Black but not African American…Race, Mormon Culture, and Experience
Darron Smith’s latest post on his website, “I Might Look Black, But I Ain’t Like “Y’all”: Mia Love & The Paradox of Race, Gender, and Religion in American Politics,” gives me a good chance to talk about race issues especially as it relates to Mormonism…but without referring to the priesthood ban at all (after this mention of course.) The is a topic ripe for discussion on many possible frames. If you kept up with the “I am a Mormon campaign,” you may have recalled the video of Mia Love. (OK, this is surreal…I can’t find this video on YouTube anymore…yet this is Mia’s video.)
Mia is something. If Joe Biden considered Barack Obama a story book man, Mia Love is a story book woman for Republicans…yep…she’s a black Republican.
That’s why I say this is a topic ripe for discussion on many possible frames — even without the Mormon angle, a black Republican raises issues. And I’m not saying that black people can’t legitimately be Republican…but there are many issues to unpack politics and race. For example, we can’t just take Mia Love’s story and say, “Why can’t more black folks be like her?”
How can you be black, but not African American?
What Darron’s post does is break down some of the issues of heritage and tradition. See, even though Mia appears to us as the successful black woman who has avoided the trappings of liberalism (get like her!), her heritage as a Haitian American, while seeming to have to have some of the same commonalities of the African American experience (e.g., both groups’ ancestors came from Africa to the Americas against their will), has enough differences that allow give Mia a distinctly different perspective on race. That is the “I Might Look Black, But I Ain’t Like “Y’all”" part. Mia looks black, but lacks the tradition and heritage to make her African American. (But since the terminology is really confused, maybe a difference conclusion that one could make is that…she looks in such a way that causes the majority white society to label her as black and African American, but she may or may not personally identify with being African American, or with some of the things with which that would often be associated.)
In some sense, I completely agree with Darron on these points. However, I feel that he doesn’t address the entire title in his post (he covers the paradox of race, but not so much gender…and most relevant for this discussion, he doesn’t address religion all that much.) I feel that the black Mormon experience is such that many of the things that Darron writes about becomes ever more acute…yet black Mormons, and Mia herself, are not immune from racial issues in America because of their different upbringings…they will still have to come to terms with the absurdity of race relationships in America because this absurdity is NOT just something that happened to our parents, grandparents, and great grandparents. It is something that persists even today.
From my comment on Darron’s page, I had written:
I can understand your point that people like Mia come from a basically different background that gives them a different understanding and awareness of racial issues in the country. However, wouldn’t it be correct to say that the socializing of black people in America (*as* black, or *as* African Americans) is something that occurs even today? It is something that doesn’t just happen because of your parents, and your grandparents, and the community in which you’re raised. In other words, I am challenging what you wrote early in the post here:
By African American, in this sense, I mean those individuals whose African ancestors where enslaved and then transported to the Eastern shores of what is now the United States, and through natural increase, became the sons and daughters, grandsons and granddaughters of former slaves. With that history comes a bloody and violent past replete with pain and suffering at the hands of white power and privilege. Africans enslaved in America centuries ago were forced to shape new relationships with former rival tribesman out of sheer necessity, thus developing into a culture that we know currently as African American. With that rich tapestry of African culture forged through a record of struggle and longsuffering, African Americans survived the onslaught of white supremacy by producing rich and vibrant Black communities, tight knit in personal connections, where knowledge was gathered and disseminated about how to survive and agitate for social justice that had long been denied. This is not to say that Mia Love and others of more recent immigrant lineage are not American, but the category of “African American” illuminates a particular heritage, enticing a certain frame in our minds
What I am wondering is whether the category of “African American” can illuminate a particular *experience* that entices a certain frame in our mind, rather than mostly a particular *heritage*.
For example, later on, you say:
The richness of the African American culture is deeply rooted in social justice and a tradition of fighting against the absurdity of white supremacy that persists even today.
To me, this isn’t something that focuses on the past. This is something that focuses on every generation. *Every generation* of black folks in America has had to fight against the absurdity of white supremacy. And as you point out, that exists *even today*, so it *even affects individuals like Mia*.
I think that what you write in your last paragraph really captures things well:
This tradition of fighting and struggling against systemic racism is distinct for African Americans, something that recent immigrants of African descent cannot completely comprehend. Because Mia Love and others like her have not come from an institution of perpetual battle for their freedom, voice, and right to exist in a supposedly egalitarian society, they have the luxury to be unconscious of the white-black paradigm in this country. However, this much is true about U.S. racial understandings about blackness, it doesn’t much matter if you where born in America or immigrated here, the one-drop rule is still alive and well in contemporary America. No one person of color is free from discrimination in this country. With even the slightest hint of “black” (African) features, white America still sees that person as black.
