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These House-Negroes Still Think We’re Cursed

THESE HOUSE-NEGROES STILL THINK
WE’RE CURSED
Struggling against racism in the classroom
by Darron Smith Journal of Culture Studies published Vol. 19, No. 4 July 2005 pp. 439-454

Handmade oil painting reproduction of Custom House Negroes Rio de Janeiro, a painting by (after) Henderson, John

This essay is an intensely personal account of a teaching experience in Utah. It argues that being African American, progressive and Mormon poses unique challenges in the Mormon-dominated institutions of higher education in Utah.

Little known outside ‘Mormondom’, the LDS Church forbade blacks from holding the priesthood until 1978, based on the belief, which persists today, that black skin represents the manifestation of a ‘divine curse’ placed on black people. The author spends a lot of time in the classroom directly confronting this sort of overtly racist discourse. His article shares anecdotes about confronting religiously based racism, and explores, in particular, the resistance of African-American Mormon students to counter-hegemonic discourses.

Keywords African-American; critical pedagogy; cultural studies;
Mormon; racism

The only people who can find it psychologically possible to deny the centrality of race are those who are racially privileged, for whom race is invisible precisely because the world is structured around them, whiteness as the grounds against which the figures of other races / those who, unlike us, are raced / appear.

(Charles W. Mills, The Racial Contract )
People who have no choice but to live their lives in black skins know
racism when they see it. Racism is never subtle to the victim. Only White
people say race doesn’t matter.

(Carrie Morris, Pathway School )
Darron Smith
Cultural Studies Vol. 19, No. 4 July 2005, pp. 439 /454
ISSN 0950-2386 print/ISSN 1466-4348 online – 2005 Taylor & Francis
http://www.tandf.co.uk/journals DOI: 10.1080/09502380500219456

Introduction

Teaching a course on the African American experience at predominantly white institutions in Utah presents many challenges. Of particular interest to me, as a black man and a Mormon, is the resistance that comes from white students and
culturally white students of African descent who are unfamiliar with, or in denial about, racialized discourse in American society and the Mormon Church in particular. As the recipients of racial propaganda they inherit from their peers, friends, the media, family members and the larger social order, they become classroom instigators, committed to promoting and protecting the white privilege that remains sacred to them. They will not readily abandon their beliefs. This certainly has been my experience teaching at Brigham Young University (BYU), the academic flagship of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (LDS), in Provo, Utah, and at Utah Valley State College, located in Provo’s sister city, Orem.

I am troubled and concerned by how my students are easily dismissive of critical information, especially if it does not coincide with how they interpret the many talks and speeches given by Church Authorities. I have found that in order for them to understand alternative epistemology, much of the material in my courses must resonate to some extent with official LDS Church discourse. My students believe that their white Church leaders speak authoritatively on all controversial matters, including race. This means that even though I, as a black man, experience everyday racial discrimination, my authority to speak about racial discrimination in the classroom is still suspected and resisted by both my white and black students. When I speak from a position of experience about
living with racism, my students are more apt to accept what I have to say as long it does not conflict with commanding pronouncements from Church headquarters. This predicament poses a unique pedagogical challenge for me.

Given the rule-bounded authority in the Intermountain West, my challenge as a black teacher in majority white institutions of higher education is to raise awareness and require students to become critical thinkers. Each semester that I teach any course at BYU or UVSC that addresses the history of racism, I prepare myself for the difficulty in this process by not taking personally any of the comments that my students make. I recognize that they have been taught to revere American ideals, which include valuing
individual choice, human equality, progress and merit-based rewards. These American ideals are admirable, but people of color have not benefited from such ideals in the same ways as whites. I spend time fleshing out these American myths, and I provide them with statistical evidence for the inequity from a variety of institutional settings, like the prison industrial complex, de facto segregated schools, racial profiling and many other relevant issues. In contrast to most blacks, many of my students live in circumstances where wealth and privilege abound and, for them, it is because of God’s blessings that 4 4 0 CULTURAL STUDIES
they and their families are prosperous. My students find it difficult to comprehend that much of the wealth and opulence accumulated over the centuries by their families and forebears came about from chattel slavery, which provided much of the wealth for the industrial revolution. Even if white Americans were born far from the industrial northeast and do not have
ancestors who owned slaves (at least not that they know about), they still benefit from white skin privilege. According to sociologist Joe R. Feagin (2000, p. 175): [w]hite privilege entails the set of benefits and advantages inherited by
each generation of those defined as ‘white’ in the social process and structure of US society. The actual privilege and the sense that one is entitled to them are inseparable parts of a greater whole. These white advantages can be material, symbolic, or psychological.

