Erasing Race

We’ve had some outstanding Relief Society lessons in my ward this year, owing to the great teachers we have. Recently, we were talking about how to talk with people not of our faith or culture, basically how to get along with everyone without being a jerk. Something like that. I was in and out a little bit.

One thing I’ve noticed on this topic is that you really can’t get over your negative stereotypes about other groups of people until you feel that you truly depend on someone of that group, and for many people, that will probably never happen. So, until your personal success depends on a gay person, a black person, an Asian person, a child, a woman, a non-Mormon, a liberal, a staunch conservative, or any other group, you really have no ability to get over your superior feeling in relation to that person or group (if you have been raised with or otherwise developed feelings of superiority). If you want the luxury to refuse to bake cakes for gay weddings, you can only do that if you aren’t financially dependent on gay weddings to earn your living. This is why minorities need special protections, because they are not the majority, so they don’t carry as much economic weight, and economics motivate behavior.

After living in Asia for nearly 3 years as a minority, then moving back to the US, I noticed that I had mentally begun identifying with Asian people. Most of my team members were Asian. My assistant and my manager assistant were both Asian (Singaporean and Indian). I could not have been successful without these brilliant men and women with whom I worked. I’d see an Asian person here in the states and immediately think to myself, “Whew! One of my people.” Then I realized that they didn’t know I was thinking that, and they probably wondered why I was staring at them, smiling at them like an insider when I didn’t look like one. I looked like every other white woman on the street.

Image resultI was disconcerted in this Relief Society discussion by a well-meaning older woman’s remark that in her belief there will be no other races in the hereafter, and that will make things so much better because we won’t have these divisions between us–they simply won’t exist. Then she went on to list these (apparently divisive) races: Asian, blacks, and so on (I think she ran out of color groups). I leaned and whispered to the Relief Society President sitting next to me “And white people. Right? No more white people?” But no, Caucasians / Europeans / beige people like her (and me) didn’t make the list of races that would no longer exist. It could have been an omission, but I had a sneaking suspicion that it wasn’t. She seemed to be implying that color itself was an impurity to be removed, and without it we would all be the same, unified–that same is good while different is bad.

This reminded me of a very strange conversation I had with a college friend who was from Utah when I was a freshman at BYU. He asked if I thought we would all look the same in the Celestial Kingdom. I wrinkled my nose up in confusion, “How would we all look the same?” I wondered. Since we don’t look the same now, who would we look like?  I had never even considered such a thing. It seemed more like a dystopian Hell than a Heaven.

He said because we were all supposed to be unified, that he had heard plenty of people say things that made it sound like we would also look the same: white hair, presumably same age, wearing white clothes, etc. Of course, the unstated assumption was that we’d all be white, having the non-whiteness purified out. He pointed out that in the temple, we were made to all look as much alike as possible.  Utah had weirded me out a little bit because there were so few people of color when I arrived there in the late 80s. I wondered if he just hadn’t been around many non-whites, an obvious byproduct of the racist priesthood and temple ban that had been lifted less than a decade before he and I had this conversation.

Stephen Colbert used to like to make the joke that he couldn’t see color, implying tongue in cheek that his character thought that proved he had evolved beyond racism to the point that he wasn’t even aware what color people were. But that is not really evolving past racism. Erasing race is still racism that hurts minorities because we don’t erase the privileges afforded to the majority without acknowledging race. The desire to erase race is to erase our awareness of just how hurtful our supposed superiority is. We want to erase the reminder that we have something undeserved that hurts others. We don’t want to erase injustice, just our ability to see it and deal with it.

In his book Between the World and Me, Ta Nehesi-Coates tells his son:

“Here is what I would like for you to know: In America, it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage.”

Those are hard words to hear, but important words. When we erase race, we are merely hiding the evidence and refusing to face what our privilege blinds us to on a daily basis: that race does in fact matter, that erasing grievances and avoiding dealing with the consequences of our actions is not really the path to unity, just to assuaging our white guilt by hiding it. It’s a short cut, and there are no short cuts.

Image result for racism scaleIn a NYT article about Ta Nehesi-Coates’ book, the plight of African-Americans is retold in stark terms. There are no easy solutions offered, and among those who are the oldest “Dreamers,” there is no changing their view. I felt somewhat hopeless when I heard the woman’s comment in Relief Society because we are a church slow to change, slow to improve our awareness of things that we’ve made easy to ignore. And as Mormons, we are strong believers in the American Dream, that anyone can pull him or herself [1] up by the bootstraps despite adversity (people referred to as “Dreamers” by Ta Nehesi-Coates are the ones who love the American Dream.)

