On White Man’s Burden
In the aftermath of recent happenings in Charlottesville, I’ve been sad and feeling powerless. I’m wrestling with my whiteness and what it means about my responsibility as a citizen of planet earth. In this area, how do we mourn with those that mourn and comfort those in need of comfort? How do we deal with the invisible privilege we inherit? I read Paul Reeve’s book Religion of a Different Color a few months ago and issues of race and Mormonism have stuck with me. My thoughts wander, exploring issues that got us to this point in the first place, and especially how it applies in the LDS tradition.
Although I believe white supremacy is not explicitly the dominant worldview of white westerners today, racist attitudes still persist into our modern culture, particularly in how western (white) people continue to relate to people of color. One thing I’ve been particularly been thinking about is the historic benevolent imperialism of western (white) peoples. In history class, I learned that this was called “white man’s burden”; a duty to bring education and ‘civilization’ to the (non-white) colonies. At the time, I didn’t question the assumption that it was okay to ‘improve’ the condition of others even by erasing a huge part of their way of life. The implication was that white people were in a sense ‘saviors’ for colored people. This also made out other races to be childish, needing our guidance, teaching, and leadership (being somehow incapable of self-government). And although I was disgusted when I recognized that white people had eventually used this philanthropic racism to dominate people of color and extort their resources, I was able to separate myself from that. I, personally, had never done that. I didn’t see clearly how the appeal to a morality of helping others had been used to justify stealing their land, their trees, their oil, etc. Imperialism had (and continues to have) some detestable consequences, up to and including forced slavery and cultural and actual genocide. But Mormon colonialism echoed the problems of American and British colonialism.
Sad as it is, this national crisis has also led me to thoughts of how the church has its own manifestation of ‘white man’s burden’. My assumption is that this is a reflection of culture rather than the revealed pattern of the gods. The Mormon mandate is to bring gospel and its culture to all the world, which in its restored form is a modified form of western (white) culture, rather than a true unique culture. The priesthood ‘white man’s burden’ was to teach, convert, baptize, and ultimately preside in every land. The authoritative hierarchical system expects submission and loyalty. Until the last few decades, priesthood was literally a white man’s burden, restricted by race. Now, although ostensibly equal in the priesthood, people of color are still underrepresented in our leadership, particularly at the general level. The higher the level of authority, the fewer people of color are found. Many times local congregations are presided over by white Americans who happen to be living in the area, rather than by local members. White western Mormon culture is the church’s preferred version of Mormonism, the opinions of white Mormon priesthood holders who have held certain callings carry more influence in decisions about how the church operates locally than the people who have spent their entire life there. In the same way that ‘white man’s burden’ led to abuses politically in times past, the church has at times gone beyond the scope of service and subjugated people of color, even without intending to. My musings have only led to more and more questions (and yes, I specifically took off my feminist hat; ignoring for now how women fit in this messy picture).
Does our mandate to take the gospel to all the world make it okay to inject ourselves and assimilate native cultures in our proselytizing efforts? To what extent are we guilty of smothering other beautiful traditions in an attempt to create a semblance of uniformity across the world? To what extent does our understanding of the history of Native peoples as presented by the Book of Mormon influence the way we see them and interact with them? (Do we expect people of color to become ‘white and delightsome’?) How strongly do the emphases of current church leadership messages echo issues that are inherently white or American political issues? What blessings are we as a church missing out on by taking over and speaking over people of color to remake them in our image? And what institutional repentance is necessary for our past racial sins?