As my students interpret them, Biblical and Book of Mormon scriptures
maintain and reinforce the reality of white privilege. In addition, the majority
of my students either cannot or refuse to see the deeper issues of race, class
and gender politics as factors that explain their affluence. I understand, then,
when my efforts as a teacher to engage students in discussions meant to unravel
and reveal a new perspective about themselves as over privileged in an
economic, social and political system that is inequitable, and thus, unfair, can
cause considerable anxiety and resistance. The transformation they must
undergo from uncritical to critical thinkers is a long and arduous process that
some students begin to develop over the short 16-week semester and others
never do.
Sincere white fictions
In spite of my best efforts to teach about the historical distortions and the
marginality of black Americans, my white students often cannot see a direct
correlation between institutional racism and the benefits they enjoy as whites.
When teaching about the concept of white supremacy and how white people
profit from white privilege, my students act perplexed. They cannot appreciate
the depth of the persistence of racial/class divisions in the United States, and
the majority of them assume that because they are not mean or hostile to
African Americans, they are ‘not racist’. During the first few weeks in the
semester, my students have yet to shift their thinking from, ‘Why do those
racist white people do unkind things to blacks?’ to ‘What responsibility do I
and my ancestors bear in this racist society, and how can I work for change?’
At first, the majority of students still believe that racism is something that
other people do, while they congratulate themselves on how ‘good’ they are,
RACISM IN THE CLASSROOM 4 4 1
even as they also think and act, either consciously or unconsciously, in antiblack
ways. Joe Feagin et al . describe this phenomenon as ‘sincere fictions’
(2001, pp. 186/187), another form of white privilege. Feagin and his
colleagues in sociology explain that sincere fictions are a psychological process
of self-definition in which white people (like my students) deny racism while
continuing to discriminate and maintain prejudicial attitudes. These fictions
regarding race, racism and anti-black attitudes are sincerely held because
whites have not been challenged to look at the systemic reality of racism. More
importantly, the black existentialist philosopher, Frantz Fanon (1976),
articulates in his book Black Skin, White Masks that white failure to act and
disrupt the racial hierarchy that differentially benefits white people at the
expense of blacks and other people of color merely reinforces the status quo.
By the end of the semester, my goal is to teach about, and thereby, persuade
significant numbers of students to disrupt and dismantle a system of privilege
that unfairly disadvantages non-whites.
Distinguishing racism from prejudice
I begin the semester with a clear understanding that I must invite my students
to expand their intellectual tool kit by introducing them to terminology like
‘prejudice’, ‘stereotyping’, and ‘racism’. I require them to examine and refine
their understanding about these key terms and concepts, which we will be
using throughout the semester. I explain that prejudice (i.e. antipathy toward
blacks) by a few disaffected whites / such as the Neo-Nazis, the Aryan Nation
and other hate groups / cannot and does not explain the persistence of
racism(s) in western society. Prejudice and discrimination are qualitatively
different from racism in that racism is more about institutional patterns and
practices that place white people at the centre of the organizations and
institutions they have created, while simultaneously excluding blacks and other
people of color. Occasionally, I tell my students, these white-dominated
organizations will allow access to a few blacks that might be considered
‘honorary whites’, such as Colin Powell, Clarence Thomas, Condoleezza Rice
and Oprah, to name a few. This allows institutions to distance themselves from
any accusation of racism by claiming the concept of color-blindness. Colorblindness
allows organizations to pretend that race does not matter. Thus, the
strategy of invoking their supposed color-blindness is one way to reinforce the
myth of inclusion. Although these successful blacks’ individual accomplishments
are significant, their presence in otherwise white-dominated organizations
does not prove that institutionalized racism has ended. In fact, the
miniscule number of blacks at the top of the system in relation to the actual
number of blacks they supposedly represent may only illustrate how whites
have learned to placate people of color. Such racism results from an
4 4 2 CULTURAL STUDIES
overarching structure of inequality deeply embedded in the ways, habits of
being, and doings of white people who had four hundred years to lay down a
foundation of exploitive practices, largely within what is now the United
States.