“Perhaps that was, is, the hope of the movement: To awaken the Dreamers, to rouse them to the facts of what their need to be white . . . has done to the world. But you cannot arrange your life around them and the small chance of the Dreamers coming into consciousness.”

This comment about the need for whites to be white struck me with particular force because of the anti-miscegenation counsel that was in our youth manuals as recently as 2012 when my son pointed it out to me. [2] A friend of mine told me that in the 90s when her son married a Mexican woman, she received two anonymous letters from ward members decrying the evils of mixing the races.

Ta Nehesi-Coates says it’s futile to believe that we can move the needle for the older generations, and maybe it is. For all the positives of being led by the wisdom of age, and there are many, this is certainly a counter example. He continues:

“Struggle for wisdom . . . . But do not struggle for the Dreamers. . . . Do not pin your struggle on their conversion. The Dreamers will have to learn to struggle for themselves.”

Those enamored with the American Dream narrative are often believers in having deserved their success, having worked for it, yet being blind to the scales being tipped in their favor and against minorities who often can’t escape multi-generational disadvantages. When we hear things like “all lives matter” or “blue lives matter,” we are literally hearing people erasing race. While these ‘both sides’ arguments sounds like they are inclusive, they are actually trying to hide the evidence of what happens to minorities, and put their own suffering on par with that of minorities. Rather than listening to the experiences of minorities, this is trying to make it about white people again (“Yes, yes, you minorities have had it hard. Everyone has it hard. We should help everyone.“) These individuals may not be inflicting those harms directly, but they would certainly be more comfortable if those things were less visible.

Erasing the evidence, erasing race isn’t the path to Christian unity.

[1] but let’s be honest, him not her.

[2] I didn’t believe him until I looked it up. I thought his teacher just brought in some 1970s quote.

Comments

  1. I listened to Between the World and Me on audiobook, and Ta Nehesi-Coates did his own reading, so I think I got it read the way he wanted it read. While he certainly opened my eyes to many things, the overall impression I had from reading it was one of anger and despair. He offers absolutely no hope for reconciliation or real integration of the races. His “wisdom” is certitude of the worst qualities of human nature which are infinite and enduring. I’d thought that the key to eliminating racism, at least in my personal life, was to recognize differences in culture and background but to interact as human beings. After listening to him, I’ve been taught that every enlightened black person should see me (white person) as part of the oppressor class, that I am “part of the problem” regardless what I do, and that I may as well suck on my white guilt until it kills me but that it’ll make no difference. That black people should realize that no matter what they do, they’re always the oppressed class and if they get anything, it’s because the masters want to give their pets a “good boy”. Yes, the book was powerful and well-written, but as something might do any good in the world… I don’t see it. Having expressed that sentiment before, I’ve been told that his job was to deliver the message, it was white people’s job to figure out what to do about it, but it’s not like Nehesi-Coates allowed for that. It was more of a we-might-as-well-all-kill-ourselves sort of message.

  2. This is so interesting to me. Thanks for this post.

    First, what you said about not being able to get over stereotypes until you depend on a person of that group… that really resonated with me. For me it was a girl I knew as a child who, many years later, I found out had married another woman. I hadn’t been particularly close to her, but I had depended on her. She was in the “in” crowd and very popular — and made it clear that she didn’t approve of bullying at all, and basically single-handedly changed the culture of our middle school. Because of her I am very sure I got bullied far less than would otherwise have happened.

    The other thing: we’ve been talking a lot in our ward lately about how Zion doesn’t mean we’re all the same, but that we celebrate and draw from each other’s differences. It’s really refreshing, as I grew up thinking all Mormons had to be the same and kind of feeling bad that I wasn’t at all like the other ones. This discussion hasn’t really been centered around race for the most part, but every so often it comes up. I, for example, am one of very few Asians in our ward, so when I talk about feeling “different,” I mostly mean that my husband’s a nonmember and I work outside the home and I have a nontraditional testimony and I’m a total geek, but I also sometimes mean that I look different too. But I think it’s an important discussion to have in all those ways. We aren’t meant to be all the same; we know whose plan that was!

  3. wreddyornot says:

    Thanks, Angela.

    Coates’s book wasn’t written for Martin. Or for me. Or Angela. It was written for his son. By happenstance some among us have gotten to listen in and read what he intended his son to hear and read. To try to put ourselves there, of course, is impossible, but we might be better, do better, if we try. What we do with privilege is up to us, not up to Coates or his son. I suggest also taking a look at Rick Riordan’s review of Coates’s book on Goodreads.

