Yes, Racism is Taught — But Not the Way You Think

The most effective teacher of racist thinking is systemic inequality itself

Tim Wise
5 min readMar 28, 2022


Image: Marina Kliets, Shutterstock, Standard license, purchased by author

In the 1949 Broadway musical South Pacific, by Rodgers and Hammerstein, there is a song, “You’ve Got to Be Carefully Taught,” which stirred quite the controversy at the time.

As a tune about racism, the song provoked howls of protest from Southern lawmakers and even charges of communist “race-mixing” propaganda during the early days of the Cold War.

Here are the lyrics:

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

Many years later, the National Conference of Christians and Jews would adopt a variation on this theme as their semi-official slogan: “You Have to Be Taught How to Hate.”

On the one hand, there is little doubt that people are taught racism.

Racist parents often pass along their biases to their children, the latter of whom are also taught hatred and bigotry in online rabbit holes down which they too often jump nowadays.

Yet, the idea that one is taught racism rather than being born with it, though obvious, fails to account for how that teaching occurs.

Or rather, it suggests a teaching and learning process that is too simple: the parent instructing the child on who to like and dislike as if part of some family ritual through which intergenerational bias is transmitted.

But what if bias is taught through less direct means? Perhaps not hatred, per se, but certainly prejudice and beliefs about group superiority and inferiority?

Racism is taught even without direct instruction



Tim Wise

Anti-racism educator and author of 9 books, including White Like Me and, most recently, Dispatches from the Race War (City Lights, December 2020)