Whiteness Strikes Again

https://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/13/opinion/what-whiteness-means-in-the-trump-era.html

I am a white woman who claims Mormonism (it’s complicated, I do Community of Christ now) and Feminism. This week we saw the a fake news hoax in the Mormon corner of the internet that deeply upset black Mormons. During this episode, the white hoaxer co-opted the pain of black Mormons for his own purposes, a classic example of whiteness in action. Black Mormons shared their reactions in a number of videos here, here, and here. Please watch them, even if you missed the hoax incident.

Whiteness plays out continually in Mormonism. Gina Colvin, in her blog and in the A Thoughtful Faith podcast that she hosts, is always pointing out the ways in which the culture, attitudes, and political beliefs of white American Mormons are set up as “normal” in the LDS Church. This centering of whiteness in the LDS Church is a problem that many white folks have not yet learned to see or understand. We need to stop engaging in structural and individual behaviors that create a hostile environments for people of color in our faith community. I hope that we can see that this de-centering of whiteness is part of the work of Jesus, part of loving our neighbor, part of becoming Zion.

When I am teaching or speaking about whiteness, I like to start with the The Invisible Knapsack by Peggy McIntosh. It’s an article on white privilege. At the beginning, she notes

I was taught to see racism only in individual acts of meanness, not in invisible systems conferring dominance on my group.

This really struck me when I first read it because I learned the same thing growing up in Maine. As long as I wasn’t outwardly mean or rude, I was not racist. And, quite frankly, being #NotRacist in this way was comforting. I was a good, checklist-oriented Mormon teen, and I was killing it with all of my non-meanness. But racism is more than individual acts of unkindness or discrimination, it includes systems that exclude and discriminate, systems that prioritize the cultures and values of white people over people of color. Racism creates a privileged class of white people, even if you don’t feel or see that privilege right now. But learning to feel and see privilege it is precisely what God calls us to do and formed the bulk of Jesus’ criticisms of the Pharisees.

In my experience, white people are often resistant to the idea of white privilege until they see the examples that she gives.

I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time. If I should need to move, I can be pretty sure of renting or purchasing housing in an area which I can afford and in which I would want to live. I can be pretty sure that my neighbors in such a location will be neutral or pleasant to me. I can go shopping alone most of the time, pretty well assured that I will not be followed or harassed.

It’s a good list. I have read it many times and it has helped me to see the ways in which white privilege has impacted my life. It helped me to start to see the whiteness of my environment. I learned that my experiences and life have been impacted by race, but for most of my life I’ve been ignorant of that fact. Once I started to see evidence of my white privilege at work, I understood that I needed more education. It’s a process and I’m still learning.

Right now, I’d like to invite you to learn with me.

I’d like for us to compile a similar list but with a focus on the white privilege experienced in Mormonism, Feminism, and at the intersection of the two.

I’ll start with a few:

I grew up in a church where I was taught that people of my race were righteous in the Pre-Existence, that my spirit had made righteous choices that are now a core part of my self.

I grew up in a church where God and Jesus were always depicted as sharing my race.

I participate in Feminist communities where when I am asked my opinion, people understand that I am an individual and my opinion is my own and not representative of my race.

I can speak and move in the spaces of Mormonism and Feminism without my words or actions reflecting negatively on my race.

Please note: the comments for this post are not a place to debate the existence of white privilege, to talk about so-called “reverse racism,” or to process the feelings of white people about whiteness. Please hold those conversations in other places. This is a place to brainstorm and learn to see whiteness. If that is something you are not ready to do, then do not comment below. 

Nancy Ross

Nancy Ross is an art history professor by day and a sociologist of religion by night. She lives in St. George, Utah with her husband and two daughters and co-hosts the Faith Transitions podcast.

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25 Responses

  1. Wendy says:

    Thank you for this post, Nancy,
    and for leading us in this discussion. It is so important. I’m going to read The Invisible Knapsack that you linked to and commit to educating myself more on this issue.

  2. Tessa says:

    When I went to the temple I saw angelsand prophets and dieties who looked like me.

    When I watch conference, most of the speakers look like me.

    The hymns and their musical styles are familiar and native to my culture.

    If someone says “Mormon” without any extra identifying qualifiers, I can assume they’re thinking of or talking to someone who looks like me.

    • HB from SC says:

      Exactly. And if you question this, you’re told that this is just God’s way, and has always been the way, and is this way out of righteousness and hard work. (Which, you realize cannot be true when you see the same “reasoning” used for keeping women and POC out of board meetings.)

    • Nancy Ross says:

      Exactly, Tessa. These are great examples of whiteness in Mormonism.

  3. Patty Johnson says:

    Years ago I participated in SEED workshops (educational diversity training). One of the main things that really resonated with me was the article the author of this post references. It’s painful to recognize your own racism, but if you are of a certain age it relates to attitudes you don’t even realize that you picked up as a child.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      Absolutely. And we can’t really make progress in this area until we begin to see this in our environment and in ourselves.

  4. Liz says:

    When I read/see/hear about pioneer stories, I read/see/hear about people who look like me.

    Relatedly, I have role models in female church leadership (past & present) that look like me.

