Forgive me if I change up the format this week at Ask Mormon Girl. Usually, I take questions from the mailbag, but this time, I have a question of my own to ask. It’s been that kind of week. In fact, it’s been a hold-your-breath week in the world of Mormonism as the scrutiny of this election year has put Mormonism’s thorniest issues under a spotlight.
Tuesday, a BYU religion professor made national news by presenting as doctrine justifications for the LDS Church’s historic ban on Black ordination. We gasped aloud, we did, when we saw it there in the Washington Post: a species of Mormon racist reasoning that many of us grew up hearing in our homes and in our wards and that one can still hear today (especially among older Mormons).
Wednesday, the LDS Newsroom released a public statement disclaiming as doctrine any attempt to justify the Black priesthood ban.
Since then, LDS people have been reading, writing, reflecting, arguing, grappling—some circling the wagons, some embracing with open arms what could be a historic chance to say, “We were wrong. We are sorry.”
That’s where my heart is. As I wrote here, as a progressive Mormon, I believe it was wrong to withhold priesthood ordination and temple access on the basis of race. The ban ended in June 1978. I was six years old. But I too grew up hearing those old racist teachings about the curse of Cain and Ham, and the fencesitters in the pre-existence, and all the rotten rest of it. And no one but my gut insides ever said it was wrong, until I attended orientation at Brigham Young University in August 1989, and Professor Eugene England wrote on the blackboard this Book of Mormon scripture:
“2 Nephi 26:33: He decomes none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen, and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile.”
I have lived with the shame of Mormon racism all my life. It has impacted the way I view the world and my personal and professional relationships. It has impacted the way I view the Church I belong to and its members—though not in the simplistic ways some might assume: it has deepened my sense of responsibility and hunger for change. It is ugly painful to see people you love, people you believe are capable of better, satiate themselves on thinly reasoned prejudices. In God’s name.
Compounding the way I’ve experienced this week is the fact that a great deal of my day-job-professional-life has been about race and religion. I owe a debt of gratitude to scholars, writers, teachers, and colleagues—many of them people of color–who have helped me get myself educated on the history of race, its deadly impacts, and its intransigence as an element of the American imagination.
What did I learn?
First, that race is a fiction, a concept invented in the service of domination (and later reinvented as a point of collective identification by people of color themselves). Race is made-up. It is not a legitimate basis for any form of generalization about a group of people, let alone as a basis for the distribution of opportunity.
Second, that racism is deadly harmful not only to those who become its objects but also to those who allegedly profit from its privileges.
In his landmark book Black Reconstruction in America (1935), the great W. E. B. DuBois observed that during reconstruction, to deter them from organizing with their black fellow laborers, white laborers in the south “were compensated in part by a sort of public and psychological wage”: deference and preference accorded to them in social and civic settings just because they were “white.”
In exchange for this “wage,” what do whites surrender? Humanity. Empathy. Beauty. Conscience. Intelligence. Courage.
I believe that racism—including the historic LDS ban on–-has provided white Mormons with a weak form of spiritual compensation for which we have historically surrendered a measure of our humanity, intelligence, empathy, conscience, beauty, and courage. I do not think it is an accident that the murky historic origins of the ban may be traced to a moment in history when Mormons ourselves were being alienated and classified as a species of American “other.” And in exchange for the small compensations of elevating ourselves over Mormons of African descent, what have we surrendered?
I started this conversation yesterday on my Facebook page. Hungry, eager, and, yes, perhaps, a bit impatient to continue this conversation amongst ourselves, to take stock of the damage done not only to African-Americans but to white Mormons too. What have the wages of whiteness really cost us?
Since then, I’ve heard friends talk about the fear they felt hearing parents and trusted teachers describe a God so vengeful as to “curse” a portion of the human race. I’ve heard about distrust of LDS teachers and leaders who espoused racist doctrine, and shame—lots of shame—for having believed it. I’ve heard about friendships and family relationships lost.
“It has instilled and unwittingly sanctioned a spirit of judgmental discrimination and pride,” wrote one friend. “Selflessness, empathy, love, and kindness are difficult to achieve when you are doctrinally justified in a form of prejudice. Elitism is not the way to faith.”
“Withholding the priesthood from blacks was not a punishment of blacks for ancient/pre-existence transgressions, but was, in fact, a punishment for the rest of us for upholding such perverse beliefs,” wrote another.
So this week, at Ask Mormon Girl, I am turning the tables. I’ve talked. Now, I’m going to ask a question of you:
How did the Mormon teachings on race you were raised with impact you? What did you lose as a result of the priesthood ban and the racist teachings some used to justify it? What might we have to gain from admitting we were wrong?
Your turn, readers. I’m listening. May we all listen.