There is a baptism card sold at the BYU bookstore which shows a white girl (cartoon) apparently preparing for baptism. The upper part of her body is viewable, and she is dressed in white. The front of the card says, “White on the outside…” The inside says “And on the inside. Congratulations on your baptism.”
A friend of mine, an African American woman, was offended by the card. She’s not the first. Another person was offended enough to write to the Bookstore. The response was dismissive:
“Apparently you misunderstood that the white on the outside is the white clothing that we wear at the time of baptism. It has nothing to do with the color of the skin of the person being baptized. Being white on the inside has to do with the purity that is within as we are cleansed from our sins. Because of this the card will remain in the Bookstore.
Have a great day and thanks for your comments.”
Note that the response assumes that the card can be interpreted in ONLY one way, and that anyone who would find some racial component in it is at fault for misunderstanding (implicit: being over-sensitive).
I’m assuming that the artist did not intend this card to suggest that “white on the outside” referred to skin tone, but authorial intent is not an adequate justification when someone gets another interpretation from a text. Any author gives up the right to define what he/she meant as soon as the text is published. The reader gets to decide. Not even an English teacher should say, “You misunderstood” and then explain authorial intent when somebody has been offended by any text, whether the offense came because of sexual content, language, or imagery. The offended party has a right to be heard.
When 20th Century feminism was coming into its own, the term “consciousness raising” came into vogue. Many women demanded that they be addressed as Ms. rather than Mrs., and worked to change other vocabulary to indicate some gender equality and inclusion. As a Church, we have some consciousness raising to do in vocabulary as it relates to race as well.
I am concerned not just by the card itself (which I do think is problematic, but which I’m certain was created with no malice) but by the response of the person who at least two people complained to. That response, which accused both of misunderstanding and summarily dismissed their right to question the card’s appropriateness, then announced that no change would be made and the card would stay on the bookstore shelves, is troubling.
I suggest that accusing someone–particularly someone who has been told that they will be made white as they become more righteous or that they will become white after death if they live a good life–of “misunderstanding” a card which could validly be interpreted as racist puts the onus on the wrong person. We have allowed racist folklore to continue for centuries, even after the priesthood revelation SHOULD have removed it. It would not be hard to change the phrasing of this particular card to “clean on the outside…and on the inside.” We have some work to do, and part of it is to remove anything even slightly attached to racist attitudes or phrasing. The answer is not to point an accusing finger at someone who sees a problem with a particular product (whether it’s this card or “Races of Men” in Mormon Doctrine), but to listen openly to the concerns and do everything possible to move us all forward “towards becoming the kind of Church our Savior would be proud of” as Ted Whiters says in Nobody Knows.