    When I travel internationally, and especially to the Global South, I am immediately assumed to be an authority on church matters because of my race.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      This connection between whiteness and authority in the LDS Church is an important one to recognize. We can’t break these down until we can see what the problems are.

  5. Amelia Christensen says:

    The artwork in the temple and chapel… they all look like me.

  6. Chairoscuro says:

    <3 <3

  7. Violadiva says:

    As white people, my husband and I were called from our local ward into a Spanish-speaking branch in our area to help serve in leadership callings. There were plenty enough people in the branch to serve in leadership callings, they didn’t need to call in extra white people to do the callings.
    Our whiteness culture presumes that a white person born and raised in the church is a more capable leader than anyone else in the language specific branch might be.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      “Our whiteness culture presumes that a white person born and raised in the church is a more capable leader than anyone else in the language specific branch might be.” So true! People of color do not need white leadership.

  8. EBK says:

    When I was taught in my marriage prep class (not that long ago) that people should not marry outside of their race, I didn’t have to wonder what that counsel would do to my chances of finding someone to marry in the temple.

  9. Ziff says:

    Great post, Nancy. The church art issue that you and others mentioned is one that’s always striking to me. Especially in pictures of pre-earth life or heaven, the people are always nearly all or all white. So what are people of color to conclude? That they’re supposed to be made white in the resurrection? Or that only white people are in heaven? It’s a pattern that’s full of awful messages for sure. But as a white person, I was comfortably unaware of these messages for most of my life.

    • Nancy Ross says:

      I would say that as a kid, I concluded that heaven didn’t include people of color. These messages coming from works of art aren’t harmless.

  10. Carolee says:

    My husband and I lived for 8 years in Nigeria while he was working for an oil company there. One of my first weeks there happened to be Stake Conference. We walked in maybe 20 minutes before the meeting was to start and the room was already packed as the Saints there come very early for special meetings like this. The ushers saw our whiteness and immediately ushered us up to a prime seat in the front despite our insistence that we were not visiting church officials, but just regular new members of the Stake. We were embarrassed by the attention and privilege, but just went along and sat in the seats they showed us to. But that was the only time we allowed them to give us that privilege, as we saw how destructive those attitudes were. From then on we insisted on just finding our seats in the crowd and we enjoyed being among the few white faces in the congregation bringing some diversity to the overwhelmingly black congregation. We were very glad that by the time we left Nigeria, there was no effort to show white people to privileged seating. We had become one with them — they knew us and knew that we were nothing special! 🙂 But how I love those Nigerian Saints and miss their passionate spirits!

    • Nancy Ross says:

      It is interesting that a similar story is playing out in so many of these comments, describing a very direct connection between whiteness and power/authority in the LDS Church.

  11. Tim says:

    I know you don’t want to debate “white privilege”, and I am not trying to here (reserved for another time); but let me try to point out that many of the challenges the church and people face are cultural, which may or may not be tied to whiteness, and whiteness is only one piece of the equation. I think a more precise descriptor would be the strength of an enduring cultural 1840-1980 Utah whiteness. Having lived all over the US I can assure you many non-Utah Mormon bred members often feel like outsiders, perhaps a bit too 2nd class. Many hold onto their previous Catholic or Evangelical customs which are good and do not contradict anything within the Gospel of Christ. Many feel absolutely no connection to the Pioneers, to Trek, to polygamous heritage, to white shirts and floor length skirts, to church basketball and dances, to stay-at-home mother homemaking worship, to large families, etc. Perhaps one day we will break through the cultural, ethnic, racial, gender, and generational barriers and see all as equal children of God.

  12. Em says:

    My young womanhood medallions depicted young girls who looked like me.
    The illustrated scriptures for children depict all people looking essentially like me.
    The illustrations in church editions of the scriptures are of white people.
    Church films use people who look like me to represent all ethnicities — sometimes with a bit of extra bronzer or spray tan.
    My (western US, white) English accent is the default authoritative English accent.
    Young women annual songs to go with the theme are in styles that fit with my cultural background.

  13. KLC says:

    I know it’s really fun to pile on and on about how clueless the church is. But you have to admit that new media, videos, the Ensign, and picture art, try very hard to show a representative sample of all types of people in church settings and I would say they have been successful doing it. And if you’re not willing to admit that I think your own prejudices are showing.

    I think that shows that leaders are aware of how important this is and are taking steps to correct it. Most of the egregious movies and artwork are decades old and were created in a much more insular time when the church, along with much of the dominant culture in the US, ignored this issue. They are being phased out by newer more sensitive attempts to show all of God’s children.

    • Ziff says:

      I agree that there has been some progress, but I think *your* prejudices are showing when you seem so hasty to jump to conclude that *any* progress at all means that we’re off base for criticizing the Church’s very long history of depicting white as the default, the only kind of person that matters.

  14. Ted says:

    Don’t play the identity politics game, you’ll just end up burned. Case in point: your entire post is negated by the simple fact that the author of the release is not white, but Latino! Oops. See the interview here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0qjGS19A9i4

    If you weren’t so blinded by your ideology, you might notice that you and the hoaxer are fighting on the same side.

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