Seeking Racial Harmony in a Culture of Whiteness

At a meeting this week with leadership from the NAACP, President Nelson said “We are impressed to call on […] the entire world to demonstrate greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect.”

He had started by quoting the Family: A Proclamation to the World, “Nearly a quarter century ago, the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles proclaimed that ‘All human beings—male and female—are created in the image of God. Each is a beloved spirit son or daughter of heavenly parents, and, as such, each has a divine nature and destiny.’”

This Proclamation was written from a heteronormative point of view, and its goal is to keep marriage and family centered around heterosexual relationships. What’s clear in the way it’s being used now is that it was also written from a place of white privilege, and rather than using this opportunity to explore their assumptions, the First Presidency are asking members of colour to fit themselves into this frame of whiteness.

In their own statement, the church recognizes that repentance and forgiveness are key elements of healthy relationships, and warn that those who fail to fulfill their responsibilities will stand accountable before God. When the church doesn’t seek forgiveness for its actions against black and brown peoples, it’s either showing that repentance isn’t actually important or that they don’t believe the harm they’ve caused is actually, meaningfully wrong.

It reminded me of when, in January 2015, now-President Oaks said in an interview: “I know that the history of the church is not to seek apologies or to give them […]. We sometimes look back on issues and say, ‘Maybe that was counterproductive for what we wish to achieve,’ but we look forward and not backward.”

For some members (which means it should be the case for all members, if we take our baptismal covenants seriously), the way the church talks about the Temple and Priesthood Ban causes pain today. If the church wishes to look forward on this issue, and to demonstrate greater civility and respect, it requires a repentance process — something needs to change.

Jane Manning James is sealed as a slave to Joseph Smith – an ordinance for which someone else had to stand in proxy, because she was not allowed to enter the temple. Does that speak of racial harmony? Must our black and brown brothers and sisters accept a cultural structure of whiteness to allow this ethnic harmony President Nelson wishes for?

Our rules about and approach to music in sacrament meeting are racist. Our expectation that men and boys will wear crisp white shirts to participate in ordinances and the hairstyles we consider appropriate are upholding the colonialism of white American culture. The stories about pioneers failing to mention Green Flake, who was a slave and travelled with the first pioneers, is because we centre a culture of whiteness. We’d rather not deal with the discomfort of learning that his labour was given to the church as tithing. And we white members, who make up the majority of church leadership, can ensure we don’t have to deal with that, simply by not mentioning it. I’m 30 years old, and I was born into the church, to a mother who was born into the church. Today is the first time I’d heard Green Flake’s name.

We can’t claim to be in the world but not of the world — a peculiar people — if we fail to extricate ourselves from a white supremacist culture. Referring to the Family Proclamation saying that we each have a divine nature and destiny, but failing to acknowledge that for some people, for much of our history, that divine nature and destiny was seen as eternally lesser than our white brothers and sisters, is not respectful. Calling on the whole world to change, and refusing to acknowledge changes we ourselves need to make is very arrogant.

At the end of his remarks, President Nelson said “Together we invite all people, organizations and governmental units to work with greater civility, eliminating prejudice of all kinds and focusing more on the many areas and interests that we all have in common.”

If the areas and interests we are to have in common require people of color to discard their interests and take up ours, the interests of white church leadership and membership, we are perpetuating structures of whiteness. It’s going to take a lot of work to tear them down. I would have liked to have seen acknowledgement of that in President Nelson’s remarks.

Derrick Johnson, president and CEO of the NAACP, said “We are clear that it is our job to speak for those who cannot speak for themselves.” If the church truly wishes for greater civility, racial and ethnic harmony and mutual respect, it is incumbent on us now to listen.

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4 Responses

  1. Carolyn Nielsen says:

    The message of the Church is become like us to be accepted by or be acceptable to us. The shortsidedness of this way of thinking is simultaneously embarrassing and appalling. I have been hoping for a change since I joined the Church over 45 years ago. This is an important post. Jesus said not to hide your light. Keep telling the truth.

  2. Liz says:

    Absolutely. I keep thinking of this history as a wound that won’t heal, and it certainly won’t heal until you acknowledge it as a wound, and go in and scrub it out. It’s so arrogant to assume that we can just move past this without reconciliation or an apology.

  3. Ziff says:

    I really like this line in particular, Olea:

    “We can’t claim to be in the world but not of the world — a peculiar people — if we fail to extricate ourselves from a white supremacist culture.”

  4. Chiaroscuro says:

    I would love to hear an apology for so many things, especially the way POC have been treated throughout the history of the church. The Book of Mormon also continues to be one of the most racist books I have ever encountered.

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