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A Glimpse of Becoming White and Delightsome

August 14, 2014

A long time ago when I still went to church and was a good, righteous Mormon, this elderly gentleman in the ward (who was apparently really concerned for the welfare and well-being of Africans, as I recall that he delivered several winding testimonies in Fast and Testimony meeting about the spreading of the gospel to the beautiful souls in Africa) came up to me and complimented me on how righteous I was.

He said that he was sure that in the afterlife, I would become white and delightsome.

When I tell people this story, they are often offended. Or flabbergasted. They might be sorry I had to experience that. They might be embarrassed.

The funny thing is that I wasn’t really offended, or flabbergasted, or sorry, or embarrassed at the time. I don’t think it even registered in me. I may have even recognized the intention of a compliment, and thanked him. If I felt awkward, it was because I often feel awkward being complimented in general, not because the compliment was perverse.

But you know, maybe that’s one good thing about Mormonism. It gives for me the Beatific Vision, which for a person like myself is the glimpse of becoming White and Delightsome.

I am not suggesting that there is anything actually (where “actually” is meant to create a stark divide between the constructed world of appearances and the noumenal world of how things objectively are when you’ve gotten down past all the turtles) wrong with being black or any other minority. I am not suggesting that whiteness is literally (where “literally” is meant to mean…literally) an ideal or something to look forward to. I am not justifying the racist narratives arising from the Book of Mormon, Mormonism in general, religion in general, American culture or human nature.

But I do want to talk for a second about the perception of social reality, and what I’ve realized about my reaction to it.

When this old man told me this, I was not upset. Maybe it was because I recognized his intention as being positive, or because I realized that in the big scheme of things, this was Not A Big Deal (–and I’m not trying to say here that microaggressions are not problematic.) But I don’t think that was the case.

(For whatever it’s worth, I have anecdotally [and probably in a confirmation bias sort of way] noticed that from the few other black Mormons I have met, most don’t necessarily have a problem with the priesthood ban. Or maybe, in another way, the folks I have read who speak out the most against it are white folks [but then again, most Mormons generally are white folks, so there are sampling and representation issues.] Some people have asked whether my disaffection was caused by racial issues, but…it wasn’t. I actually still haven’t studied a whole lot into racial issues with the church, because it doesn’t really drive me.)

I say that I don’t think the reasons I listed above are the real explanation because I have had a similar non-response to other events with much worse intentions, outcomes, and effects.

When Trayvon Martin was murdered manslaughtered killed after aggressing against someone who then defended himself (hmm, I guess that would be the legally accurate description [I promise I’m not jaded!]), I wasn’t all that upset. I think if I was upset, it was not so much at the actual event, but because my mom seemed very shaken, and I hated that.

And now, we have Mike Brown and Ferguson, Missouri. (And I’ve skipped a whole lot of incidents before and after Trayvon because I have to save space somewhere.) And after going through some articles and posts on Ferguson, I am not all that upset. And this comment on the forum/blog MetaFilter resonated with me:

As a black guy, I have to confess that I’m actually not too angry about this situation. I am saddened that the life of a young child was cut short but to be honest, this is really just part of being black in this country. We have never in this country been valuable (maybe except when we were considered property) and we never will. Our lives, experiences and futures are second/third tier and completely worthless to this country. This country has had no issues killing people who look like me in drives and I suspect it doesn’t have that issue now. I expect more people who look like me to die at the hands of an institution that has been and will continue to be given the benefit of doubt by the majority of this country. I know that my life is worthless to this country, always has and will be, so these things don’t shock me anymore. All I do is figure out how I live my life, knowing I am of less value, without becoming a statistic for people to protest over. My young nephew is turned 11 this year and for the first time, I had to give him instructions on how to comport himself when he is around white people knowing full well that his life is not held in the same regard as theirs. This will happen again and people will be upset and there will be commissions and the Earth will continue to tilt on its axis. Same old story.

I feel it is just part of the social reality of being black. I utterly do not believe that this is some sort of objective or irrevocable law of the universe (so I completely sympathize with those who cry out against the system and who work to change the system — although to the folks who are real advocates, I understand that many would consider my lack of action to be extremely troubling…and I don’t have a whole lot to say in my defense, but simply accept that maybe this makes me a bad person), but my basic feeling is that getting mad or sad or upset at things you can’t really change is not very productive (notwithstanding when you can’t really change whether you’re mad or sad or upset…which is kind of a bind.)

I want to be clear. I feel very fortunate. I have a lot of privileges and opportunities that many other people don’t have. I think that my life is going pretty swell and I’m liking that and I understand that I haven’t done anything to deserve that. Notwithstanding what I’ve done in my life, I “didn’t build that.” I’m not trying to say that my life is rough in any stretch of the imagination.

But I am acutely aware of the precariousness of it all. I am acutely aware it could all go away. And not in the sense that anything can go away for anyone…but in the sense that not only can it go away for any random reason, but it can all go away potentially because of the specifics around the social reality of being black.

