On symbolic and racial whiteness in scripture
Over at Wheat & Tares, I wrote an article discussing the inclusion of a song “White” in the 2017 LDS Mutual themed album. The song first came to my attention through tweets by Janan Graham-Russell about the lack of racial awareness implied by the song’s sponsorship by the church.
I quickly realized that the song was meant to be a reference to Isaiah 1:18, and that got me thinking about how faithfully the song captured Isaiah 1:18, and whether Isaiah 1:18 could be interpreted in any racial way (and Mary Ann’s comments on the context have changed my understanding a bit). I definitely encourage reading the post, but the short summary would be that I have no doubt that the composer of this song (who apparently is a 17-year-old Asian American young woman) had no thoughts about race when composing. But, at the same time, I do not think it should be at all controversial to say that the legacy of Mormonism conflating symbolic whiteness (that is, “purity” or “cleanliness”) and racial whiteness (skin color) should keep everyone in the church on constant guard — and this song isn’t careful.
Well, it turns out that the church has removed the song from the LDS Mutual Album, as Peggy Fletcher Stack reports in the Salt Lake Tribune. And, you may note, I am quoted through my blog. So, I guess these are my 15 minutes of internet fame?
One of the biggest challenges in the comments section to my post was the notion that people who take issue with this song are just being oversensitive. I wanted to comment just a few things about that here.
One commenter, Howard Dirkson, insisted that to find any fault with this song (which is clearly meant to evoke Isaiah 1:18) is to be “racially butthurt” and see race where it is not intended.
There are a few things that strike me about this. I find the term “butthurt” to be particularly crass (and now I suspect that it was a signal that I was talking to a person who clearly did not care about being careful), because my understanding of the origins of the term is that it is meant to trivialize very serious matters — to be euphemistic, butthurt doesn’t just mean “pain in the butt” and it doesn’t just refer to being spanked.
But I see that there is some disagreement regarding the origins of the terms, especially since some people claim that they heard the term from their grandparents. (I don’t think that automatically means the term must have innocent providence…after all, some people’s grandparents had a certain term for brazil nuts that will not deign to type out.)
But as I commented in the discussion with Howard, I do believe that when used in a modern sense on the internet, there is something very clear about the term “butthurt” — it is always used to dismiss the feelings of the other person. Regardless of what one thinks caused the butt to be hurt, anyone who uses the term is judging that hurt to be unworthy of consideration and acceptance. It is always meant to categorize someone’s emotional reaction as being too great for the occasion, and thus, not worth considering. To the extent that one is rejecting another’s very worldview, “butthurt” is always already a form of gaslighting.
My main problem with this, especially in a context of race discussions, is precisely that when we talk about racial injustice, we are often talking about something that a particular racial minority experiences that may very well not be apparent to those who don’t experience that thing. So, any sort of racial issue would involve a racial minority experiencing something that could be dismissed by the racial majority as “not that bad” or perhaps “not even really an issue.”
So, the choice to dismiss the thoughts and feelings of that racial minority is fraught.
I understand Howard’s argument — he likely believes that he is not “racist” — there are “real” racial injustices and that it’s important to focus on those and not on “fake” racial injustices. He likely believes that he is helping oppressed people by advising that they should pay attention to their strategy and tone to have the best chance at addressing those “real” racial injustices.
But to me, there’s always a great risk of speaking over the people who are experiencing the injustices.
I’m not saying that a song is the most pressing issue of our generation. But I rarely write about the most pressing racial issues precisely because I know that no matter how mindbendingly unjust of an issue I raise up, someone inevitably will dismiss it as butthurt, and I quite frankly do not have the emotional drive to deal with that on an issue that hits closer to home. I try to keep my blog posts on much lighter topics.
But in the case of race and Mormonism, I don’t think I can overstate something that is extremely critical: bad racial theology is not just theoretical or hypothetical for Mormons. It’s not just something that only a “few bad eggs” promulgate. Rather, taking ostensibly non-racial metaphors (like whiteness for purity) and racializing them has been built in to Mormonism’s practice and scripture for centuries. The church has had racialized policies for longer in its lifetime than it has not, and even though we are now living in a post-1978 world, Mormonism still struggles to have a diverse leadership at all levels of that hierarchy. (This isn’t unique to Mormonism, alas.)
As I said in a comment on Wheat & Tares (and was quoted in the Salt Lake Tribune), I feel it may well be possible that “whiteness” as a metaphor or symbol should just be off limits to Mormons. That as a religion, Mormons have so tarnished this metaphor that it is now inherently suspect. This is why we can’t have nice things, etc.,
I think that Mormons need to be consciously oversensitive — to err on the side of oversensitivity. The status quo will not shift on its own.