I quote this part to point out, though, that the latter part speaks out against the former part. I don’t think that Mia Love (or other “recent immigrants of African descent”) cannot completely understand what it means to fight and struggle against systemic racism just because they do not come from family traditions of doing such. Rather, I believe that they can understand what these things mean because whenever they come to America, they will have to do it themselves. Why? Because as you say, the one-drop rule is still alive and well in contemporary America. Even if they wanted to be unconscious of race issues in America, they cannot be, because race is pressed down upon them by others in society.
Anyway, I have written a lot in this comment, but the reason I do so is because I think that increasing, we have black folks who are more “estranged” from the traditional centers of black community. I mean, from a Mormon context, I think that growing up Mormon means that I have missed out on a whole lot of things of African American culture. The black church is basically foreign to me.
And to allude a little bit to your previous post…I have a friend from my childhood who was also a black Mormon…but he was in many ways more estranged from the center of African American traditions than I was — he was adopted into a white family.
While I can certainly agree that he would view race through a lens of whitness (and I probably would tend to do this strongly as well), and that he probably hasn’t been raised with the tools to deal with racism…that’s not to say that he is immune to these things, or that he can just ignore them. Because of his and my *contemporary* experiences of white racial supremacy in America, we have to learn the counter framework to oppose those things.
But let’s move into a different subject…what about Mormonism?
White and Delightsome
Darron has a particular section in his post that I found particularly charged at first, but as I considered it, I thought it was relatively apt:
As all “races” in North America view themselves through a white lens, Mia’s hair style, diction, cultural orientation, friendships, mannerisms and habits, nevertheless, are an extension of her degree of acceptance of white supremacist norms and values which induce her unconscious hatred for all things African American. This behavior should not be seen as strange, but instead an effect of living in a white world that has historically devalued black people and their accomplishments. All black Americans do this to some extent. The difference with Mia Love is that her upbringing, stemming from a more recent immigrant state of knowing and being, causes her to continue to believe these “norms” of whiteness without questioning their basis and origin. African Americans, on the other hand, have developed counter frames to protect themselves against white supremacist notions, creating an alternative way of “viewing” their position and circumstance.
Wow…”unconscious hatred for all things African American”? That’s kinda bold, isn’t it?
But when I think about the kinds of things that are culturally associated with being African American, I think there’s something to it. To elaborate, I would like to draw upon my experience, especially with the church. I know that I’m just one person, but I think that on this point, I’m not particularly unique.
As I’ve mentioned in previous articles, even as I grew up without a testimony of the spiritual concepts of Mormonism, the things that I liked about Mormonism were its practicalities. I liked that Mormonism prepared me for management and leadership (and so I can understand why there are articles like Clayton Christensen’s “If Harvard Business School Were a Religion, It could be Mormonism.”) But here’s the thing about the clean-cut image that Mormonism prepares its youth to have as they grow up — it’s not a culturally neutral idea.
When I talk to people about color consciousness or color blindness, I hear people say all the time that they don’t see races; they just see people. They treat people “normally.” They treat everyone “equally.” But the thing for me — and something I’ve tried to bring up more and more when I have conversations on this issue — is that I feel that people don’t understand that culture and race are embedded as assumptions down the line. Color blindness isn’t about taking a perfectly neutral photo…rather, it is forgetting or ignoring that within every photo is evidence of a lens. As we forget that, we don’t get a perfectly neutral photo. Rather, we become unable to correct for systemic lens distortions.
I think the most concise way I can express things is like this: when people say they just want to treat people “normally,” “normally” so often seems to translate to “how they would treat a white person.” To put it in another way, “ethnics” are always other people. White isn’t an ethnicity.
I feel that spills over into many of the social norms about race. To be “normal” in society — not “uppity”, not “ghetto,” not “fobby”, not a “beaner” nor any other racially charged (and negative) term — is to act in such a way that your racial identity is minimized. Because what you get when you reduce all of your “ethnic” traits is whiteness. And whiteness is neutrality. Normality.
So, from a purely practical standpoint, if you want to teach people to be successful in life, you try to teach them how to be normal. Don’t be too loud. Don’t be too outspoken. Don’t you dare bring up issues of color; just be “normal.”
I have had people in the church compliment me on how well-behaved I was as a kid…how righteous I was as a kid…and in attempting to compliment me, they would say, “I’m sure you’ll be white in the afterlife.”
Most people recognize the absurdity of wishing someone’s skin color to physically change as a result of their righteous actions. But from a figurative level, what are many people STILL saying without batting an eyelash — either for black folks or for Lamanites or for whomever? What causes the skin color (whether over generations or through divine means) is a change in behaviors and traditions — the sublimation of the things that distinguished one (as sinful? as ethnic?) into a righteous, neutral, whiteness.
In this sense, even if people stay the skin color, by raising people to act, speak, and think as Mormons, the religion strips us of what makes us African American or black or Lamanite or whatever other ethnicity we may be.
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