I was not racist. I had black friends, close black friends. I never used racial slurs. I disagreed with people who used racial stereotypes. I didn’t like the things my parents or other relatives said about race. I called out behaviors that were troubling. I admired black people, particularly writers, and quoted them. I hated the justifications of Southerners for their racism and their lauding of antebellum culture that was built on the backs of enslaved humans. I was proud of the Underground railroad and local figures in my native state who helped further the cause of abolition.
I was a little bit racist. My parents were better on this topic than their parents, and I was better than they were, but I still forgot about race. In my mind, I sometimes justified the actions of companies, police, and governments that held black people back in life, giving them less opportunity. Maybe black people just weren’t hard working enough, smart enough, qualified enough, educated enough, had bad support structures, didn’t “play the game” as well as they should. What I wasn’t thinking out loud was that maybe they should have acted more white.
There’s a song in the puppet-themed musical Avenue Q called Everyone’s a Little Bit Racist:
I hate that I even have to explain this, but I am not talking about so-called “racism against white people” which is NOT A THING. It also isn’t *necessarily* a thing that being in the minority equals racism. Racism is the flip side of power and privilege, period. If people with your skin tone have more access to power and privilege, you benefit from racist policies. If people with your skin tone have less access to power and privilege, you are hurt by racist policies.
“The defining question is whether the discrimination is creating equity or inequity. If discrimination is creating equity, then it is antiracist. If discrimination is creating inequity, then it is racist.”
When I lived in Singapore for almost 3 years, as white Americans, we were absolutely a minority. The difference is that we were an “elite” minority in the local cultural hierarchy. Singapore has a lot more racial segregation than the US, and there are local opinions about which of these segregated groups are better, largely tied to how light their skin is. This was explained to me in my culture training when I first moved there. The culture trainers went through a list of all the things that would increase my acceptability to locals, and my race was one of those things. Products are sold that are intended to whiten your skin, and women use umbrellas in the sun to shield their skin so it doesn’t darken. People think a lot about their skin tone there.
One of my good friends in Singapore, a woman I often met up with for lunch, was also an ex-pat, a British woman about the same age as me. We were both among the highest ranking executives in Singapore working for our company. She worked in HR while I was in Business Travel. We compared our experiences. Both of us had children of similar ages at the highly acclaimed Singapore American School. Both of us were immersed in a culture that was not our own. I was a very light-skinned white (so white I was blue, I sometimes joked). She was a dark-skinned black woman married to a white man. Otherwise we were about the same size, dressed similarly (well, she dressed better than I did), lived in a similar place, made similar salaries. Yet her experience was very different than mine, difficult in ways I couldn’t fathom.
People were at ease with my success. It made sense to them. I was supposed to be successful because I was so light-skinned. If I said the wrong thing or did something gauche, they laughed it off and thought how nice I was, how humble and funny; how relatable and approachable like the people on American TV shows. When my friend met someone new, they assumed she was low-ranking until her rank was revealed. Then they didn’t understand how she could be so successful. Because she dressed nicely, this must be evidence of her insecurity–she was striving to fit in, people would think, or she was trying to compensate for her natural inferiority, like they would in her shoes. If she made a mistake, that was evidence that she didn’t deserve her position. Being married to a white man also made her suspect. She must be lucky that he overlooked her skin color and deigned to marry her. She must be really sexual and seductive to attract someone who was so light skinned. Were her kids light-skinned or dark-skinned? If they were dark-skinned like her, then what a shame! She went through all that (marrying a light skinned person) with nothing to show for it! For, of course, it was assumed that her goal was whiter children.
“One of racism’s harms is the way it falls on the unexceptional Black person who is asked to be extraordinary just to survive—and, even worse, the Black screw up who faces the abyss after one error, while the White screw up is handed second chances and empathy.”
People in Singapore talked a lot about skin color, much more than we do here. My assistant even asked me once what race my husband was because he was darker than I am (literally everyone aside from Prince Harry and Ed Sheeran is darker than I am). I had a hard time convincing her that he had English-Scottish parentage for generations, as white as they come. “No, he’s dark! Not white like you!” I once commented that I went to Little India to buy shoes for my daughter, and that it was so crowded we had a hard time walking down the street, like trying to get to the stage in a concert by squeezing through the crowd. Another colleague who was Indian cried, “You went to Little India on a Sunday?! That’s the day all the workers have off! I won’t even go there on a Sunday!” I laughed that he wouldn’t go to Little India since he was Indian, but he was affronted–he wasn’t like those Indians who were dark-skinned laborers. He was from the north and had lighter skin; he was professional class. He didn’t even consider them part of his people. In fairness, they spoke Tamil, and he did not. They were Hindu, and he was Christian. India’s a huge country, much bigger than the US, so it’s not surprising that regional differences matter much more, but it was interesting that skin tone was one basis for his disclaiming a connection to them.
