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Mormonism and respectability politics

December 10, 2014

Over several past posts, I’ve come to increasingly reconcile and view my upbringing in the Mormon church as an upfront course in black respectability politics. I can contrast the descriptions and rationalizations and excuses made in recent police-involved shootings with the values that my parents and my church have taught me and come up with a few points of difference. I mostly share these points of difference in snark, in jest, in sarcasm (because I am not unaware of the injustices), but maybe a part of me shares these points of difference out of a hope that maybe one can be “respectable” enough. For example:

  1. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to follow the Word of Wisdom, I would have no need of cigarillos. No cigarillos, and I’m out of that situation.
  2. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to follow the Word of Wisdom, I would, again, have no need of loosies.

These are straightforward points of difference. But of course, I could synthesize specific implementations from generic principles. For example:

  1. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to “avoid even the appearance of evil,” I would make sure to dress in ways that would not even seem to be threatening.
  2. Since I, as a Mormon, was taught to “avoid even the appearance of evil,” I would not carry objects in public that would seem to be weapons (regardless of my rights to do so, regardless of whether my state/city is open carry, etc.,)

The education in black respectability is something that I think Mormonism can and does teach well to black members of the church. Unfortunately, as story upon story has come out (and rationalization upon rationalization) has come out, I have realized a few things…about black respectability and about Mormonism.

Firstly, one cannot ever be respectable enough. There will always be someone arguing that the dead guy wasn’t sufficiently respectable. If the police suspected me of having a gun, then someone will argue that “I should have put the gun down, thrown it away from me.” If I did that, then someone else would argue that “I should not have reached for the gun in the first place.”

But I think the lessons about Mormonism (which I have strewn part and piecemeal through other posts on the subject) are more relevant to this blog:

Mormonism doesn’t really have an adequate framework to discuss racial issues in 2014.

Peggy Fletcher Stack wrote an article discussing how Black Mormons lament that race is a taboo topic at church. It has quotes from some all-stars, that’s for sure…but when the discussion went on Facebook and some of the same people commented…people still tried to argue that focusing things on race is a mistake. One person insisted that really, it was about families — broken black families being the source of all that is ill (e.g., black criminality, which causes greater police attention to black people, etc., etc.,) — and that since the LDS church focused on families, it was taking the right course.

Marguerite Driessen, one of the people quoted in the article who was participating in the FB discussion, pointed out that it doesn’t matter even if your family is respectable — you are suspect because of your race, not because of what people ascertain about your family.

Honestly, I would not want Mormons trying to address race in any sustained and involved way at church. I can also lament (although I admit I lament from a safer distance), but I am too pessimistic to see the discussion turning out any differently than it does online. The particulars may vary (for example, the emphasis on family is a suitable Mormon twist, whereas a lot of non-Mormons often try to focus on socioeconomics instead), but I just don’t see the way the outcome would practically differ.

But as I thought about it, I thought: what could Mormonism offer in this arena?

And I realized that I just don’t think Mormonism has the theological and cultural tools required.

Mormonism as we know it is big on pragmatism. Theologically, Mormonism takes a big position on works, a big position on progression, a big position on agency and free will. These are all things that make it subject to criticism by other Christian denominations — that Mormonism isn’t focusing enough on grace, God’s sovereignty, etc.,

This is rife through its narratives on race (however much we may not like them now.) The church disavows past racism, and it disavows past theories on why the priesthood ban existed, but it’s still an open question on whether it disavows the ban itself by including the ban itself with past racism. (I think that’s probably one of the shocking things about polygamy…the essays there take the hard stance that this absolutely was not a figment of human mistake — I mean, you’ve got angels with swords making this happen. The race essays don’t have that, but there is a sense in which there is plausible deniability for the ban to be preserved while rationalizations are discarded.)

But the ban is not primarily what I’m talking about when I’m talking about narratives on race. When I think about works, progression, and agency (and what about it is so disagreeable with other denominations), I think of this basic path: we are all flawed beings…but if we work really hard (using our agency) at it, we can progress and improve ourselves. We won’t improve ourselves into perfect beings, but we are saved by grace, after all we can do.

There are certainly interpretation and parsing ambiguities with our friend 2 Nephi 25:23. But at the very least, Mormonism takes a position that we can use agency to orient ourselves toward righteous behavior (vs. say, Calvinism, where our sinful natures prevent us from doing even that), where our faith is shown by our works (vs other systems where works may be an outpouring of someone who has been saved…the output, rather than the input).

