Whiter My God to Thee
“Does this dress make me look darker?” queried my mother as she got ready for church. This was a routine question in my home. Some colors of clothing could make brown skin look darker. I knew why this was bad. My whiter-than-me father would read to me nightly from an illustrated Book of Mormon stories book. The bad guys were the Lamanites and their skin color looked the same as my mother’s skin tone. The Nephites were the good guys and like the Crayola flesh color in my crayon box they looked like my father. When I was old enough to read The Book of Mormon on my own I gained more information as to why children of God come in different colors. “And the skins of the Lamanites were dark, according to the mark which was set upon their fathers, which was a curse upon them because of their transgression and their rebellion against their brethren, who consisted of Nephi, Jacob, and Joseph, and Sam, who were just and holy men.” (Book of Mormon, Alma 3:6)
To my young mind, the meaning of this scripture was clear. Just and holy humans are white. Darker skin is a curse. Reading this scripture helped me to understand why my mother dyed her hair with Clairol Ash Blonde and washed my hair with the yellow bar of manzanilla soap (brought by our grandmother from Mexico) and straightened my naturally curly hair. Lighter hair worked like the right colors of clothing. It would make my skin color look whiter.
In primary as my class prepared for baptism we learned more about the symbolism of being white. Baptism clothing must be white. Temple clothing must be white. White represented purity and absence of sin. Sister Davis put red food coloring in a glass pitcher of water and that color represented sin. Then she added bleach from a bottle labeled baptism and repentance and the color was removed from the water and it appeared clear again. Through the words I read and the pictures in my storybook I was beginning to internalize racism. That means I believed racist ideas to be true as they applied to me. I believed skin color made some children of God inferior to other children of God. I believed I was less worthy than my lighter-skinned friends. The first principle of the gospel that I could testify of with conviction was this: I believe white people are more righteous than darker people. Dark skin is a curse. I was born cursed.
My theology of colorism evolved quickly in the year leading up to my baptism. I made doctrinal connections! Jesus Christ atoned for the sins of the whole human race and the color was removed from the red water making it pure again. This was almost the same as my parent’s fairy tale marriage. My white father came to Mexico as a missionary and brought the gospel to my mother’s family and many other Lamanites. Then he returned years later to redeem my mother from the wicked land of the Lamanites because she read her scriptures and never danced at the disco and was pretty and thin. He brought her to Salt Lake City to be married in the temple (that looks like a princess castle) my white pioneer ancestors helped to build. My parents started a family and the removal of color began. The cleansing of the curse could be observed in my skin tone and that of my siblings. We were lighter than our mother the Lamanite convert. We weren’t as white as my father yet, but definitely lighter-skinned than my mother.
My Mexican grandmother had words for this divine process of cleansing people of their color to make them whiter. She said, “Mejorando la raza” or bettering the race. As a young adult she would evaluate each man I dated by how white our future babies could be. The worth of a potential mate correlated directly to the fairness of his skin and hair.
During a childhood visit to white-grandma in Salt Lake City my mother did something quite bold. She called the church office building and as a humble Lamanite mother requested an audience with the prophet, Spencer W. Kimball so her Lamanite children could meet him. A few days later we were on our way in our Sunday best to meet The Prophet. My mom explained why this prophet was special. He loved the Lamanite people. And he could see when Lamanites were getting whiter because of their righteousness. This prophet would be able to see how white and delightsome my siblings and I were becoming. He might even be able to see that my mother was becoming lighter! The following words of Spencer W. Kimball likely inspired my mother’s gospel teaching:
The day of the Lamanites is nigh. For years they have been growing delightsome, and they are now becoming white and delightsome, as they were promised…The children in the home placement program in Utah are often lighter than their brothers and sisters in the hogans on the reservation…. At one meeting a father and mother and their sixteen-year-old daughter were present, the little member girl-sixteen sitting between the dark father and mother, and it was evident she was several shades lighter than her parents on the same reservation, in the same Hogan, subject to the same sun and wind and weather. There was the doctor in a Utah city who for two years had had an Indian boy in his home who stated that he was some shades lighter than the younger brother just coming into the program from the reservation. These young members of the Church are changing to whiteness and delightsomeness. One white elder jokingly said that he and his companion were donating blood regularly to the hospital in the hope that the process might be accelerated.-Prophet Spencer W. Kimball, General Conference, Oct. 1960
We met the prophet. He was kind and friendly and my mother was thrilled with the approbation of the holiest man on earth. I learned the importance of having a white male witness to our family efforts to become more white.
As a child victimized by the racism of my religious community the loudest evangelists for racism were not the whitest Mormons I knew. It was the darkest people in my family that most valued whiteness. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day-Saints has since edited and removed language naming people of color as dark and loathsome. But editing and retracting words came too late to remove internalized racism from the tight weave of my family tapestry. During a recent visit with my Mexican aunts and grandmother, I shared the results of my DNA testing. All were delighted to discuss the 1% French and 6% Swedish ancestry. But no one would make eye contact with me when I shared the significantly larger percentages of African and Indigenous ancestry.
I know why they averted their gaze. They joined the Church at a time when those of African ancestry were denied participation in temple ordinances. There would have been no fairytale sealing in the Salt Lake City Temple for my mother and father if the significant African ancestry of my maternal family was known. No white and delightsome redemption from the Lamanite curse. Surely they suspected African ancestry with a family tree that included Él Negro -The Black One. But they remained silent about their ancestry and my mother was sealed to my father six years before the temple ban was lifted.
The lack of eye-contact and pregnant silence from my family is unsurprising. Of course, they did their best to pass for as white and delightsome as possible. The institution of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints has not met the gaze of the many people of color in its membership with rigorous truth-telling, reconciliation or an anti-racism plan to correct over a century of wicked falsehoods on the meaning of skin color.
The leadership of the Church still does not look like its members. Although edits and clarifications have removed some of the racism from the texts and teachings of the Church, the people who serve in positions of power do not look like heaven to me. I no longer believe that a great bleaching of melanin from the skin will be part of the resurrection. I don’t believe becoming white is a requisite for exaltation. But the leadership of the Church still looks to me like white is most delightsome and Mormon heaven will be a racist place.