Childhood nursery rhymes and other 'classic' songs you probably never knew were racist
Photo by Jakub Kriz on Unsplash

One of the hallmarks of progress, both societally and individually, is when we realize that something we thought was benign is actually not. When it comes to progress on racism, the cultural norms of language are frequently where those realizations occur.

For example, there are many common phrases we use that are racist, which many of us having no idea. And now The Conscious Kid on Instagram has shared how a collection of standard nursery rhymes most of us recited or sang as children that also come from racist origins. Some of them come from the blackface minstrelsy era, when white people dressed in blackface and sang songs portraying black people as uneducated caricatures. Others started as blatantly racist rhymes, then changed over time to be palatable to a more enlightened audience.

As we take these in, it's good to be aware that nostalgia and familiarity will naturally create resistance to the notion that these rhymes are problematic, especially if we aren't part of the racial group on the receiving end of the racism these rhymes stem from. Our minds will defend, justify, and qualify in order to keep fond memories from our childhood in tact.


With that in mind, here are "childhood nursery rhymes you didn't realize were racist," sourced from Atlanta Black Star and NPR's Code Switch.

Many of us learned Eeenie, Meenie, Miney, Moe with the phrase "catch a tiger by his toe" or maybe "catch a tigger," but the original rhyme used the n-word. Gross.


The Conscious Kid/Instagram

"Ten Little Indians" is problematic on its face, but is actually worse when you see what the original lyrics were.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

"Chinese, Japanese" was a common playground recitation when I was little, and though I recall learning that it was wrong, it didn't seem nearly as horrifying as it does now. Who the hell originally came up with this, and how did it travel so far?

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

"Five Little Monkeys" might not seem like anything problematic—until you learn that "monkeys" used to be "darkies" or the n-word.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

And then there's the ice cream truck song. The familiar tune that's synonymous with summer—also sung by kids as "Do Your Ears Hang Low"—was originally a song called "N****r Love a Watermelon Ha! Ha! Ha!" Yeah.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

Same goes for "Shortnin' Bread." Yikes.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

Many of us sang at least part of "Oh! Susanna" in school music classes, and it's often considered a classic. But look at what the song was actually about and how horrible some of the lyrics were.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

"Jimmy Crack Corn" is another familiar tune from childhood. I remember singing it in some capacity, and now I'm appalled that the term "Massa" ever came out of my mouth as form of entertainment.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

Finally, "Camptown Races." Really? Yep. Again, from the blackface minstrel era, a song that basically made fun of Black people.

The Conscious Kid/Instagram

Now's a good time to ask ourselves what we should do with these rhymes now that we know their origins. Of course, there are bigger issues than nursery rhymes, but all of the seemingly low-significance incidences of racism add up to a crapton.

When we know better, we do better—at least in theory. Now that we know, let's do something with this knowledge. Would it really be that hard to place these rhymes in the archives of history and not continue to actively use them? Are there really no alternatives that children can become familiar with instead?

True

When Sue Hoppin was in college, she met the man she was going to marry. "I was attending the University of Denver, and he was at the Air Force Academy," she says. "My dad had also attended the University of Denver and warned me not to date those flyboys from the Springs."

"He didn't say anything about marrying one of them," she says. And so began her life as a military spouse.

The life brings some real advantages, like opportunities to live abroad — her family got to live all around the US, Japan, and Germany — but it also comes with some downsides, like having to put your spouse's career over your own goals.

"Though we choose to marry someone in the military, we had career goals before we got married, and those didn't just disappear."

Career aspirations become more difficult to achieve, and progress comes with lots of starts and stops. After experiencing these unique challenges firsthand, Sue founded an organization to help other military spouses in similar situations.

Sue had gotten a degree in international relations because she wanted to pursue a career in diplomacy, but for fourteen years she wasn't able to make any headway — not until they moved back to the DC area. "Eighteen months later, many rejections later, it became apparent that this was going to be more challenging than I could ever imagine," she says.

Eighteen months is halfway through a typical assignment, and by then, most spouses are looking for their next assignment. "If I couldn't find a job in my own 'hometown' with multiple degrees and a great network, this didn't bode well for other military spouses," she says.