I teach their descendants (my students) that white people continually
receive unearned privilege to the present day because of these now
institutionalized laws, policies, and practices. For example, in the public
school system, tracking continues to serve as a racist process of sorting
students of color into low ability groups while maintaining whites in higher
college-bound tracks / even though the outcomes for blacks and Latinos
eventually lead to academic failure. What is most egregious about the practice
of tracking is the bevy of research on the harmful effects to communities of
colour, especially for blacks and Latinos (Nieto 2004, pp. 92/116). Another
practice that impedes equity in public education is standardized tests.
Educational researchers have long argued that standardized tests are racially
biased; after all, they are created by a white middle class elite who assume that
there is one way to learn. From these examples, I demonstrate that
institutional racism is a poorly misunderstood concept and that all sorts of
ideas incorrectly equate racism with prejudice.
In addition to distinguishing racism from prejudice, I carefully select
course readings that purposely situate white supremacy as the focus of suffering
of non-white peoples and economically disadvantaged whites the world over.
Needless to say, when faced with this new information, the majority of my
white students struggle to make sense of a narrative of America that seems
very foreign to them. This disturbing version of American history differs
tremendously from the ‘stock story’ about America as a land of opportunity,
which they have been learning formally in public schools and informally from
popular culture and their own religious training. The stock story claims that
anyone can stake his or her claim to America’s land and wealth / a belief
about our nation that is one of the greatest lies ever told. Not everyone has an
equal opportunity to wealth, education, and power in America. At this point,
my students either move toward a deeper understanding of what mechanisms
were used by their white ancestors to deny full humanity to non-whites and
white ethnics, or they become contentious, languishing in denials and
dissonance.
Individualist thinking
The belief that anyone in America can ‘pull themselves up by their bootstraps’
is a metaphor that starts from a human-centered perspective. Shifting this
thinking or least expanding it beyond the individual to include groups,
structures and institutional patterns is emotional work indeed. White
RACISM IN THE CLASSROOM 4 4 3
Americans in general and my white students in particular have been socialized
to see the world through the prism of the individual. They do not see their
own investments in whiteness as a collective group project. They believe they
are attending BYU or UVSC because they worked hard to achieve academic
excellence. I do not doubt that many of them did perform well above average.
However, this individualist framework clearly omits the salience of race and
white privilege / an essential ingredient for ensuring white individual
progress, like going to college or a university. As someone who better
understands the complex political and social forces that produce a person’s
success, I imagine a multitude of people who might contribute to any one
individual’s success; Americans do not succeed based only on their individual
effort. In contrast, my students assume that the reason blacks are not
‘succeeding’ is because they lack individual effort. From their privileged
perspective, institutional racism is not the problem, but rather black people’s
lack of motivation. Such individualist thinking allows my students to employ a
deficit model and to make bold claims about a person’s individual worth, thus
absolving white people in general of any responsibility for institutional racist
practices or wrongdoing. By claiming individualist thinking as a personal
position, my students can further declare that racism is less structural and
more moral in character and tone. These rhetorical games that my students
play in the classroom illustrate unconscious and conscious strategies that
privileged people use to foreground their own fears and concerns rather
than look at the structural oppression that disadvantages people of color in
America.
White privilege
The unconscious aspects and benefits of white privilege have been well thought
out by Peggy McIntosh, Associate Director of the Wellesley College Center
for Research on Women. She maintains that white privilege presents itself in
many subtle ways in which white people are not always aware. She best
demonstrates this point by arguing that white children in public schools are
given curriculum that testifies to the existence of the white race (1992, pp.
