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Black but not African American…Race, Mormon Culture, and Experience

May 15, 2012

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.

Lens Distortion

To correct this photo, we have to understand the biases of the lens first.

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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15 Comments
  1. That’s a lot to think about, thanks. Growing up white, we’re pretty much raised with the idea that we shouldn’t notice or think about color, and I think you’re right that instead of making us truly colorblind and fair it makes us ignore our basic (racist) assumptions that white=neutral. I’m not sure I thought about that in any way until my family moved to Asia and suddenly my whiteness wasn’t neutral. I hope that’s made me more sensitive to people’s varying perspectives ever since I’ve been back in the U.S. I know it’s made me more aware that I do (and maybe should) see color. I’m just not sure what to do with that, besides using it to help me try harder not to be racist without meaning to.

    I’ve never thought of church upbringing as minimizing racial and ethnic identity, but you’re probably right about how that works. Definitely an interesting perspective.

  2. Seth R. permalink

    This just got me thinking about how the more aggressive ex-Mormons routinely try to assert that modern Mormons have no legitimate claim to their history of persecution (largely because I imagine that these people have an easier time saying bigoted things about Mormonism when they deny the other side its historical narrative).

    But it seems the same dilemma. Can a modern Mormon lay claim to the legacy of Haun’s Mill?

  3. Joanna,

    I think the point (ultimately) isn’t to try to classify people in different color categories. In other words, it’s not that all white people should be treated one way, and all black people should be treated another way. Rather, it’s to realize that every person is an individual…and his/her different traits (such as color) may impact how he or she experiences the world…so, when we look as people as individuals, we should both recognize color (because it does affect the experiences, and therefore the personality of a person) and move past color (because really, what’s important is to consider the individual differences.)

    Seth,

    In both historical cases (whether modern Mormons can/should claim history of persecution or whether modern Mormons should bear the legacy of Haun’s Mill), I think that regardless of the answer here, the important thing is that Mormons *still* create cultural and political legacies and experience degrees of persecution. Perhaps no one is getting tarred and feathered, and perhaps no one killing anyone, but still, I would say that being Mormon means something not *just* because of the past, but because of the present and the future. What being Mormon can mean can change precisely because of this.

    • I completely agree with treating people as individuals. But I think teaching kids to ignore color also teaches them that it’s taboo (and maybe racist) to even think about ways color might affect an individual’s experience.

      • Agreed, Joanna.

  4. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    My husband’s Aunt Dottie came of age in Memphis at the height of the civil rights struggle… Her step-father was involved in the sanitation workers strike in Memphis, and was proud of his role in the civil rights movement his whole life. Aunt Dottie could tell us stories about her own experiences in the civil rights movement that made the hair stand up on the backs of our necks.

    But in the 2008 Democratic primaries, she was a Hillary supporter. When I asked her about it, she said, “Well, Obama is not black.” She was referring to the fact that his father was an immigrant from Kenya and his mother was white, and he grew up in Hawaii, and he simply did not have that heritage or personal history that makes a person “African American.”

    And yet… On election night, we were weeping for joy that a black man had been elected president… And when we called Aunt Dottie on the phone, she and everyone in their house was weeping too. She’s since become willing to claim him. And, in fact, regardless of his personal heritage, all of America — both his opponents and his supporters — claim him as America’s first black president. Which, I agree with you, is only proper. Because however you identify yourself, America treats you as black if you look the way our president looks.

    The only reason “race” exists at all is because it’s embedded in a social system… If identity merely boiled down to how individuals identify themselves, race wouldn’t exist.

  5. John,

    That last two lines of your post are interesting. Because it gets to a chicken-and-egg sort of issue too. Namely…do individuals exist prior to the social system they are embedded in? How would someone identify him or herself *without* any reference to the social system?

  6. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    That’s a good question… Since individual identities are, essentially, addresses within a social system, I’m not sure you do. We’re assigned a series of social coordinates before we’re even born, so nobody really comes into this world without some kind of identity that’s assigned.