She's not wrong. Military spouses spend most of their lives moving with their partners, which means they're often far from family and other support networks. When they do find a job, they often make less than their civilian counterparts — and they're more likely to experience underemployment or unemployment. In fact, on some deployments, spouses are not even allowed to work.

Before the pandemic, military spouse unemployment was 22%. Since the pandemic, it's expected to rise to 35%.

Sue eventually found a job working at a military-focused nonprofit, and it helped her get the experience she needed to create her own dedicated military spouse program. She wrote a book and started saving up enough money to start the National Military Spouse Network (NMSN), which she founded in 2010 as the first organization of its kind.

"I founded the NMSN to help professional military spouses develop flexible careers they could perform from any location."

"Over the years, the program has expanded to include a free digital magazine, professional development events, drafting annual White Papers and organizing national and local advocacy to address the issues of most concern to the professional military spouse community," she says.

Not only was NMSN's mission important to Sue on a personal level she also saw it as part of something bigger than herself.

"Gone are the days when families can thrive on one salary. Like everyone else, most military families rely on two salaries to make ends meet. If a military spouse wants or needs to work, they should be able to," she says.

"When less than one percent of our population serves in the military," she continues, "we need to be able to not only recruit the best and the brightest but also retain them."

"We lose out as a nation when service members leave the force because their spouse is unable to find employment. We see it as a national security issue."

"The NMSN team has worked tirelessly to jumpstart the discussion and keep the challenges affecting military spouses top of mind. We have elevated the conversation to Congress and the White House," she continues. "I'm so proud of the fact that corporations, the government, and the general public are increasingly interested in the issues affecting military spouses and recognizing the employment roadblocks they unfairly have faced."

"We have collectively made other people care, and in doing so, we elevated the issues of military spouse unemployment to a national and global level," she adds. "In the process, we've also empowered military spouses to advocate for themselves and our community so that military spouse employment issues can continue to remain at the forefront."

Not only has NMSN become a sought-after leader in the military spouse employment space, but Sue has also seen the career she dreamed of materializing for herself. She was recently invited to participate in the public re-launch of Joining Forces, a White House initiative supporting military and veteran families, with First Lady Dr. Jill Biden.

She has also had two of her recommendations for practical solutions introduced into legislation just this year. She was the first in the Air Force community to show leadership the power of social media to reach both their airmen and their military families.

That is why Sue is one of Tory Burch's "Empowered Women" this year. The $5,000 donation will be going to The Madeira School, a school that Sue herself attended when she was in high school because, she says, "the lessons I learned there as a student pretty much set the tone for my personal and professional life. It's so meaningful to know that the donation will go towards making a Madeira education more accessible to those who may not otherwise be able to afford it and providing them with a life-changing opportunity."

Most military children will move one to three times during high school so having a continuous four-year experience at one high school can be an important gift. After traveling for much of her formative years, Sue attended Madeira and found herself "in an environment that fostered confidence and empowerment. As young women, we were expected to have a voice and advocate not just for ourselves, but for those around us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Vanna White appeared on "The Price Is Right" in 1980.

Vanna White has been a household name in the United States for decades, which is kind of hilarious when you consider how she gained her fame and fortune. Since 1982, the former model and actress has made millions walking back and forth turning letters (and later simply touching them—yay technology) on the game show "Wheel of Fortune."

That's it. Walking back and forth in a pretty evening gown, flipping letters and clapping for contestants. More on that job in a minute…

As a member of Gen X, television game shows like "Wheel of Fortune" and "The Price is Right" send me straight back to my childhood. Watching this clip from 1980 of Vanna White competing on "The Price is Right" two years before she started turning letters on "Wheel of Fortune" is like stepping into a time machine. Bob Barker's voice, the theme music, the sound effects—I swear I'm home from school sick, lying on the ugly flowered couch with my mom checking my forehead and bringing me Tang.

This video has it all: the early '80s hairstyles, a fresh-faced Vanna White and Bob Barker's casual sexism that would never in a million years fly today.

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