But it has occurred to me, aren’t those observations, those comments, those beliefs, aren’t they under the surface in the US, too? We don’t talk about them, but we all know they exist. We haven’t outlawed racism, just talking about it. Singapore has a segregationist view, local neighborhoods that are predominantly grouped by race, and when people cross racial groups, it is culturally uncomfortable. People don’t want to be lumped in with a group that they view as inferior. In the US, this was definitely our approach for a long time.
When I was 10, we moved from Texas to New Jersey. My parents were house hunting, and they found one they liked quite a bit, but then their realtor pulled them aside and told them it was in a “black neighborhood.” My parents weren’t exactly racist (you can’t quite apply today’s standards to their generation), but they were fully aware that if they bought a house in a “black neighborhood,” their property values wouldn’t hold. Redlining is a practice that kept black people segregated from white people by restricting who could obtain which kinds of mortgages, under the pretense of credit issues, and as upwardly striving Americans, it wasn’t in my parents’ self-interest to move into a neighborhood that wouldn’t be a good investment.
Nowadays, most Americans prefer an assimilationist view of race. This is what they mean when they say “I don’t see color” or “All lives matter.” Rather than recognize the different cultures, we set the default culture to “white,” and we view other races as acceptable when they “act” white, go to white schools or straighten their hair to look like whites. But it’s still just another way to hide our racist culture from us so we don’t have to address it.
“Antiracist ideas are based in the truth that racial groups are equals in all the ways they are different, assimilationist ideas are rooted in the notion that certain racial groups are culturally or behaviorally inferior, and segregationist ideas spring from a belief in genetic racial distinction and fixed hierarchy.”
A classic example of assimilationist thinking was revealed in a Facebook post last week by BYU-I Performing and Visual Arts that was later deleted (but preserved forever via screen shots). The tweet compared the history of the Mormon people as one of persecution, rape, and genocide to the plight of black people, concluding that if black people would only handle their negative circumstances with the intelligence and capability of white Mormons, they too would thrive and prosper. It is an ugly, racist take that erases millenia of global anti-black prejudice and minimizes the white privilege that Mormons have simultaneously benefited from, as well as ignoring both the prejudices furthered by Mormon teachings and the experience of black Latter-day Saints. It was incredibly bad. They also misspelled Asia, but that’s no surprise I guess. But the gist is that “if only black people would do what we white people did, they wouldn’t be getting killed by the police and they wouldn’t suffer systemic racism.” That’s a lie only comfortable to those with white privilege, whose skin gets them the benefit of the doubt and doesn’t mark them for suspicion. We expect the victims of racism to solve racism. How did Mormons solve their own persecution? Not as gracefully as that Facebook post would like to portray! 
“Black people are apparently responsible for calming the fears of violent cops in the way women are supposedly responsible for calming the sexual desires of male rapists.”
In Dr. Kendi’s book Stamped, he explains that anti-black racism dates back to the Romans and Greeks. Societies create policies out of self-interest, and then if those policies harm some people, we create a belief that justifies the harm we do. This is observed in Dr. Kendi’s book, but also in Jonathan Haidt’s books regarding all types of beliefs. We apply post-hoc justifications for the things we do. We don’t act according to our beliefs, but according to our self-interest.
Several different versions of justification theory have been used over time to help white people feel OK about their racism:
- Climate Theory. This one goes all the way back to Aristotle, but the explanation is that only people who live in a temperate climate like Greece or Rome are fully human and deserving of all rights. Those who live too far north are Barbarians and those who live too far south are savages, and therefore, it’s fine for them to be enslaved. The theory is that human life can’t develop properly in these extremes of temperature. I recognized that I have heard this theory repeated more recently with a slight twist. After Hurricane Katrina that adversely affected so many people of color, someone I know who is “not a racist” (which really means neutral on racism) said that 90% of the world’s problems came from the 10% of people living closest to the equator, or something like that.
- Curse Theory. This explanation has a religious bent and will sound familiar to most Mormons as it’s been regurgitated like the vomit it is as recently as the 1970s. I heard it from missionaries in the 1980s as they explained to some investigators why black people had been prevented from full participation until 1978. One theory goes that Ham was black and cursed for his bad behavior, and therefore, all black people were under that same curse (also used in The Poisonwood Bible). The Mormon twist adds lack of valiance in the pre-existence, but it’s the same theory. A group of people are under a curse, so it’s OK to mistreat them and prevent them from full participation or personhood (see also women). This makes even less sense in light of the second article of faith. We are apparently only punished for our own sins unless someone needs to pretend we are under a curse to justify their treatment and privileges.
- Salvation Theory. This explanation emerged with the colonization of the Americas and then other countries by Christian nations (Spain, Portugal, England, France, and Netherlands, chiefly). When an enslaved man asked to be baptized as a Christian, there was a big debate whether you could enslave a Christian, so the debate was reframed that you could make a Christian of a slave (vs. making a slave of a Christian). The new belief formed because colonizers believed Christianity was so superior to African and other native religions, that it was OK to enslave people as a means to converting them to the Christian faith. That’s a particularly ironic view, but one that became prevalent in the agricultural American south whose economy relied on the labor of enslaved people. This is another one that has some parallels in early Mormonism as well. Other takes on this belief were that the societies black people came from were so inferior that they voluntarily offered themselves as slaves to the white race to escape their own cultures.
