Remaining silent or passively supportive isn’t an option for me any longer. So, I’m going to explain my WHY.
If nothing else, I explain here so that my kids and grandkids will know on which side of history I landed, because even though I later explain here how my parents behaved, I don’t really know what they thought about racial issues.
Here are three true experiences that formulate why I think like I do about the topic:
First, in 1980 I was a high school freshman sporting a large white-boy afro of naturally curly hair. I had befriended some upper classmen in the drama class and one weekend night we were driving home from performing at a Shakespeare festival at UCSD. I mention that only to give you the picture that by no stretch of anyone’s imagination could we have been considered “thugs.” We were basic white boys with a beat up old car and a trunk full of our Shakespeare costumes of tights, hats and silly shoes driving home on the southern California freeway at about 9 or 10 at night. At one point, bright police lights flashed on us and as the driver pulled over to the side, we joked with him that he must have been speeding and was therefore going to be ticketed and he’d get in trouble with his parents….
We sat there joking around waiting for the police to arrive at the driver’s window, like they do. Suddenly we heard heaving metal tapping on both side back passenger windows and turned to see 2 cops positioned behind the car at 5 and 7 o’clock with guns and flashlights pointed at our heads shouting “Get the F*^&% out of the car!” Shots of adrenaline and terror raced though us as we frantically tried to exit the 2 door car. I was in the back seat and had trouble moving the seat up so I could get out and that only caused more shouting with the guns still at my head. The police made us lie face down, spread-eagled in the ice-plant at the side of the freeway while the officers searched our car (illegally). One officer remained guarding the four of us lying on ground and cocked and pointed his gun at me again when I barely moved and tried to adjust my position. Long story short, of course they found nothing. They took the driver aside and tried to get him to confess…to what, I don’t know. Eventually we were released with a warning… again a warning of what we had no idea.
The experience was terrifying, humiliating and destroyed at once any default confidence I had in the police. Our parents were furious, and their cumulative complaints led to a meeting weeks later with the station sergeant. At this meeting, the sergeant failed to provide any satisfactory explanation and his purpose was clearly to defend and make excuses for the officers. Our parents wanted an apology. We didn’t get one. They wanted the officers to be disciplined. They weren’t.
Of course, I know those officers don’t represent ALL police officers. I know good men and women who are police, but I also know from my experience that there are also bad ones and some of the good ones defend the bad ones or fail to hold them accountable.
I also suspect that had we been black, that experience would have ended very differently. In fact, I suspect that we were pulled over precisely because from outside the car, driving on the freeway they thought we were black. I was the most visible to them in the back seat with my curly afro hair. I can only imagine their shock when 4 lily white boys climbed out of that car and then again later as they found our tights and Shakespearean clothes in the car rather than guns or drugs.
I wish no harm on any police officer and have dear friends with police officers in the family and I sympathize with their worry. But trust and respect still need to be earned. The uniform alone doesn’t grant that.
Second, jump forward about 10 years and I found myself working and living in Japan. I lived in a smallish town where I was the only western-looking human. I loved my time in Japan. Final answer.
Yet, there were also some exhausting elements to the culture that took a while to get used to. For one, I got stared at a lot. In the beginning it’s quaint. Months later it’s just annoying.
I also sometimes got followed by security in shops and malls as if I were a criminal and they were trying to catch me shoplifting. You might say, “well just don’t shoplift and you’ll be fine.” True. But I know from experience that to be profiled as a criminal by sight like that is demoralizing and an unfair theft of peace of mind and plain unjust. It creates anger, resentment as well as the thought, “If I’m already a criminal to you, then I might as well just do it.”
I’m convinced that the founding fathers knew this feeling when they created the 4th Amendment against unlawful search and seizure. I think it’s one of the least understood and most violated part of the constitution. I value it as much as many of my friends and relatives support the 2nd Amendment (I do too, but you know what I mean). Here in the US I believe my brothers and sisters of color deserve the freedom and protection of the 4th Amendment and yet it’s repeatedly violated against them. They deserve their 4th Amendment rights just as much as you deserve your 2nd Amendment rights.
Third, I grew up in a racist church. I apologize to my LDS loved ones for being so blunt, but it’s the truth. It’s the truth about the organization’s history, but for individuals within the church things are more complex.
I honestly don’t believe my Mormon parents were “racist” in the way that most white people would define it. I don’t recall them saying anything or doing anything negative about anyone of another race, not even in jokes. Having both grown up in Salt Lake City Utah, I don’t believe they had a lot of exposure to any non-white folks, and our lives in the suburbs of San Diego, CA didn’t provide much exposure either. Racial diversity just wasn’t a common theme in our home, positively or negatively (white privilege, I get it).
