Mr. Rogers on Prejudice and Fear

(Fred Rogers visiting children with disabilities at The Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh | Photo by Jim Judkis)

(Fred Rogers visiting children with disabilities at The Children’s Institute in Pittsburgh | Photo by Jim Judkis)

"How sad it is to think that we would give up on any other creature who’s just like us."

By Sam Yang - Get similar updates here

There are great philosophers and thinkers that have had profound impact on my development as an adult and as a human being. But I cannot divorce my intellectual growth from my immigrant experience. For a South Korean immigrant moving to Los Angeles in the 80s, it was understood to turn on PBS (Public Broadcasting Service), and to leave me alone — the channel would handle the rest. I have to admit my sense of the United States, and most of my initial English, came from PBS. Even now, my writing is heavily influenced by what I saw on Sesame Street, Mathnet, and Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. The way they spoke was comparable to the minimalist language of Eastern philosophy. The other thing that struck me was the diversity of these shows; I had imagined America to be a country of blonde, blue-eyed, fair-skinned go-getters with shiny white teeth. Living in Little Armenia at the time, the closest I came to my stereotype of America were my Armenian and lighter-skinned Mexican classmates.

Tao of Mr. Rogers

For years, I never missed an episode of Mr. Rogers'. They say calmness is contagious, and that's what Mr. Rogers was, calm. (In Korea, we call it the "happy virus.") It's the same feeling I get in meditation or when I am deep in my martial arts practice, this sense of being connected. Fred Rogers (March 20, 1928 – February 27, 2003) was a pastor in "real life" and his spirituality bled through the screen. If Christianity had a version of "Zen," Fred Rogers was it.

As a pastor, Mr. Rogers lived by one simple commandment:

Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no other commandment greater than these.
— Mark 12:31

What I enjoyed most about his programming was how he built his day. Just as classical stage actors were taught to build their characters from the shoes up, Mr. Rogers would do the same — building his day, one shoe at a time. Bit by bit, adding pieces, people, thoughts, small tasks, experiences, lessons, songs, and interactions — until at the end he had a very simple yet complete day. Just as a master chef would add ingredients; understated flavors, nothing too overwhelming, but at the end leave you with a complex and robust taste that was utterly satisfying. The expectations of Mr. Rogers' day were never unrealistic, and his neighborhood — so pleasant. The realities that many of us lived, however, were a stark contrast. That made the show a nice 30-minute long escape: See Mr. Rogers, he'll know what to do, he's a nice man.

Real Neighborhoods

Lack of empathy, fear, and prejudice seem to be timeless topics. Whether you're reading this now or years from the point of this writing, these topics can be just as relevant. It wasn't until 2001, nine years after the LA Riots when I heard Fred Rogers on a segment of This American Life; on "real" neighborhoods, outside of the Neighborhood of Make-Believe.

In the interview, Mr. Rogers was given stories about a neighborhood in Chicago. In one story, a young teen, Hernando, talked about his experiences being considered the "bad" neighbor. He wore baggy jeans, a basketball jersey, and didn't look or sound the part of the blonde, blue-eyed stereotype of America that I had. He was frustrated at being seen as a "thug" and having his neighbors follow him around as if he had already done something wrong; Hernando wanted to be seen as a fellow human, he wanted civil communication. Though Hernando lived in the neighborhood longer than most of his neighbors, they wanted him gone, without ever getting to know him as a person. As tough as Hernando was, that hurt him.

What the neighbors saw were teens who routinely drank alcohol on the street corner, occasionally selling marijuana. They were low-level gangbangers, and there were some rightful concerns.

What Would Mr. Rogers Do

The producer of the segment asked Mr. Rogers what he would have done. He reflected on this and responded:

I can tell you what I would hope that I would do. I would hope that I would be brave enough to visit. It’s so easy to condemn when we don’t know. And if I would visit you and find out that you are a reasonable person, I could tell you about my sensitivities and see if it would make any difference to you.

The neighbors said that they were afraid and weren't "brave" enough to talk to Hernando and his friends. The producer, Alex Blumberg, asked Mr. Rogers:

What is it that we’re afraid of do you think?

On this, Mr. Rogers paused for a long while to think. Known for his remarkable ability to see the honest and hopefulness in most situations; in this particular instance, Mr. Rogers found the honest explanation to be one of hopelessness. The sing-song cantor of his usual voice was gone. In its place was a trembling voice of genuine sorrow:

Perhaps we think that we won’t find another human being inside that person. Perhaps we think that, ‘Oh, there maybe are people in this world who I can’t ever communicate with. And so I’ll just give up before I try.’ And how sad it is to think that we would give up on any other creature who’s just like us.