The President is on record denying that systemic racism exists. Instead, he prefers to claim that there are just a few “bad apples” out there who are racists. This is not how racism happens, though. We live in a racist world. We can’t solve racism by punishing racists. We solve it when we quit justifying racist policies, face them for what they are, and actively change to policies that will create equality of outcome.
“Americans have long been trained to see the deficiencies of people rather than policy”
Claiming someone is a racist (or isn’t a racist) is a ruse to avoid dealing with racism. If we have no racist systems, racists don’t need to manufacture racist beliefs. When someone objects to being called a racist, they aren’t objecting to the unequal treatment that benefits them. They object to being blamed for it or they object to the idea that they don’t deserve their privilege.
“What’s the problem with being “not racist”? It is a claim that signifies neutrality: “I am not a racist, but neither am I aggressively against racism.” But there is no neutrality in the racism struggle. The opposite of “racist” isn’t “not racist.” It is “antiracist.”
Even being called “racist” isn’t the worst thing you can be called. In the words of comedian John Mulaney, we’re not even saying what the ‘n-word’ is! “If you’re comparing the badness of two words, and you won’t even say one of them? That’s the worse word.”
“Racist” is not—as Richard Spencer argues—a pejorative. It is not the worst word in the English language; it is not the equivalent of a slur. It is descriptive, and the only way to undo racism is to consistently identify and describe it—and then dismantle it. The attempt to turn this usefully descriptive term into an almost unusable slur is, of course, designed to do the opposite: to freeze us into inaction.”
Most of the Church members I know are content to be “not a racist,” but also aren’t really interested in doing much about racism. It’s enough if they don’t personally insult other races or treat them poorly. That’s not only a low bar, but it sidesteps how we eliminate racism. We don’t eliminate racist policies by eliminating racists, one by one or by holding individual racists accountable for their beliefs.
“One either allows racial inequities to persevere, as a racist, or confronts racial inequities, as an antiracist. There is no in-between safe space of “not racist.” The claim of “not racist” neutrality is a mask for racism.”
We eliminate racist beliefs (which are justifications for racist policies) when we eliminate and fully disavow racist policies and replace those with antiracist policies, even if that means favoring people of color to even the playing field or paying reparations collectively as a country until all have equal opportunity and advantages. The Church eliminated our racist policy, sort of, but didn’t address why it happened (apparently it was God’s fault is the current party line) and also didn’t address the remaining racist teachings that were baked into our manuals and scriptures. As recently as 2012, youth were being taught that marrying outside one’s own race was bad, and in 2020, we still had a printed Church manual with racist quotes from long dead Church leaders justifying the problematic race-curse ideas in the Book of Mormon.
“Racist ideas love believers, not thinkers.”
The Church has partnered with the NAACP to improve our race relations and understanding, but we are still infants in understanding what needs to be done to create equality and stem the tide of injustice. It’s clear that the Church wants to be seen as “not racist,” but it’s not at all clear that the Church is willing to be “anti-racist.”
For example, there was a thread going around Twitter asking how old you were when you had your first black teacher. Having been raised mostly in rural PA, then going to college at BYU, I was chagrined to discover that I never had a black teacher. I never had any teacher of color in school, all through college. My only black teacher was my Sunday School teacher when I was 13. He was a professor at the local college, where I had my first job. That very small college was founded by the Church of the Brethren, not a very racially integrated Church, but they had at least one black professor in the 1980s. Did I notice that lack of diversity growing up? Not really. Certainly not to the extent that I should have.
And that is one reason I say I think I was a little bit racist. I didn’t examine the idea that “people are white” was the default. The area I grew up in was actually part of the Underground railroad, and there were many black people, but they lived in the city, not in the country. Their lives were essentially invisible to me. We didn’t interact. I had no animosity toward them, I had some black friends, I danced with black boys who asked me at the local dance club, I didn’t use racial slurs, but I didn’t watch “black TV” or see “black movies,” and if someone had said a black person was killed by the police, I’d quickly look for reasons why the police had been justified. When I was confronted with racist teachings at Church, I told myself “That’s just a few bad apples. Those are the words of people raised in another time who didn’t understand their cultural biases.” That’s what it means to be “not racist.” It’s not trying to dismantle the racist systems. Being neutral about those systems is how they continue to exist.
- How old were you when you had your first black teacher?
- What do you think the Church could do to be anti-racist? Do you think the Church will do it?
- Do you see yourself as “racist,” “not racist,” or “anti-racist”? Have you shifted over time?
- Have you read any anti-racism books? Have they helped you become more informed?
 If you’ve never heard the term “black neighborhood,” you may have heard the term “bad neighborhood,” usually applied to neighborhoods where more people of color live.
 Through acts of violence, anti-government actions, essentially seceding from the US, and persecuting groups we considered inferior. Brigham Young’s power was unchecked, essentially that of a king.