  4. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    It’s almost a shame that Between the World and Me was what broke Coates to a wider audience, because I’d been reading him in the Atlantic for years before that and watched his evolution. He often wrote about entering a “blue period,” the culmination of which was the book. Between the World and Me is a cry of despair and doesn’t come close to representing the totality of Coates’ thoughts.

    Having said that, I’m actually glad that Martin feels offended and his individuality erased. We all need to experience a little of that to understand what it means to be non-“white”–and especially “black”–in a society where the assumption is that “white” = normal = default. In my case and that of many other persons of Near/Middle Eastern ancestry, it came after 9/11 when I started attracting unpleasant attention from TSA for being swarthy and having vaguely Asiatic eyes. And no, there really is no analogue anywhere else, because there are no places on earth where there is a numerically significant European-descended minority that is significantly poorer than the non-European-descended majority and faces blatant discrimination. There might be pockets here and there in Greater London and perhaps a few suburbs in SoCal and the Bay Area, perhaps, but nobody’s getting pulled over in Arcadia or Cupertino for Driving While White.

  5. Great post. I heard someone say in response to the idea that we should pray for Houston in response to Harvey, “All cities matter.” Great moment to reveal how ridiculous and naive comments like “all lives matter” are.

    Martin, Coates allows for white people to make the world better, but he doesn’t have much hope that it will happen. He has even less hope now, I’m sure, than when he wrote the book, for obvious reasons. How about we work to give him a little more hope? While you might not have been inspired by the book, I sure was. I think you might be missing the absolutely human-saving aspects of his book, one of which is that exposure and education can open worlds and minds. It opened his at Howard. Maybe he isn’t’ hoping we will “suck on our white guilt” but that we will decide to do a little more than that. Maybe for people who have not seen the problem, maybe he is hoping this will expose them to tragedy. They can choose to have a cathartic experience with it or not. Sure, tragedy has risks (it can be depressing), but its point to do something else–urge people forward to more moral action. Some people aren’t moved by tragedy–or tragedy of black people–but that doesn’t mean tragedy is inherently a nihilistic genre. I find it quite the opposite.

  6. I am a Hispanic member of the church for over 30 years and I personally find that church members are some of the most colorblind people I have ever known.

  7. I’m reminded of a TV dramatization of Ursula Le Guin’s “The Lathe of Heaven” years ago. The protagonist was able to do “effective dreaming”, i.e. what he decided to dream would take place when he woke up. One dream was aimed at equality and peace between races so when he woke up everyone was gray. Maybe that’s what the RS lady was referring to.

  8. Heptaparaparshinokh says:

    GBSmith, a guy in my parents’ old ward was already getting a jump on that by drinking colloidal silver.

  9. My wife served her mission in Spanish-speaking Southern California. One time ahe heard someone yell “look, the gringas!”, and she whipped her head around to look for them… :)

  10. Evangeline Brown says:

    When we speak about “erasing race” in America, for most of its history, and more and more in the present, it often sounds like erasing a race. Think about “open carry”; isn’t that a white privilege? What happens to African American men and boys who have guns? Can you imagine in any encounter with law enforcement that the weapon would be viewed as the exercise of the 2d amendment. Gregory Gunn. Alton Sterling. Philando Castile. Terence Crutcher. I could go on and on. A large number of Black men have been killed because they were suspected to be armed. And, apparently, police officers are so terrified by Black men moving in any way, juries routinely find that whatever the level of violence imposed on Black men, including capital punishment for offenses like driving with a taillight out, selling single cigarettes, looking like someone else, police officers are justified in erasing the life of another person. The controversy about “taking the knee” tells people of color, you can’t protest your oppression, unless White people approve of the location, method, and purpose of your protest. Shouting Nazi slogans or carrying torches to support the adulation of traitors and slavery? It’s just history. We can’t erase history. Animus against immigrants who don’t speak English, or dress differently? Why can’t they be more “American” which means why can’t they be White like me? As for White people who are tired because their efforts aren’t recognized? Think how tired you would be if you had to put up with racists on a regular basis.

  11. I listened to Coates on NPR a few weeks ago, and was struck by his plain assertion that he doesn’t hold much hope that things will get better soon. I spent some time thinking about that, and I know he was pointing the finger of blame at me. Growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, i absorbed what I called for years the “benign racism” of that era. No one in my family ever meant to harm or hurt anyone, I told myself. The reality is that even though I have come a long ways intellectually in regards to understanding some of what white privilege is, and how it has played out in my life, I still feel the weight of that racist background. It was never “benign.” I recognize that I am not as far to the right of that scale in Angela’s post as I would like to be, and can remember all too well being farther down that scale, justifying and making excuses. I hope for better things. I think my children are better at this than I am. And as I watch the kids in the school where I work in IT, they are a lot less aware of the racial differences than I ever was/still am.

