. Kids can be carefully taught to let go of fear, hatred, prejudice, and ignorance. I believe that’s where schools and teachers come in. That’s a big part of why I do the work I do.

Hatred and ignorance, stereotyping, prejudice, racism, and xenophobia are prisons. The prison walls are invisible to some, but they are very real. We are placed in these prisons as children, all of us by the inequities built into American systems and structures from the very beginning, and some of us even more so with the baggage we receive from our families. Some family baggage has us in minimum security prisons, and some of us end up in supermax. As children, we don’t have any say in the matter. Genuine relationships with and learning about others across differences (race, culture, gender, socioeconomics, educational experiences, neighborhoods, religions, languages, opportunities for travel, etc.) offer us a kind of parole.

Some of us refuse to be institutionalized and choose to exit the prison of hatred and ignorance boldly. No recidivism for us. Some exit with curiosity. Some with confusion (when you don’t know you’ve been in darkness, the light can be painful). Some with anger about being put in that prison to begin with. Some choose a halfway house because they’re not quite ready to leave all the way. And, unfortunately, some choose to stay in prison, self-imposed life sentences, choosing to live in hate and ignorance, and trying diligently to imprison others.

Those who choose to stay imprisoned are loud. Many are in positions of power. Some say harmful things on the internet, and some are protesting books at school board meetings and legislative spaces. Some . . . but not all. 

My faith tells me that we are all created in the image of God (Imago Dei). My faith tells me that God values diversity by nature of the fact that there’s so much of it in this world. My faith tells me that God is love. I believe that love is far stronger than hate. I believe that love wins. Those of us who choose love HAVE to be louder, stronger, bolder, and we must have more stamina. We need to be brave. We need to be willing to be uncomfortable. We need to be willing to hear, do and say hard things. We need to let people know that they are in prison, and we need to offer a loving hand to those who no longer want to be. Jane Elliott offered that hand to the children in her third grade in Iowa after Martin Luther King, Jr. was assassinated. If you haven’t already, you can see what she did here: A Class Divided, Part I, and A Class Divided, Part 2.

Jane Elliott had her path, and we have ours. Helping students to become socially and politically conscious and to take action against injustice is hard work and great work. It helps me to stay all on fire like William Lloyd Garrison talked about. Find your traveling companions and let’s go!


Afrika Afeni Mills is an author, an Education Consultant, and Adjunct Instructor. In addition to authoring Open Windows, Open Minds: Developing Antiracist, Pro-Human Students (Corwin, June 2022), she works with colleagues, teachers, coaches, and administrators to develop and sustain student-centered learning experiences that are diverse, inclusive, and equitable. Afrika has been featured on podcasts, blogs, delivered keynote addresses, and facilitated sessions at conferences across the United States. She will also be publishing a book with Corwin Press in 2022.

Afrika believes that all educators can be motivated, engaged, dynamic practitioners and leaders when provided with the support needed to create student-centered, antibias, antiracist, pro-human, culturally responsive learning environments that inspire wonder and creativity and nurture authentic diversity, belonging, equity, and inclusion.

Learn more about and from Afrika at links below.

AfrikaAfeniMills.com

Twitter: @AfeniMills

Instagram: Open Windows, Open Minds

Facebook: Open Windows, Open Minds  and Afrika Afeni Mills – Equity Guardian

LinkedIn: Afrika Afeni Mills

Personal Blog: Continental Drift