65/69). It is also well understood in the social science literature that race is a
social construction (Haney Lo´pez 1996, Montagu 1997) shaped through a long
troubling history of economic and racial struggle (Smedley 1999). In a
capitalist based economy such as the United States, the complex matrix of
race, class and gender intersect to create economic and social inequality for
non-whites, and poor whites respectively, while rendering white skin privilege
as invisible. I make it a point to teach broadly about how economics impact
even the quality of life for poor whites, on the one hand, even as they
simultaneously benefit from racial skin privilege on the other hand. I want
4 4 4 CULTURAL STUDIES
students to understand that historical and ideological devices were used by
white elites to fragment and disrupt any possible coalition between the most
vulnerable members of society considered the ‘least of them’. I tell students,
for instance, that blacks and whites have had numerous opportunities to work
together, including prospects to create change, to make possible a more
democratic process, and to pressure white managers and owners of
corporations to construct safer, equitable work places. However, white
workers, particularly second-generation white immigrants, opted for more
immediate economic gains. They relied on their white skin privilege as an
added bonus in a racist and classist society (Roediger 1999).
Black Mormon students
The workings of white privilege that consciously and unconsciously operate in
the lives of my white students at both BYU and UVSC does not happen in
isolation. Racial conditioning affects all American identities, including nonwhite
identities. Black students can and will express many of the same
mistaken ideas about race, religion and class as their white counterparts. I have
learned over the years not to take black students blackness for granted. In
other words, just because a person is phenotypically black (having all the
physical markers of blackness) does not mean that she or he identifies,
understands, and resonates with the larger interests of black Americans as a
whole. This mistaken idea that blacks are a monolithic group / a homogenous
whole / is contrary to my personal experiences associating with other African
Americans in general and black Mormons in Utah in particular. Of the small
percentage of black Mormons who reside in Utah County and attend BYU or
UVSC, I have found that many tend to be ideologically conservative like their
white contemporaries. Many of these young black students also find their way
into my classes after hearing about me from other students.
Unfortunately, black Mormon students often expect me to affirm their
belief that black Americans need to take greater personal responsibility for
their own actions and behaviors rather than analyzing the racial power
structure in our country. Many are surprised when I do not share their
perspective. I must confess that when I heard them express their conservative
racial views / like the notion that blacks only have themselves to blame / I
was a bit miffed. In the spring of 2003, at Utah Valley State College, a public
institution, I had an encounter with a black female student that would allow
me to better understand the depth of internalized racist oppression that some
black Mormons endure. In my African American experience course that
spring, this student was particularly defensive about what she perceived as my
incessant attacks on the white power structure. She maintained that white
people are ‘good’ people and that ‘hating the white man is not going to end
RACISM IN THE CLASSROOM 4 4 5
oppression’. As it turns out, she was adopted by a white LDS family and
subsequently converted to Mormonism. What was remarkable about this
student was that when we began discussing the racist history of the LDS
Church, she took major offence / Church leaders are always right, after all.
She also took it upon herself to discuss the matter with an upper administrator,
who promptly called me into his office and accused me of having an agenda and
of being ‘hot’. I asked him, ‘What teacher does not have an agenda?’ I also
maintained that teaching is a ‘political act’. He informed me that this student
wanted to drop the course, and if she did, what grade would I suggest that she
merited? I told him that the student hardly bothered to show up for class. She
did not even have enough work completed to pass the course. Eventually, he
delegated the student’s demand to an upper administrator of academic affairs
who blatantly disregarded my request that the student not be allowed to pass
the course since she had not turned in any assignments. I assumed that he
understood and respected my classroom judgment. Later I found out,
however, that he gave her a grade. When I confronted him about the issue,
he said she was in jeopardy of losing her scholarship without a grade and her
father threatened to file suit. Eventually, the chair of the department
intervened and was appalled by the matter, but could do little because upper
administration was involved.
I struggled that entire semester with swirling emotions. How could she
align herself with white supremacist thinking by insisting that blacks only have
themselves to blame? And then, maddeningly, she used the white power
structure to absolve herself of personal responsibility for the grade she earned.
I try hard to get my students to question and think critically and my hope is
that they will gain greater insights into a complex world. I normally expect
resistance that comes from white students when they are exposed to counterhegemonic
discourse, but when black students oppose critical insights into the
existence and experience of blacks, it has been a particularly painful event for
me.
