Complicity “THE LONG-PROMISED DAY?” by Jay Stirling published in Sunstone July 2002
EARLIER THIS YEAR, I was at an acquaintance’s house watching a basketball game between the University of Utah and Brigham Young University. Out of two dozen players, only one was black, so I guess it was natural for some of the guys to comment on the lone African-American. They didn’t describe him by his name, position, or even his number—rather he was “nigga,” and when that wasn’t funny enough he became “coon.” I wish I could say that I said something to contradict those ignorant and insulting statements, but I just sat there, uncomfortable. I talked to a few others afterward. They, too, had been taken aback by how freely the racial slurs had flowed. But they hadn’t rebutted anything either.
After the game, we returned to our BYU dorms, and I doubt any others in our group gave even a second thought to what had been said. But I did. I felt guilty for letting those poisonous words and the ideas behind them go uncontested. But I also know that guilt is not productive. So instead I wrote this essay.
THROUGH “The African-American Experience,” a class I took last semester, I have come to realize racism is much more intricate and dangerous than simple statements of bigotry. “Whiteness theory” explores the complex characteristics of racism in America. Whiteness can be defined in one word: privilege. Being white allows me to shop at a record store without being followed by a suspicious clerk. Being white allows me to apply for any job and know that if I don’t get that job, I wasn’t qualified. It was not because of my skin color. Being white also allows me to be silent about matters of race. Journalism professor Robert Jensen observes that “the ultimate white privilege” is “the privilege to acknowledge you have an unearned privilege but ignore what it means.”1
Racism is dynamic, always evolving, finding expression in slavery, in segregation, and, as it does now, in “political correctness.” In some ways, the current face of racism is even more dangerous than its predecessors. Slavery and segregation were overt, but the “PC” concepts of meritocracy and colorblindness are insidiously subtle agents of whiteness.
The notion of meritocracy is the proclamation that the most-qualified people will succeed in a situation because they are the most-qualified. This notion is particularly powerful because it is tied to patriotism. It testifies to the ability of the rugged individualist to triumph. It is at the heart of the classic rags-to-riches success story that all entrepreneurs seemingly have hardwired in their brain. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints are particularly susceptible to the myth of meritocracy because it is paralleled in LDS doctrine that salvation through Jesus Christ can come only to those who have given a total effort to keeping his commandments.
The term colorblindness has recently begun to be applied to name the subliminal notion at work when we whites proclaim that when we see others, we “don’t see colors, we just see people.” Often, the underlying tone of such statements is that we see people of color as, in effect, “honorary white persons” or as “white-persons-in-training.” Audrey Thompson, professor of education, culture, and society at the University of Utah, observes that this kind of racism never questions the ground of racial meaning-making. Treating non-whites as honorary whites assumes the normative status of whiteness. Extending whiteness to others reinscribes whiteness as the norm. It assumes that racism is a problem connected to blackness or brownness, so that blackness and brownness must be erased before racism will disappear.2
Colorblindness is critical to the dominant discourse because it allows the dominants to maintain the pretense they are fighting racism by not making race an issue.
AS I studied U.S. history in school, my teachers always stressed the basic notion that “in the United States, anyone can be president.” At home, my parents always said that I could become anything I wanted. Those messages were reinforced in the children’s books I read and the television programs I watched—I could do anything in this world if I simply worked for it. What I have learned, though, is there is a caveat to such statements: “…if you’re white.”
For example, before BYU, I attended public schools. During my time there, I worked with state-of-the-art computers and equipment. I was able to enroll in advanced and honors classes, and while still in high school, I was able to take college-level classes for credit. Although there was ethnic diversity at most schools I attended, the demographics of those advanced classes were far from diverse—I studied with whites and was taught by whites. At a young age, I was diverted into an environment where the people around me had similar backgrounds—white and usually middle-class. Such an arrangment facilitated and enhanced my education because we had the same basic cultural symbols and vocabulary.
I can say that I went to school with African-Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, for we used the same building, but I can’t say I studied in an integrated school.
But how might this picture look from a different perspective? Just as I was labeled and tagged early in my education, so were the “other” students. My African-American classmates were put into remedial classes because they “just aren’t as bright as the other students.” The unspoken code was that Latino students required heavy-handed school discipline because “there isn’t any in their home lives.” And although at the end of our senior year, we were all handed diplomas that looked the same, a large gulf separated the value of those diplomas. I can say that I went to school with African-Americans, Latinos, Pacific Islanders, and Native Americans, for we used the same building, but I can’t say I studied in an integrated school.