I do remember vividly in 1978 when the Mormon church announced that “all worthy males” could finally be ordained to the Mormon Priesthood, (thus partially erasing over 140 years of organizational racism). My mother told me about it in positive terms (Women are still banned, btw).
Without getting into the nitty-gritty details of Mormonism, what that basically meant was that black men could finally be ordained and hold leadership positions and black women and children could finally participate in Mormon temple ceremonies, which is the gateway into the highest Mormon heaven. Prior to that, anyone of black ancestry were barred from all that. Blocked from the top tier of Mormon heaven. How is that not racist?
There’s no other way to color that than to say it was racist.
It was constantly preached in racist terms and called God’s will…until it wasn’t. To date there’s been no adequate apology. Just a lot of double-speak and pretending that they didn’t teach it as doctrine. They did.
And guess what? That I’m aware of, my parents and older Mormon relatives never questioned it or spoke against that racism prior to 1978. They went along with it and agreed with it even if at times they found it uncomfortable (I hope). Obedience to racist leaders trumped their inner voice of integrity that they must have heard (I hope). That was racist of them. I’m embarrassed by that fact because they weren’t helpless. They found themselves on the wrong side of history and sat comfortably in that state without protest (that I know of).
But there were Mormons who behaved differently. For example, Mitt Romney’s father, George Romney, famously supported civil rights demonstrations at the same time that Mormons leaders were vilifying the civil rights movement and its leaders. There’s even evidence that Mormon leadership shamed Romney and called him out for his contradiction to their racist policies. He persisted anyway. Others were excommunicated for pointing out that the doctrine and policy was racist.
One thing that isn’t recognized much is that as good as the 1978 policy change was, there were some racist undertones in Mormonism that persisted for decades. For one, they still discouraged interracial marriage for years after 1978. In fact, I don’t believe they officially denounced their policy against miscegenation until 2013. Even then, it was without an apology. Leaders and people just stopped talking about it and now pretend it never existed.
But in 1984 I went to Sao Paulo, Brazil on my Mormon mission just 6 years after that “revelation” and while interracial marriage was still discouraged. Brazil opened my eyes to a whole different racial world and the hurtful ramifications of that earlier Mormon doctrine. For one, racial lines were a lot blurrier in Brazil than in the United States. Interracial marriage was historically a lot more common in Brazil and therefore a majority of Brazilians I interacted with had some form of African blood in their veins. I met white Mormon bishops married to black women which in 1984 would have still caused a stir in US Mormon congregations. It quickly became apparent to me how utterly ridiculous any statement against interracial marriage was because it was far too late for so many people there and how disrespectful it was to their ancestors to say that they did something wrong by marrying across racial lines.
During my 20 months there, I heard story after story of people who had wanted to join Mormonism pre-1978 but as soon as there was any genealogical sign of African ancestors the missionaries walked away and never returned. In fact, the day I arrived in Brazil I sat in a training session where my mission president instructed us to not teach poor Brazilians in the favelas because “they weren’t ready” for the Mormon gospel. I remember it vividly because one of the Brazilian missionaries in that training meeting called him out on the racial undertones of that policy and they argued back and forth for several minutes (most of the favelas residents had darker skin). The policy to not teach people living in the favelas persisted in my mission at least from 1984 – 1986. As a side note, I disobeyed that policy and taught in the favelas several times on my mission and converted several black favela dwellers to Mormonism (something I’m simultaneously proud of and embarrassed by).
Still, I’m embarrassed that, like my Mormon ancestors, I was primarily a silent follower and participant in the organizations racist policies, and I apologize that as a young adult I had any part of those racial undertones of Mormonism. That’s what I hope my kids understand. I want them to know that I was a willing participant but that I currently recognize and reject any implication that I agree with it or excuse it now.
I also apologize to my black friends today that it takes some sort of personal experience like mine for white people to admit that even when we don’t consider ourselves racist, we’re part of the problem even if in very small ways. Cumulatively the small things add up.
I know my isolated singular personal examples are trivial and maybe even laughable when held alongside your lifelong struggles with being profiled, treated more harshly and not seen, but it’s all I’ve got and I believe you. I support you. I have dear friends with little black children that need to have conversations with their little ones that I’ve never had to have with my kids. That pains me to imagine. My current support for #blacklivesmatter is specifically for them and their smart, creative and adorable children who deserve all the opportunities, freedoms and good assumptions that my children have had in life.