Through this distressing occurrence and others with black Mormon
students, I came to realize that blacks are not born with some innate
understanding about racial hierarchy in America. They learn about race
through a process of socialization as they simultaneously figure out their own
manufactured identities / embracing some and rejecting others. But, part of
the process of being constructed as black does provide all African Americans,
even the most conservative, with a ‘third eye’, a split consciousness on the
meaning of their racial identity. But even that ‘third eye’ is socially-shaped,
and does not guarantee vision of racial discrimination. Indeed, it might be the
perspective of an internalized ideology of white supremacy. W. E. B. DuBois,
perhaps the greatest American sociologist, devoted some time to developing
and making sense of this condition which he called ‘double consciousness’. In
the Souls of Black Folk , DuBois notes:
4 4 6 CULTURAL STUDIES
It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always
looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul
by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity. One
ever feels his [or her] two-ness, / an American, a Negro: two souls, two
thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark
body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder. The
history of the American Negro is the history of this strife, / this longing
to attain self-conscious manhood [or womanhood], to merge his [or her]
double self into a better and truer self. In this merging he [or she] wishes
neither of the older selves to be lost.
(1986, pp. 364/5)
In the end, many African American Mormon students that I have taught
eventually begin to recognize this state of two-ness that Dubois so aptly
describes. Many of them have later talked with me about the discrimination
they experience on campus through the language and behavior of unwitting
whites. I have, on occasion, even had black students feel the need to apologize
to me for what they now admit was ‘bad faith’ toward me in the classroom.
One student, for instance, sent me a long email explaining that he was angry
with me for saying that BYU was a racist institution. He had come to believe,
like most of my students that BYU was the Lord’s Academy and that meant
prejudice and discrimination could not exist on campus. After developing his
‘third eye’, he began to better understand what he could not express and that
was a blessing to him.
The causes for the resistance that conservative black students experience in
the classroom are multifaceted, but over the years, I have become convinced
that much of it stems from their upbringing. The majority of them have
interacted with and apparently come from families who are middle and upper
middle class (Embry & Jacobson 1995, pp. 223/34). Most are also the
biological offspring of mixed marriages between blacks and whites or are
adopted children of white Mormon families / a growing trend in the state of
Utah. These young black Mormon students tend to believe that America has
done just about enough through civil rights legislation to make good on its
promises of equality for all. They are apt to be imbued with class privilege,
which affords them greater economic privilege while obfuscating the everyday
effects of racial discrimination. I am certain, for example, that many of these
young blacks on campus experience racial microaggressions (Delgado &
Stefanic, 2001, p. 2) / small but dramatic encounters (racist acts) that go
unnoticed by members of the dominant group and that my black students
probably dismiss as aberrations or personality quirks in individuals.
Similar to my black students, I used to excuse the racist behaviors of
whites as isolated incidents perpetrated by a few stupid people, until the same
patterns repeated themselves over and over again in different settings. For
RACISM IN THE CLASSROOM 4 4 7
example, when I was a student attending a predominantly white college, it was
not uncommon to have white students assume that the only possible reason for
my presence on campus was because I played football. It was inconceivable to
one white individual that I was merely a student. Or the time when I was
‘morped’, which is understood as a lady’s choice collegiate dance, and the
parents forbade the young woman to go out with me, threatening to withdraw
her from school. She was extraordinarily embarrassed by the incident and later
apologized on behalf of her parents, declaring that she did not know her
parents harbored prejudiced thoughts and would commit such discriminatory
actions. These incidents are, of course, racist and naı¨ve acts by white people
who frequently call forth racial stereotypes as a source of their knowledge and
experience about black Americans. They have been socialized to view blacks in
anti-black ways. Many white Americans such as these only know people of
color through the media (or their church), and have no alternative, positive
images of black people for reference. The historical conditioning of blacks as
the racialized ‘other’ still runs deep in many white communities.
When racially charged moments accumulate, hoping to give white people
the benefit of the doubt, black Mormon students often incorrectly believe they
are being overly sensitive. At BYU and UVSC black individuals come from
divergent economic situations and social conditions, but what they do share in
common is that the larger community identifies them as ‘black’, making them
the target of a multitude of racial stereotypes and discrimination. In sum,
sooner or later black students must deal with what they have come to reject:
the American dilemma of race. Whether my students were adopted or come
from mainline Mormon families matters little because a large portion of them
are from backgrounds in which ideas such as the importance of individuality
and merit-based rewards are highly valued. These ideological constructions of
the self are not necessarily unique to Utah or the LDS faith, but when coupled
with the orthodox religious perspective of Mormonism, such ideas take on a
whole other dimension.