    When Coates tells his son that “…it is traditional to destroy the black body. It is heritage,” I am struck that heritage is something we create for ourselves. It is a social construct, but one that is built one individual at a time. I have come to realize that I can’t solve the problem for anyone else, but I have a shot at solving my problem. Perhaps that is the best I can hope for.

  12. I love this post. Angela C. articulates a lot of what I feel, and the ideals to which I aspire.
    I appreciate the mention of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ work, especially in the light of some comments made herein. White people (of which I am one) absolutely need to feel the anger, despair and unequivocal lack of hope in Coates’ work. White folks need to be woken up and made to see what we have collectively brought upon our brothers and sisters – whether through our own overt actions, our inaction, or through maintenance of the inherited status-quo.

    I don’t know if the United States can overcome its heritage of Black destruction. History would say “probably not in this lifetime” – and that breaks my heart. But one thing is for certain – we are not going to get there by insisting that people of color pull their punches and “offer white people some hope”. One of the main points I take away from Coates’ writing and interviews is that Black people don’t owe white people any deference, “cheer” or “hope”. If white folks get anything out of his words, it should be some measure of chastening, and a prompting towards introspection & self correction.

    James Baldwin said it best – “History is not the past. It is the present. We carry our history with us. We are our history.”

  13. As far as the after life is concerned, I think this falls into the bucket of “What is perfect?” Will we need all of our Caucasianess removed from us? Possibly. Does that upset me? No.

  14. kristine N says:

    Maelstrom, that may be, but we aren’t class blind, and in as much as race and class coincide we’re very much dedicated to keeping things as they are.

  15. Angela, thank you for this. I don’t have any more to say than that I am increasingly conscious of the high price of my comfort.

  16. For what it is worth I learned about a useful mental exercise in a podcast: when you catch yourself making an assumption based on a stereotype take a moment to examine the thought and reverse it. Only very rarely (as the author points out) do we have experiences that prove our own assumptions wrong. We don’t usually get the chance to get to know the person we crossed the street to avoid, or who skeeved us out in the library. Unless we take the effort to examine and reverse those thoughts we will only reinforce our own wrong ideas.

    Thanks for this post, I really appreciate the discussion.

  17. queuno’s remark reminded me of time spent in Japan. I was very obviously a gaijin (foreigner). This was particularly noticeable when I visited Nagoya, and a tourist group of middle aged Japanese women insisted on having their photo taken with me. It was when, assuming I was in the way of the photograph they wished to take and made to move away, resulting in enormous protest, that it dawned on me that *I* was actually the object in the picture.

    I took one of those online test where they show you images of faces of different races, and then with positive and negative words (I forget what it was called) and time how long it takes you to respond. To my surprise I came out as being sympathetic to/ biased towards the coloured rather than the white faces. Granted I’m British not American, so my environment growing up isn’t going to be the US experience. And my husband is Japanese, which makes my children mixed race. But I wonder to what extent it is that here being Mormon makes you a minority. Or maybe I would have felt on the outside of the mainstream (as I always have) even without my religious difference.

    Anyway I’m never too sure how to apply current race discourse in the US in a British context. Britain is far from being a haven for all races, as the Brexit vote (I’m still heartbroken over that) would signify, but the history of race in the two countries is not the same either…

    Interesting post.

  18. Having spent nearly all my life in very racially homogeneous social circles, I have tried to compensate for my lack of exposure to diversity by reading lots of articles, essays, and classic literary works by minorities. Despite all my time and efforts, I still feel like I have little to contribute on the subject as a participant in the conversation. So I largely remain an observer, a listener. I’m grateful to see this discussion being had in a Mormon context as well.

  19. Hedge thoughtfully asks, But I wonder to what extent it is that here being Mormon makes you a minority.

    I wonder the same thing – and here in the US, Land of Nutcase Evangelicals, it does to a fair extent. I’m in my early 50s, and even the mainstream denoms of my youth taught that the Mormons were a weird or possibly dangerous cult. (That’s what the nuns told me at St Pat’s, anyway.) Likewise, I’ve found myself semi-estranged from many of my high school classmates on all kinds of issues lately, because they have lost their minds and become Trump voters, and think that killing random innocent foreigners as proof of the president’s virility is a great thing.

    However, none of these things is indelibly stamped on my skin. I can pass for Catholic, I can pass for Republican or Democrat, I can sometimes even keep my mouth shut. (Well . . .) Racism, as opposed to bigotry for non-visible reasons, is another level of incomprehensible awful to this rurally-raised white American Midwesterner. I am trying to understand.

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