I listened to the soundtrack of the musical “South Pacific” the other day and heard Cable’s familiar song:
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!
My first few years were spent in suburbs of Salt Lake City. We seemed to be so homogenous that every single member of my first-grade class belonged to one or the other of the two LDS wards that met in our building; when we painted a huge Christmas mural in school, it was displayed on the wall behind the podium in our chapel.
We weren’t entirely alike, though. I don’t remember the family or the circumstances, but I asked my mother when I was seven about some names a few neighbor kids had yelled at some other neighbor kids. Mom explained to me that one neighbor family was Mexican (I didn’t know what Mexican meant and she didn’t explain); that some people didn’t like Mexicans and called them names, but that my brothers and I were never supposed to treat them any differently from any of the rest of our friends.
The first non-Mormon I was conscious of knowing was Kathleen, a Catholic, in my fourth-grade class. I didn’t know what Catholic meant, either, except that she didn’t go to Primary with us. I liked her. I wasn’t aware of any discrimination directed against her, but I suppose it would have been easy to be hurt when our Mormon-ness was such a casual and pervasive part of the school lives of the rest of us.
The summer before sixth grade, my family spent a few weeks living in military housing at Herlong Army Depot in northern California, where my father’s work had taken us. I remember my little brother and me playing on the swings in the small base park when three larger black kids came along and tried to push us off the swings. We refused to give them up. I started chanting in a sing-song voice “[n-word]! [n-word] from darkest Africa!” over and over and over. Honestly, I do not have the slightest idea where that came from. Neither racial epithets nor terms like “darkest Africa” were ever used in my family. I don’t think they would have been said on TV at that point (1969), and these three kids may literally have been the very first blacks I ever saw face to face in my entire life.
I don’t know who those kids complained to, but it caused some serious trouble for my father. Even though he was a civilian employee, race relations and racial harmony are taken very seriously by the U.S. military, and Dad was called on the carpet. I could have cost him his job, even his career – I’ll leave to your imagination the talking-to I got later that day. And I still don’t know how those words got into my head to come out of my mouth. I haven’t said them since except to write them here.
The first black child I can remember knowing at all was George, in my sixth-grade class. By then my family had moved to a suburb of Reno, Nevada. I didn’t know George well at all. I suppose it says something that I can remember his name, just as I remember Kathleen’s, when I couldn’t tell you the names of more than two or three other kids from either of those years at school.
That sixth grade year was also the year I learned that some people didn’t like Mormons any more than some didn’t like Mexicans or blacks. I don’t remember talking about being a Mormon, although I must have. Maybe I mentioned going to Primary. One of the questions kids asked each other to get acquainted in those days was “What religion are you?” and I probably answered. I may even have explained my longer, fuller skirts in those days of short, straight minis, as being due to my being a Mormon. But I don’t remember and can’t imagine any prolonged discussions or serious disagreement with any children about my being a Mormon.
There were three sixth grade classes in that school, taught by Mrs. Momerak (my main teacher), and Mr. and Mrs. Williams (a married couple; each was the main teacher for one of the other two classes). In that school, punishment for the usual childish infractions of being tardy, speaking out of turn, chewing gum, etc., was to “stand on the wall” – that meant that during recess, you had to stand outside facing the wall of the school, with your forehead pressed against the brick, and you had to stand there as long as your punishment was dictated. Most kids were released from the wall after one recess, or after all the recesses in a single day.
I don’t remember what I did to have to “stand on the wall,” but I found myself sentenced to do that one day. I wasn’t released after one recess, or after one day. Day after day, without explanation, I had to stand with my forehead against the wall. Mrs. Williams was supervising us truants on the wall a week or so after my punishment began, and I asked her why I had to stand there for so long, and when it would end. She pushed my forehead back against the wall and hissed at me, “You Mormons are so wrapped up in your blasted religion that you can’t see the forest for the trees!” I didn’t have any idea what she meant – still don’t – but her words were so filled with venom, and a new cuss word, that I’ve never forgotten them.
I hadn’t said anything at home about “standing on the wall,” probably because I was embarrassed for having done whatever it was that got me sent to the wall in the first place. It didn’t occur to me for quite a while that my punishment was excessive – even today I have to fight the tendency to think it is my fault whenever someone treats me poorly, even when the poor treatment is out of all proportion to anything I might have done or said. But after several weeks, I finally told my mother what was going on. I told her everything I had done and said – including the fact that I was so angry at Mrs. Williams one day as she passed behind me while I stood on the wall, that I kicked backward like a mule, caught her foot with mine, and made her stumble. (Somehow, there was no retribution from her for that.) My mother calmly went to the school the next day and met with the principal and the vice principal (the vice principal was Mr. Singh, the first man I ever knew who wore a turban). I don’t know what all she said, but I was immediately taken off the wall and never had to stand there again. I also understood that if I ever merited punishment again, I was to stay inside during recess and work on additional math problems, but never again to stand on the wall.
Since then I’ve been exposed to a great variety of people, just as all of you have. I’ve probably displayed bigotry, both conscious and unconscious, and been the target of similar kinds of bigotry for being a woman in the workplace, or an American in the world, or a Mormon for simply daring to breathe. I can’t remember all those times, of course, but I surprise myself for being able to remember so many “firsts.” I’m also surprised that so many of those firsts occurred shortly after I was “six or seven or eight,” and that I was on both the giving and receiving ends without, seemingly, needing “to be carefully taught.”
How about you? When do you remember first displaying prejudice, or being the object of it, especially when your Mormonism played a role?