Theological racism in perspective
Latter-day Saint racist folklore is a polemical topic that I eventually address in
class. I urge students to evaluate the history of racist discourse of early
Mormon leaders up to the present day. My aim is to invite them to better
understand the burden of mistaken racialized ideas in the Mormon community
that were handed down from generation to generation, so that they might see
and avoid them in the future. Essentially, they must re-live and purge these
notions in order to renounce and move beyond racist practices that harm both
blacks and whites. I have to tread lightly because, in this conservative climate,
my students are more likely to dismiss me if they perceive that I am unduly
4 4 8 CULTURAL STUDIES
criticizing Church leaders. They have come to believe that what the Brethren
say (or do not say) on many controversial issues are not just their political and
social views, but rather institutionally sanctioned pronouncements by God.
Many Mormons blur the line between official Church business and the General
Leadership’s personal opinion. Understandably then, when early Church
leaders closed ranks on blacks (like many other white-dominated institutions)
and made bold racist claims about blacks’ ‘inherent inferiority’, many current
members who are still privy to old texts assume that God Himself had spoken,
regardless of the blatant racism in these outdated books and articles.
The rationale for excluding blacks from full participation in the LDS faith
derived from two longstanding ideas: the curse of Ham and Cain. The first
notion was more widespread and secular in nature and is said to have
originated in early Judeo-Christian tradition. The story goes that blacks were
cursed by God because Ham (supposedly the father of the race) saw his father
Noah in a drunken stupor. Noah pronounced a curse on Ham that he would be
‘servants of servants’ to his siblings. Stephan R. Haynes, a professor of
religious studies, notes that ‘In Western Europe prior to the modern period,
the curse was invoked to explain the origins of slavery, the black skin, and the
exile of Hamites to the less wholesome regions of the earth. But these aspects
of malediction were not integrated in an explicit justification for racial slavery
until the fifteenth century, when dark-skinned peoples were enslaved by the
Spanish and Portuguese, and the European slave stereotype was stabilized’
(2002, p. 7). This religious idea was used by white slave-owners to justify the
subordination of blacks under a system of brutal chattel slavery.
In contrast to these early theological beliefs, early Mormon leaders and
scholars specifically reasoned that the so-called curse on people of African
descent by Noah through Ham’s lineage actually began because Cain murdered
his brother, Abel. Cain was thought to have been given black skin by God to
signify his transgression, and Cain’s progenitors, the so-called ‘Black race’,
were to be forever marked, enslaved to their white brethren, beaten, raped
and denied the opportunities of freedom and liberty. As a result of this cursing,
Mormonism denied its all-male priesthood to black men and denied black
women entrance into its holiest of sanctuaries, the temple, until ‘God’,
through his ordained prophet, chose to lift the ban (Allred 2004, pp. 34/47).
On 7 June 1978, an official change in policy occurred when Church
Authority Spencer W. Kimball, the 12th president of the LDS Church, lifted
the priesthood ban on blacks. During the aftermath of the media frenzy that
followed the Mormon Church’s official announcement, religious leaders
received hardy congratulations from former President of the United States,
Jimmy Carter (Deseret News, p. A1). Despite the change in policy, however, 25
years later, many students at BYU continue to remind me and other black
students on campus of our former cursed status. Regrettably, most of my
students also remain resolute that LDS General Authorities knew then and
RACISM IN THE CLASSROOM 4 4 9
know now what was best for black people, effectively absolving whites of any
wrongdoing in the past or the present.
I am troubled by how many students offer LDS racist folklore as a
reasonable explanation for the priesthood ban on blacks. This belief has racially
primed them to view people of African descent as inferior (Sunstone , pp. 34/
5). To outsiders of the LDS faith, this logic for withholding the priesthood
from blacks must appear strange indeed. What disturbs me even more is that
the folklore remains a significant part of the Mormon experience. Books by
prominent Mormon leaders still in print (Smith 2004, pp. 158/9) proclaim
that blacks were both spiritually and temporally under a divine sanction by
God. Teaching counter to what Church Authorities have written regarding
divine marks and curses (even if patently racist) poses a challenge for me in the
classroom. In essence, my students have been made to feel that questioning
their leaders is sinful. At every juncture, from the podium to the LDS
seminary, the lesson my students learn is to never question Church leaders.
