First of all, I’m sorry for writing this post at all. I’m sure you all are sick to death of the discussion of race and of Professor Bott’s reported views thereon. I know I am and I’ve only followed the situation peripherally.
Second of all, I’m sorry for oversharing, as I’ll undoubtedly do over the course of this post. There is a reason behind it, I think, but I’ve noticed that all of my posts tend to be heavy on confession and probably you all don’t care.
Third, and probably most importantly, I’m sorry because I’m going to accuse every single one of you of being racist or, at least, prejudiced.
I’m from the South. I mean this both geographically and culturally. I grew up in a white, middle-class Southern home. Although my mother was Mormon, I don’t believe that this made us more or less racist than the general culture in which we found ourselves. Racism was in the air we breathed, it was the light by which we saw the world, it was an integral part of our world view.
Most of this comes simply from being Southern. We have the curse (or the privilege) of being the standard bearer of racism in America. My town featured several schools named after southern Civil War heroes, including a high school in a predominantly black area named after one of the founders of the KKK. Our school district was the defendent in one of the longest running busing cases in America, possibly because our city was still so functionally segregated that most busing solutions were absurd. I grew up vaguely knowing about all this, but not seeing anything particularly wrong about it. It was just the way it was. I wasn’t personally going to beat up a black kid for being black, but they were obviously different than us, poorer, and more prone to crime.
My grandmother used to tell the story of getting up in the middle of the night to use the outhouse when she was a little girl in the country and, as she was coming back, seeing a black man, dark as the night around him, standing and watching her as she went back to the house. It was a kind of fundamental moment for her. She didn’t hate black folk, but they represented a thing to be feared. I wasn’t aware enough to notice how she adjusted after the 1978 revelation, but she later treated her fellow saints with respect and courtesy, no matter what their race. But I’m not sure she was ever comfortable.
Nor, if I’m being honest, am I. I grew up with too much racist baggage. I remember once calling a black friend of mine who was the same age, “boy,” and genuinely not understanding why he was offended. I think I thought I was just imitating Foghorn Leghorn, but I don’t know if it would have occurred to me to address a white friend that way. I also remember telling racist jokes in middle school (probably into high school), possibly with this same friend. I didn’t choose to be racist, and if you had asked me, I would have denied being racist (I had a black friend! (whom I never invited over to my house)), but I seem to have sucked it up unconsciously.
If nothing else, I know that as a white Southern male, it is expected of me to be racist. In the eyes of the rest of the country, we have a role to play: the hick, inbred cousin who doesn’t know better (possibly due to said in-breeding). Thank goodness the rest of the country is so enlightened (as evidenced by their winning the Civil War) as to not be victim to racism. Having lived primarily in the South and in Utah, I’ve noticed that this particular attitude is prevalent in Utah, so perhaps I shouldn’t overgeneralize to other places (places with a more visible minority presence, for instance) but I admit to being skeptical that this notion of being above racism is limited to the Mormon west. I’ll rely on you all to set me straight.
Nor will I deny the truth upon which this attitude is based. In many ways, the South is still deeply, institutionally racist. We continue daily to struggle with the legacy of the transatlantic slave trade, plantation slavery, segregation, and many, many other horrible things. There is no sufficient apology, so I won’t attempt one. What happened in the Southern United States is a tragedy and an atrocity on the scale of 20th century genocides. That’s really all one can say on the subject. But there is a silver lining: the South doesn’t really get to pretend that it is above racism.
Since our racism is self-evident to everyone around us, it behooves us to actually attempt to deal with it. Any given attempt is more or less successful (and sincere), but since the going assumption is that we’d all rather stand around in the woods and have ourselves a good ol’ fashioned lynching, we have to take pains to note that this really isn’t our desire. And it really isn’t. At this point, in most of the South, racism has gone from a mark of distinction to something only low-class people do (See! You’re not alone, rest of America!). Today we talk about endemic cultural differences and how to overcome them so that black folk can achieve like white folk do. Not much better, I admit, but any step away from violence and toward cooperation is a step in the right direction, to my mind.
So, I admit to being a low-grade racist. I don’t believe in the superiority of the white race or plan on celebrating Hitler’s birthday, but I am socially awkward in mixed race settings. I’m working to get over this (as much as I can in mostly lily-white Germany), but I’m self-aware enough to know about it. To my mind, I think all of America (and, probably, all of the world) is low-grade racist. Pick your poison. In Utah, for instance, I’ve had people insist on the South’s greater racism while, two sentences later, insisting that it is appropriate for them to talk about Mexicans that way because Mexicans actually ARE dirty, lazy, and criminally-prone. Even in Germany, a country that has done about as much as it possibly can to move publicly from a racist past, there are elements. I watched a television show about cars the other day and they did a re-enactment of some sort of scam. The victim was light-haired and German-featured. The perps were dark-complected and vaguely Slavic or Southern European. I’m sure that the producer just asked the casting director for “criminal-types;” this is what he got.
We all grow up with prejudices. Some are racial, some are religious, some are socio-economic. We all have attitudes that we accept because that is just what everyone around us has told us, perhaps overtly or perhaps covertly, shared solemnly around a campfire or in the back of a van during a temple trip. Because of elements of culture, authority, and conformity, we tend to accept these, unquestioningly, as defining the way the world is. But these worldviews are human in origin (especially if we believe God is no respecter of persons); just because some way has been working for some group, we shouldn’t assume that it is right or God’s will. To this end, I’m going to suggest a rule (in the spirit of the TK Smoothie Rule or the Scientology Rule) that I believe would have helped Brother Bott (and possibly our church) to avoid this whole catastrophe. I’m calling it “The Useful Hypocrisy Rule.” It goes like this:
I should not discuss a sin, unless I am worried that doing so may make me a hypocrite.
Brother Bott’s motivation (and the motivations of thousands of folks before him) was one of two: 1. to justify a racist situation so that the racism persisted, benefiting him or suiting his worldview; or 2. to find a way in which a just, loving God would deliberately create such an unjust, hateful policy. I’m going to give Brother Bott the benefit of the doubt and assume that his motivation was the second. Brad has already explained the problematic nature of that approach, so I won’t belabor that point. Instead I’ll just point to the way in which my rule would have helped. The entirety of Brother Bott’s explanation was an attempt to lay to blame for a racist policy on someone else (God, Brigham Young, somebody). But if one suspects that one may be a little bit racist, then justifications for racist policy begin to sound hypocritical. And if we sound hypocritical to ourselves, we start to be hypercritical of our reaction to the policy and toward the policy itself. And this, I think, leads us away from justifying it and towards moving beyond it. “I don’t know why,” even though we don’t, sounds much more self-justifying, than God-justifying. And, while defending God is laudable, defending my own prejudices while pretending to be defending God is not. Suspecting that we may be hypocrites should introduce compassion and humility into our explanations of sin, which should, in turn, encourage more repentance. After all, it isn’t our sense of justice that repentance should satisfy, it is God’s.
So, I bear Brother Bott no ill will. His words revealed our racism, but, like Southern history, we can use them as a motivation to overcome that racism. We won’t be immediately successful, but, in my experience, people appreciate our flawed, human, inconstant, and inefficient efforts at self-improvement. And, even if people don’t (or can’t), God sure does. And that’s enough.