In this system, the picture I get is that people work very hard, and when they get to a spot they messed up in, then Jesus makes it all better.

This basic narrative fits black respectability.

We are  all flawed beings, but if we really work hard (using our agency) at it, we can become respectable beings. We won’t improve ourselves into perfect beings, but we are saved by grace, after all we can do.

…Of course, that’s too subtle. The Mormon narrative on race fills in a few other gaps.

We are all flawed beings, but some of us are dark and loathsome beings, but if we really work hard (using our agency) at it, we can become respectable beings. We won’t improve ourselves into pure and delightsome (or…white and delightsome) beings, but we are saved by grace, after all we can do.

I’m glad that most people in church don’t talk about that upfront. I think that if Mormons were to candidly have racial conversations, that sort of thinking would possibly come out — that is, if or when people could even admit that there is a racial dimension (rather than merely a “family” dimension). The basic system probably wouldn’t be criticized as unjust.

This basic narrative, of course, runs elsewhere. Even if people don’t speak about becoming white and delightsome in polite conversation, plenty of people in the church still use this same rhetoric for LGBT Mormons. As the church begins to recognize that orientation may not actually be a choice, it’s not the basic system that is criticized as unjust. Instead, people use the basic narrative tools of agency, progression, and works to say that LGBT should be celibate in this life, and after all they can do, they will have spouses and children and family in the next life. They will be straight.

So, I am not all that optimistic here.

  1. Seth R. permalink

    I think Peggy is correct that race is a taboo subject in Utah Mormon culture. But that’s only because it’s a taboo topic in just about all white suburban culture.

    The typical response of white parents who consider themselves open-minded, non-racist, and non-judgmental to race issues with their own white children is to act like race doesn’t exist at all. “Oh, she just has different skin color, she’s no different than us” and whenever their own children start to comment on how that man over there looks different, or the kid in class looks different, the typical reaction is to subtly make it known to the child that such remarks are not welcome. The child is supposed to act like the black kid at school is just the same as anyone else.

    And OK, that’s a reasonable response. To some extent you can’t blame the parents for wanting their kid to think that way.

    But doesn’t it just shove the existing problem under the rug by pretending there isn’t one?

  2. I agree with that assessment, with the decoding that when “the child is supposed to act like the black kid at school is just the same as anyone else,” that typically means “is just the same as any white person” (because white is seen as default, neutral, etc.,)

    And I completely agree that it shoves the existing problem under the bus. Colorblindness is complicit in racism because it won’t recognize it.

  3. Seth R. permalink

    This tends to go hand in hand with the myth that kids are naturally colorblind and that racism and bigotry have to be taught to kids by corrupt adults first.

    I remember reading about a study that trashed this assumption once. It took a group of normal suburban kindergarteners. At the beginning of the school year, one half of the class was assigned to wear red shirts as a class uniform all semester and the other half blue shirts. Totally random assignment. The teachers were strictly instructed to do nothing more than assign the shirts. No preferential treatment, no differentiation, no mention of it even.

    The observations were striking. The kids naturally started grouping up by color. They would automatically play with their fellow blue-shirts or red-shirts. Interestingly, the kids even started labeling the entire opposing group by the negative actions they’d seen one red-shirt or blue-shirt do once.

    “Timmy pushed me off the slide once – those red shirts are mean.”

    The conclusion was fairly plain – kids naturally group by appearances and other visual cues. They have to be taught NOT to do this. So parents who ignore race, and pretend it isn’t there are not shielding their children from such behavior at all. If the kids are not taught to look past appearance, they will naturally and automatically do exactly that.

    I remember a discussion we were having on race at one of my social sciences classes at BYU, and one of the white males in the class said “you know, you can tell me about how all people are the same and everything… but when every kid who ever picked a fight with you, stole from you, or vandalized property was a Mexican, it’s kind of hard.” He was from California.

    His remark stuck with me, and it’s one of the reasons that I totally reject that just being exposed to black people, or hispanics, or gay people, or whatever is going to suddenly make people more tolerant. Familiarity does not necessarily breed tolerance and respect. Often it merely breeds contempt.

  4. Seth R. permalink

    Incidentally, this is one reason it always angers me a bit when people on my friends list post gripes about wearing your pants hanging off your butt.

    Every last one of them who post these memes would heatedly assert that they are just talking about pants and how not to wear them, I’d wager.

    But, it’s always a black guy in the photo.


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