    We can try to identify ourselves against the social system — and may or may not succeed to varying degrees in getting others to accept our re-identification of ourselves.

    When we transplant into a social system from, say, Haiti, or Finland, we might still carry our old address in our heads. But it may or may not make any sense to anybody in the new social system. Mia Love is not the first Haitian immigrant to the US to emphatically insist that she is not black. And not the first to have such claims regarded by Americans with varying degrees of disbelief and/or amusement.

    Social movements can change the landscape and create new identities… I think, ultimately, that’s the only way individuals can re-identify themselves… I think it has to be a collaborative effort, by definition. We re-identify, but we also have to get the social systems in which we reside to recognize the new identity.

  7. John,

    I would say that even when we try to identify ourselves against the social system, that identification necessarily relies upon the social system.

    That being said, the chicken and egg problem does go both ways, so in the same way that individuals don’t exist prior to the social system, the social system can’t exist prior to the individuals. I think that gets to your “collaborative re-identification” point. Once enough people are on board to the reidentification, it becomes the “normative” social system, rather than a reactionary one.

  8. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Really? I kind of think individuals couldn’t possibly exist prior to the system… Unless you’re talking about the very first individuals to create a social system… And even then, it’s hard for me to imagine a situation where they’re not bringing prior identities with them, and unpacking them in the new situation. (Such as in the case of immigrants…)

    Maybe the very first humans — Adam and Eve (or Lucy and Linus if you prefer) — were creating new identities from scratch. Already, their children were growing up either “the good son” (Abel) or “the black sheep” (Cain).

  9. John,

    I guess this is getting really abstract here, but i feel that this is making the social system more than it is…it’s not like Adam and Eve (or Lucy and Linus, or whomever) sit together and say, “OK, tomorrow at 2PM, let’s create a Social System. And while we’re at it, let’s create Identities.” as if social systems and identities are capital letter words.

    Rather, I think it’s something that…as soon as Adam gets in contact with Eve, any sort of interaction is the social system and the creation of a new identity. At the very least, seeing Eve will make Adam go, “This is different. I am not alone, and I am not all that there is.” That is the foundation of both Adam’s identity (as a different being than Eve) and social system (as a being that must negotiate this foreign being). The confrontation of difference creates both the identity and the social system.

  10. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    Yeah, I get what you’re saying. But then I think there’s no chicken or egg here… Identities are constantly, simultaneously creating themselves in relation to each other.

    Actually, the more I think about how things work in actuality, the more that makes sense.

    So when an identity is being pushed on us that we don’t feel comfortable with, we push back. We find ways to reject it or squirm out of it or transmute it into something we’re more comfortable with. And if others are uncomfortable with the identities we’re creating, they push back through social sanctions or ridicule or by obstinately insisting on interpreting your social performance how they prefer to interpret it.

    Years ago, when Göran changed his name, for instance, it was interesting to see how people reacted. Some automatically made an effort to call him by his new name. Others stubbornly insisted on calling him by his own name. (That kind of resistance especially came from family members. They’d say, “You’re _____. You’ve always been _____. That’s what I’m going to call you.”) Of course, it was not even an issue for people who met him after the name change — unless they encountered someone from his old social circle who was still calling him by that.

    It got more complicated when we discovered his long, lost family down in Memphis. Down there, they call him “Wesley.” That’s how they knew him, before his mother took him away at the age of four. So when we went back down there for the first time, that’s what everybody was calling him: Wesley. He actually likes that name, so, when we’re in Memphis, I have to remember that I’m married to Wesley. And then when we’re up here in Minneapolis, it goes back to Göran. (Except when we’re talking on the phone with the family in Memphis!)

  11. John Gustav-Wrathall permalink

    “old” name, not “own” name… oops.

  12. Although I’ve basically only used permutations of my first and middle names, I’m basically the same way. Some years in school, I went by George…other years Andrew, and other years Andy. So I can tell when someone met me by what they default to calling me.

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