Trying to teach students to get beyond this extremely offensive and disturbing
racist mentality is incredibly difficult, to say the least.
In the LDS faith, the racist folklore behind the black priesthood restriction
is an enduring ‘truth’ that many students fervently defend. If, as a faculty
member, I dare to question the veracity of inspired teaching on the subject of
race and racism in the Mormon Church at any time, I expose myself to bitter
backlash and discipline. The walls that students build in order to guard
themselves from ‘heresy’ or ‘false doctrines’ of men, which many of them have
suggested I engage in, are firmly built over years of conditioning. Not even the
sordid history of US racial oppression in an abundance of institutions can
convince some of them of just how pernicious and embedded racism is. Trying
to dismantle such walls without being viewed as anti-Mormon is often
disconcerting, sometimes frustrating, and even infuriating.
Positioning myself
Such challenges in the classroom have compelled me to fully disclose that I am
also a member of the LDS Church by my own choice, and this most certainly
requires that I practice patience and longsuffering. I am quite sure that many
students see me as an angry black man reluctant to fully embrace the Church in
every way. Many may even succumb to the stereotype of the angry black
man / a moniker that I proudly wear. But I can assure you that I am more than
my anger. I disclose this background and these beliefs to situate my dialogue
with readers of this article as clearly and candidly as possible. I write from the
position of a convert to Mormonism who chose the faith for the attractiveness
of its doctrines, its commitment to healthy family life, and the empowerment
embodied in its principle of eternal progression. I have not always been a
4 5 0 CULTURAL STUDIES
member of the faith, and have not had the years of socialization in a Mormon
family to solidify my racial beliefs, especially against black people, as some of
my black students have had. Hence, the whole of my identity does not revolve
around how I see myself as a Mormon. I also do not have the privilege, as my
white students do, to dismiss the everyday reality of race by believing that
racial discrimination is something that ignorant people do, individually, when I
know fully well that this phenomenon we call ‘race’ institutionally shapes the
quality of my life, and that of all people of color.
My membership in the LDS faith is predicated, to some extent, on my
acceptance of the racist folklore that I and my forebears were, at one time,
under a divine curse. This does not mean that I accept such racist teachings. I
fight them at every corner. However, thinking seriously about black Americans
converting to Mormonism, one cannot help but assume that blacks are
implicitly expected to see themselves as white Mormons do, and black
reticence on these matters in the Church does not further the goal of ending
institutionalized racism. Being converted to Mormonism, for many people of
whatever nationality, often appears to mean that they agree to follow the
teachings of Church leaders regardless of how wrongheaded those teachings
may be. Even though some Church leaders are quick to point out the need for
Church members to think carefully and critically about their teachings, many
remain resolute that when Church leaders speak authoritatively, they speak for
the Lord and personal thinking stops at what these Brethren say. In other
words, until official spokesmen for the LDS Church break their determined
silence on the issue of racist folklore, denouncing and strongly discouraging the
use of such ideas as a source of ‘truth’, prejudice against blacks and other
people of color will continue in the Church and in my classroom.
Overcoming student resistance
When we discuss the history of Mormonism’s racist past in class, Mormons’
standard response that I have heard from both white and blacks members goes
like this: ‘We [Mormons] do not know why they [Blacks] could not hold the
priesthood, but we are confident that the Lord must have had good reason’.
Students in my class repeatedly use the ‘Lord’ as a scapegoat for white racist
teachings, thereby absolving white Mormons of their responsibility to end their
racist pedagogy. Bringing my students to an awareness and understanding of
the complexities of societal racism as it pertains to Mormonism’s racialized
past is an extraordinarily difficult process. Many believe the LDS Church is
infallible. There is an unyielding belief among members that their leaders are
simply not capable of error. My students doggedly resist or refuse to accept
the idea that like other white-dominated institutions, the LDS Church was
racist in denying blacks full participation in the Church until 1978. If the
RACISM IN THE CLASSROOM 4 5 1
Church made a mistake, they reason, then how can it be the ‘true’ Church?