I am aware that this post may seem cynical and jaded. I want to make it clear that I wasn’t raised to be cynical. I wasn’t raised to have a chip on my shoulder or anything. I don’t even really talk about this sort of thing often, and especially not so much when asked. Usually, if I’m writing or talking about race issues, it’s from a disconnected, academic perspective. I’m privileged to afford that, too.

But sometimes I get the sense that the high expectations that my parents had for my siblings and myself weren’t just because that’s in their personality (you know…the same way any random child might be blessed with loving, yet strict parents), but also to internalize a mindset about dealing with the social reality.

And I won’t say I’m a perfect student. Sometimes I forget. Sometimes, I think that I have the privilege and luxury to lighten up. To slacken. To complain when things aren’t fair. To rage.

But what I’m most interested from in that MeFi comment from above is a sentence from the latter part of the comment: All I do is figure out how I live my life, knowing I am of less value, without becoming a statistic for people to protest over. How do we do this?

I started this post off with a reference to Mormonism, and I want to come back here. On the Mormon Hub Facebook group, one of the participants complained that no one ever lists what they enjoyed about Mormonism…only what they hate. (Interestingly enough, we had a thread asking people what they found positive in Mormonism, and many people answered…that thread went downhill not because there weren’t people answering the question, but because the topic creator would dismiss each answer given as not being “unique” to Mormonism, and therefore irrelevant, regardless of the value or uniqueness to the commenter responding.)

Well, here’s a shot. Although I don’t know if people will like it, because I recall again that the folks who cringe most about Mormonism and race tend to be white folks.

I am grateful for Mormonism because it gave me a glimpse into being White and Delightsome. Even more, it has given me the tools and framework to figure out how I live my life, knowing I am of less value, without becoming a statistic for people to protest over.

Even if I don’t think it is a law of the universe, the social reality appears to be that whiteness is delightsome and anything that is not is not. In taking a path of not raging against the absurd social reality, but instead learning how to live with, under, around, and through it, Mormonism absolutely has been helpful.

I recall that when I actually bore my testimony (which I rarely wanted to do), the things that I bore testimony about were the practical aspects of Mormonism (while I was always silent, if not inadvertently dismissive of the supernatural). I had a testimony of the practicality of the church…Mormonism taught me public speaking skills way before I had even heard of Toastmasters. Mormonism taught me managerial skills, planning skills, leadership, and so on. (If anything, my disaffection with the church wasn’t so much with anything spiritual or theological or anything like that but realizing — with case studies like Proposition 8 — that a theology with which I disagreed just meant that all of those practical things I liked would be employed to causes with which I disagreed.)

These practical aspects of Mormonism are things that make me “respectable.” They are things that, growing up, made me an “oreo” (black on the outside, but white on the inside). Or maybe even a race traitor. And yes, I am aware of how absurd it is to associate proper usage of standard American English grammar with whiteness, and yet. The Social Reality. I live with, under, around and through it, rather than raging.

The precariousness still remains though. Because I am aware that as I am not someone who can reliably physically, visibly “pass” for white, that no matter how eloquent I am, no matter how degreed I am, no matter how much of a “credit to my race I am”, I could lose everything. Being a professor at Harvard won’t save you from being black.

And yet, the glimpse! The glimpse of “picking myself up by my bootstraps” if I translate to a colorblind conservative explanation…The glimpse of “respectability,” if I translate to an often-used dog whistle. The glimpse of becoming White and Delightsome, if I let the social reality be spoken without mincing words, pure and undefiled through the Adamic tongue.

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8 Comments
  1. What a beautiful post. It made me uncomfortable and thoughtful; hopeless and hopeful at the same time. But the worst was the incongruous “associated video” that followed your link to this post on facebook. It was this: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=zkxl3EeiK40 — “The Reason some Africans take so Long Getting Ready.” I have to say I was shocked that facebook would associate that particular video with this post. Even though the guy who made the video seemed amused and just trying to be funny. I don’t know–it might have actually made your point on some subliminal level…

  2. Facebook is associating videos with my posts? Whoa.

  3. I read this a couple days ago when you posted it and I just couldn’t comment at the time. It hit me hard, and the only reaction I could muster was to say “Dammit all” and mourn our apparent inability to change things. I say apparent not to downplay the social reality that you accurately describe, but because I still have hope that maybe someday it will be different, even though the evidence doesn’t point in that direction at all. I still don’t really have the words to express my reaction, except to thank you for being so honest, and to say that this rings true in a way that I rarely experience.

    • I think hope is a rare, good thing, for those who can have it without it backfiring. One thing that I found growing up is that hope in something you don’t really believe is likely can be a major drag (this is not directed to social or racial issues, but was my own reaction to the faith claims of the afterlife, etc.) I think it’ll be a sad day when everyone is so desensitized that they are unaffected.

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