There is a moment where we can feel Mr. Rogers look within himself, to recognize a feeling that lurks within us all. People will sever connections with other human beings before they ever get to know them. Possibly wonderful connections that never got chances to bloom, and Mr. Rogers is right, that is tragically sad to think about. It's the opposite of his life message, to always try to get to know others, understand how they feel, and cultivate deep empathy.

Seeing Beyond a Generalization

The dictionary will define a stereotype as a form of generalization, but a dictionary could never capture all that comes along with it. It is not always harmful: we see a person wearing a white coat and stethoscope, and we assume they are a doctor. We see a person of color wearing clothes we would never wear, and we may think something negatively. It may be inaccurate, and we may never correct this inaccuracy or connect with this person because we are not motivated to be accurate or connected.

Why are we not motivated? What is prejudice? David Oyelowo, who played Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. in the film Selma, said:

Prejudice is rooted in fear, fear of the unknown, fear of what is not you.

The poetic opposite of:

Do not fear, for I am with you.
— Isaiah 41:10

What stops us from getting to know someone is fear. We fear what we are not connected to, but when we are connected, we do not fear. Disconnection only brings about more fear and more unknowns. We must be "brave enough" because empathy takes courage, a lot of courage. It takes a lot of courage to wear someone else's shoes, especially when ours is so much more comfortable. So why connect when we can be afraid? Because it is a much happier existence to live connected and not in constant states of fear. There is this routine, monotonous, mundane, accumulation of micro-fears and micro-anxieties that we mistake for normal living — where we can no longer differentiate suffering from breathing. Tearing ourselves down bit by bit, all the way to our shoes.

Compassion is the radicalism of our time.
— Dalai Lama XIV

Officer Clemmons

(Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers, reprising their 1969 foot bath, during their final scene together in 1993 | The Fred Rogers Company)

(Officer Clemmons and Mister Rogers, reprising their 1969 foot bath, during their final scene together in 1993 | The Fred Rogers Company)

Francois Clemmons became the first African-American to have a recurring role on a kids' TV series when he joined the cast of Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood. Clemmons recalls the era as being a time black protesters were still being attacked by police dogs and sprayed with hoses, where there was still segregation. For this reason, and for facing police brutality himself, Francois Clemmons was not particularly enthusiastic about playing a police officer.

In one particular episode, it was supposed to be a hot day and Mr. Rogers was resting his feet in a plastic pool. Clemmons recalled:

He invited me to come over and to rest my feet in the water with him. The icon Fred Rogers not only was showing my brown skin in the tub with his white skin as two friends, but as I was getting out of that tub, he was helping me dry my feet. ... I think he was making a very strong statement. That was his way.

[Mr. Rogers acted as he believed Jesus would.]

On the final day of the program, Mr. Rogers ended the show as he always did, by taking off his sneakers, hanging up his sweater, and saying:

You make every day a special day just by being you, and I like you just the way you are.

On this occasion, Francois Clemmons noticed Mr. Rogers was looking directly at him. Clemmons asked him after the show:

Fred, were you talking to me?

"Yes, I have been talking to you for years," said Mr. Rogers. "But you heard me today." Clemmons said in an interview:

It was like telling me I’m okay as a human being. That was one of the most meaningful experiences I’d ever had.

Clichés Are Overused for a Reason

As simple and cliché as it may sound, when there are fewer unknowns, there are fewer things to fear. Get to know your neighbors — your world. Simple truths resonate truer when we've been through complex experiences, challenging our fears and prejudices. Listen to the experiences of others — this is what adds color to our lives. It is why those who have overcome adversities so often give us adages we know too well. We ignore their message because it seems trite, but their context and their understanding is what's new. Ideas are important but just as important are the journeys that bring people to that realization. It's what they've been through, and unless we've been through it, it will sound like the same tired rhetoric. The rhetoric "old" people with life experience spoon us. Their meaning can never properly be put into words, but it is words themselves that are inadequate. The meaning must be experienced, it must be shown. When put into words, it will sound childish, because words can be childish. But the words are only meant to trigger memories of an experience, a feeling — that is their purpose.

Just as clichés are built on context, stereotypes and prejudices are often built on a lack of context, a willful lack of context. When we avoid living a textured life, then yes, the message of Mr. Rogers sounds cliché — because we won't know any better.

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