God would not allow the leaders of the Church to lead the institution astray,
they reason. In their minds, racism is one of those societal issues that God
would not condone; therefore, the Church could not have erred because God
commanded the Brethren to deny black men the priesthood: the ‘time was not
right’ for blacks to be ordained or to participate in temple rituals.
As a result, I start my critical analysis from the assumption that many of
my students presume that the Church is incapable of racist practices. To
question whether or not the LDS Church was guilty of racism and still
condones it through its reticence to renounce the racist folklore regarding
blacks is a major ordeal. I realize the difficulty that teaching students to think
critically about their own reality can cause considerable stress, especially when
these young people believe, fervently, that the Church is their means of
salvation. Yet it is unacceptable for them to avoid the discussion because they
fear their religious acceptance of Mormonism is in jeopardy by challenging the
assumptions of Church wisdom regarding blacks / a frank and open discussion
about the Church’s past is precisely what is needed.
But I do not begin the semester by talking about the LDS Church’s past.
Rather, I begin with larger themes of racism and discrimination in U.S.
society: the transatlantic slave trade and the rise of capitalism in the West. I
demonstrate that the major percentage of wealth of US society has been made
on the backs of blacks. I show ‘that men and women are essentially unfree and
inhabit a world rife with contradictions and asymmetries of power and
privilege’ (McLaren 2003, p. 69). Only after making this initial move, getting
them to think about racial power generally, at first in faraway places and longago
times, do I then address the near and sensitive questions of religion.
Religion was one of the major purveyors of racist thinking since the
concept of race came into existence, and God has been used by Europeans in a
number of ways to justify colonial expansion, brutality and unspeakable acts of
terror against melaninated peoples the world over. I draw a connection
between the larger discrimination in society and racist perceptions which white
Americans frequently employ to make sense of their reality. In this context,
race can be understood as a prism of difference, a mental model that makes
available distortions and misperceptions that members of the dominant group
have about African Americans and other people of color. Getting my students
to develop a greater understanding of race consciousness is a Herculean task
given that many of them believe that Church leaders are infallible and know
more about the lived experience of blacks than black people themselves.
Despite my best efforts to prepare these students, many are unable to get past
the teaching so common in the Church that the mostly white male leadership is
inspired in all matters / including race. In short, it simply does not matter
what knowledge I possess about my own experience as a black man in
America; white authority still rules on the campuses where I teach.
4 5 2 CULTURAL STUDIES
Fortunately, despite the perpetual resistance, I have also seen both black
and white students respond to the critical pedagogy I use in my classroom. I
remember the student who thanked me for opening his eyes and for giving him
a new viewpoint about the plight of black Americans. I remember, too, the
student who began to see the racism endemic in public education and how
white teachers embody a cultural standpoint that, in many instances, reinforces
whiteness in the classroom. I am encouraged by these young people; they give
me hope.
In 1963, Martin Luther King urged black people to ‘make the pledge that
we shall march ahead’. He insisted, ‘We cannot turn back’. Like King, I
cannot turn back and, also like King, I will not be satisfied, I cannot be satisfied
until ‘justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream’
(1986, p. 217).
Acknowledgements
The essay came about after ten years of teaching in Utah county, the most
conservative county in the United States. My efforts would not have been as
fruitful had it not been for the students who have diligently challenged me to
assess my personal beliefs about God and justice. In addition, I wish to
acknowledge those who have helped to form my thinking as it pertains to
teaching critical pedagogy to Mormon students particularly, Dr. Audrey
Thompson, Dr. Wilfred Samuels and especially Dr. Newell Bringhurst who
has inspired me to take a stand against religious injustice no matters the risk. I
would be remiss if I did not express a deep sense of gratitude to Dr. Laura
Bush at Arizona State University for sticking it to me on the many revisions she
read and her editing for fine tuning. Thanks again Laura! My thanks to my wife
Joy who graciously reads my drafts and my two beautiful children Keisa and
Eagan who put up with daddy’s long absences at times.
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