Now I attend a private and selective university, which accepted me based on my “success” in high school. When I graduate, I’ll go to a job interview. I’ll wear a black suit and sit across a desk from another white man. I’ll probably remind him of himself when he was younger. He may even have a daughter he’d like me to meet. He’ll glance over my resume and then set it aside and start asking me questions meant to reveal my personality. It will turn out that we will have much in common. He’ll give me a hearty handshake and tell me to expect a call in a few days. This potential employer will then interview a black man. He will offer superficial pleasantries and then pore over this man’s resume. After a few moments of awkward silence, the interview will begin. It will be brief and cool, a little contrived. Later, when the employer must decide who to hire, he’ll look over the resumes again. My rival may have a higher GPA than I, and maybe even more job experience. But I will be hired because of my “intangibles.”
THROUGHOUT our course on the experience of African-Americans, my classmates and I journeyed through history, politics, economics, and pop culture. Our final assignment was a research paper analyzing one of the themes from the class. A few of us wanted to do a project involving interviews and first-person narratives. And our concept proved so popular that all but one class member became involved. We ultimately chose to investigate racism in the Genesis Branch, a predominantly black branch of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints that meets in Salt Lake City.
Like other Church groups, the Genesis Branch holds worship services consisting of hymns, prayer, discourse, and testimony. It has Relief Society for women, age-specific groups for teenagers and young adults, and Primary for children. Outside of worship services, it also hosts activities designed to nurture friendships among members. Genesis Branch convenes once a month, and group members also belong to geographic wards.
As we began our project, we hypothesized that blacks who attended Genesis were likely meeting intolerance or finding a lack of acceptance in their home wards. We thought we would hear horror stories of bigotry that would reveal underlying racism in the Mormon community. And though our study did reveal that Genesis serves as a haven of sorts for attendees, most of our interviews revealed another theme. Or, to be more exact, the dearth of certain perceptions revealed another theme. Surprisingly, most of those we interviewed felt uncomfortable and often downplayed or evaded our questions about the Church as a racialized environment, and some simply did not see any racism within the Church setting.
A white member of the group said, “Sometimes I do feel different, but I don’t think we look at each other like ‘there’s a black person, there’s a white person.’ Maybe we did initially, but I don’t think we look at each other like that now.”
Many members seemed to think that race didn’t matter at all at Genesis. Many felt the ideal ward would not recognize race as significant. A woman from Barbados said, “Until all differences are wiped out, not just race, handicapped, or whatever, it will be difficult to understand.” One male participant essentially bore his testimony of the universality of the Gospel. Just two or three interviewees thought racism remained a problem. Most responses were colorblind and/or evasive.
It may seem very unusual for a person of color to seemingly propagate a discourse that keeps his or her segment of society oppressed, as some members of Genesis seem to be doing. However, Church doctrine and rhetoric greatly emphasizes obedience to gospel principles and leaders. Though this concept is not specific to Mormonism, it nevertheless creates an atmosphere that does not naturally lead to questions or critiques of Church policies and practices. Furthermore, from a demographic standpoint, the Church in North America has mostly middle-class white members. We who fall in this category have a heavy investment in the dominant discourse. It allows us to maintain our privileged place in society.
Consequently, the few African-Americans who join the Church are not likely as predisposed to ask critical questions about race as are their counterparts who attend all-black churches (as 95 percent of African- Americans in this country do) or those who do not enjoy the comforts of the middle class. Nevertheless, when people of color support the dominant discourse or colorblind theories, they are unknowingly being complicit in their continued disadvantage.
I LOVE the Church, and I believe in the gospel. I am committing the next two years of my life to spreading that gospel and helping others gain the same knowledge I have. The issue of racism in the Church is not related to doctrinal concepts, rather to the social culture that surrounds those precepts. One of the Church’s catchphrases is to be “in the world, but not of the world.” Whiteness and its social construction of race is a concept that is of the world. And unfortunately that also makes some of the Church’s actions in the racial arena “of the world.” The Church is a vehicle for the greatest truths for humans to understand, but it has also become an unwitting vehicle for a great mistruth as well. And it has nothing to do with the divinity of the Church. This is about the pervasive nature of the dominant discourse and its sinister ability to flow through any institution. We as Church members are fond of our title as a “peculiar people.” Now is the time for us to once again prove that peculiarity by adopting a theory of race that is far different than that of most of the rest of the world.
1. Robert Jensen, “White Privilege Shapes the U.S.,” Baltimore Sun, 19 July 1988, 1C.
2. Audrey Thompson, “Colortalk: Whiteness and Off White,” Educational Studies 30 (Summer 1999):141–60.
POSTED BY DARRON SMITH AT 7:17 PM