Digging Deeper: The Future of Mormon Feminism Part 1
Part one of two posts.
Maybe you won’t identify with this story. Maybe by the grace of God you escaped the curse of cultural or racial prejudice that affects both a person of privilege and a victim of racism. Maybe you were raised in an egalitarian environment and are truly free from such burdens. If so, you are among the lucky ones.
Others may find commonality with the thoughts and experiences I’ll share, especially women who grew up in Caucasian communities. And who, by osmosis, inherited cultural and racial biases from home, school, and church life. I see racism as a disease in America and I hope others will agree that by extension, racism is a part of the mainstream North American LDS communities where many of us live. (Perhaps some of our sisters abroad will share their experiences from elsewhere around the world in the comments below.)
I could try telling stories here about some of my sisters of color, but I don’t really know their stories well enough. Besides, they can do that for themselves. We would do well to seek out our sisters and listen carefully to their words.
My job is to tell my own story with as much accuracy and integrity as possible. So, I’ll start there, hoping it will lead to an increased awareness of how some of us can reach toward greater inclusion of all our culturally diverse sisters in conversations and as friends in our day-to-day lives. I feel moved to invite white sisters to actively acknowledge and champion the concerns and causes of Mormons of color as our own (feminist or not) or, I fear, we will ultimately fail in our mission as Mormon feminists.
By approaching this subject I risk exposing my weakness and immaturity in the realm of intersectionality within Mormon feminism. But I feel strongly about it. That’s why I’m writing. Like you, I care about all sisters and about each woman’s pain, her worldview, her life experience – especially as it differs from mine. I care most of all about the space we share as Disciples of Christ, where we are one.
The-Exponent has recently brought diverse voices from our international community of readers. These voices have helped to broaden our understanding and enrich our lives as Mormon women. Exponent has always been a place of inclusion and empathy for our sisters. We stretch to understand each other’s stories. We are rightfully proud of our 40 year Exponent II history. I love this side-by-side photo of the founding Exponent II mothers and our current board. We are a robust community of women and have been for a long time.
In the context of this post, however, do you see a problem with this picture? Who are we as feminists, and whom do we represent? Can we represent all women in the church when we don’t fully include all women in our circles of influence? We are doing great things, but we can do better. I can do better. That’s why I’m here.
I was born on the east coast but spent most of my childhood and adolescence in an upper-middle-class LDS neighborhood in Utah. Local business owners, politicians, doctors, and university professors headed the families who lived on our street. Most of the moms in our neighborhood where full-time stay-at-home parents.
Looking back now, I feel I can safely say that ours was also a racist neighborhood. From my perspective, the feeling bordered at times on something close to white supremacy. Not that we were haters or cross-burners-on-lawns of our dark-skinned neighbors. In fact, we had no such neighbors. But, we felt comfortably superior. At least that’s how I experienced things. My own father had been raised in Ogden, Utah, and he occasionally made derogatory comments about it being a railroad town, and how this brought blacks from around the country either as employees of the railroad or as drifters who used the rails for transport from state to state. The underlying message was that African Americans were an “undesirable element” in Ogden. He made vaguely derogatory comments about Native Americans too.
Later, when I married a local boy, my then father-in-law used every racial slur imaginable on a regular basis. He was an out-and-out bigot. His wife, my former mother-in-law, even referred to her grandson’s adopted child as a half-breed just a few years ago. (Incidentally, I divorced ten years into that marriage.)
My father and other adults of his generation were seen as good, upstanding, worthy Latter-day Saints. The majority of our neighbors were genuinely good people. But when the older men spoke of their missions to South America, the Pacific Islands, or to Native American communities, they often referred to “those people” with a sort of polite condescension. They were the “other” whom missionaries learned to love and to serve. Again, I am recounting a general feeling, not an all-inclusive pattern. A few among this group seemed to have been truly altered by their mission experience; men who viewed their brothers and sisters as equals regardless of culture, skin pigment, or socioeconomic status. But those people were exceptional in my experience. I recall hearing racial slurs at church from time to time from certain individuals in the ward. I do not recall ever hearing conversations about inclusion or diversity. There simply wasn’t a need. We were all white.
Renowned LDS scholars and Church leaders of the day publicly espoused the idea that fair-skinned people were superior. The message was clear: God had cursed people of color, particularly African Americans and Native Americans. They were inherently, inexorably, and divinely relegated to an inferior spiritual and social status as a result of some unknown folly in pre-earth life or because they descended from Cane or Laman and Lemuel. There was nothing cruel or abusive about this message in the eyes of most church members. We weren’t expected to shun such individuals or treat them unkindly. We simply understood they were inferior.
Because adults around me taught and seemed to accept these explanations I had no reason as a young child to question them. I overheard conversations between adults, listened to primary lessons and sacrament meeting talks, looked at photographs of prophets and images of ancient biblical personalities – who were all white – and never considered ulterior motives or possible prejudices of my teachers. As children do, I learned by observing.
Only a handful of Native Americans, Latinos, Asians, and Pacific Islanders attended my elementary, junior high, and high schools. The rest of us were North American white kids. Around the age of ten I became acutely aware of subtle and outright cruelty directed toward non-white children and anyone else who seemed “different.” I can’t say that I recognized this as prejudicial behavior; I just knew it was mean, so I distanced myself from the worst offenders and became friends with those on the margins of that childhood culture. This wasn’t a conscious choice, but rather an intuitive response to violence. I knew which side I wanted to be on, and it wasn’t the bully’s side.
During my four years of high school in the late 70’s only two African American students appeared – and only for a year – two young men, siblings, a year apart in age. (Our high school population was around 1000 students at the time.) I liked these young men. They were tall and slim, like me, and really good-looking – which was important to a sixteen-year-old, tallest-girl-in-the-class. They were welcomed by most of the students. But they didn’t stay long. I don’t recall why they moved away, but I wonder if their parents recognized the challenge these boys would face if they remained in our community.
Years later my own children attended elementary and secondary schools in the same town. Thankfully, their experience was different than mine. Their friends came from diverse cultural backgrounds and none of my children inherited the “false traditions their fathers.” My son’s best friend for several years in elementary school was Ahmed, an African American Muslim. This may not seem unusual in many readers’ experience, but even with growing diversity, this was Utah County in the 90s and it was unusual for us. When Ahmed’s family moved further south in the county, his mom and I spent a good deal of time transporting our sons back and forth to maintain their friendship.
Around this same time I returned to school to obtain a nursing degree. During those years in college as a grown woman, on my own, with three young children, I had several experiences that moved me further away from the distorted views of humanity with which I had been raised.
[Click here for Part 2, Waking Up, when my four-year-old daughter teaches me truth on a city bus.]
How do you feel about intersectionality in Mormon feminism? Have you seen racism within the Church in your community?