For those of you who remember it, you may be surprised to learn that the catchy song I’d Like To Teach The World To Sing – yes, the Coke ad – is now 50 years old. Fifty years old! And the song’s message (without the Coke part) remains as critically important as ever. So little has changed … or to put a slightly more positive spin on it, not nearly enough has changed. Anyone watching the ad (over and over again), with its positive, feel-good message of getting along, could not help but be moved by the lyrics of the music and its sentiment. What’s true 50 years later is that the message worked extraordinarily well for Coke’s bottom line and contributed very, very little (probably diddly squat) to overcoming the painful realities of racism. How heartbreakingly sad.
For those of you who are too young to know this song, adapted by the New Seekers from the song in the most-popular-of-all-time Coke ad that aired in 1971, it’s worth taking the one minute to watch this YouTube video of the original ad. Pure marketing magic. And keep in mind that the Vietnam War was in progress at the time. “Interesting” times then, just as today.
Here, for completeness, are the non-Coke lyrics to the song:
I’d like to build a world a home
And furnish it with love
Grow apple trees and honey bees
And snow white turtle doves
I’d like to teach the world to sing
In perfect harmony
I’d like to hold it in my arms
And keep it company
I’d like to see the world for once
All standing hand in hand
And hear them echo through the hills
For peace throughout the land
This song popped into my head as I pondered the revelation that this Sunday, March 21, is International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. Yet another significant Day that doesn’t get the recognition it desperately needs and deserves. The news reminds us every day of the pervasiveness and destructive nature of racism. In spades.
From the United Nations web site:
The International Day for the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is observed annually on the day the police in Sharpeville, South Africa, opened fire and killed 69 people at a peaceful demonstration against apartheid “pass laws” in 1960.
In 1979, the [UN] General Assembly adopted a programme of activities to be undertaken during the second half of the Decade for Action to Combat Racism and Racial Discrimination. On that occasion, the General Assembly decided that a week of solidarity with the peoples struggling against racism and racial discrimination, beginning on 21 March, would be organized annually in all States.
Since then, the apartheid system in South Africa has been dismantled. Racist laws and practices have been abolished in many countries, and we have built an international framework for fighting racism, guided by the International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination. The Convention is now nearing universal ratification, yet still, in all regions, too many individuals, communities and societies suffer from the injustice and stigma that racism brings.
I must admit that I was very discouraged to read in the UN description that after all this time – decades –their International Convention on the Elimination of Racial Discrimination is just nearing universal ratification. Damn it, we’re better than this. If we can progress as human beings to be able to build planes and ships that take us around the world in record time, allowing us to get to know each other’s cultures, customs, and geography, then why can’t we progress as human beings to accept and welcome each other? Why aren’t we celebrating our diversity – and our common humanity – instead of weaponizing it?
We can all look into our own hearts and think about individual actions that can make a difference towards eliminating racial discrimination. We can stop and think about what it’s like to walk in someone else’s shoes. We can reach out. We can walk the talk. In particular, we can speak up in the face of racist words or acts on the part of others, even if that might feel awkward. After all, if we stay silent we are implicitly condoning what has been said.
But I’ll be honest, I don’t think individual action alone will do it. I think it really takes proactive, positive leadership. Leadership at all levels that reaches across aisles and speaks in affirmative ways about the potential and contributions of every citizen … citizens of every colour and background. We need leaders who are inclusive, not divisive. Leaders who speak to inclusivity and mean what they say. Leaders for whom overcoming racism is a priority.
It has been 50 years since the world sang along with Coke and all those young people on the hill in Italy, “I’d like to teach the world to sing in perfect harmony.” Please, don’t let it be another 50 years before that dream comes true.