Saturday, September 29, 2007

Reflections from a Mixed-Race Family

Looking at us now, it is impossible on most days to see that we are, in a very real sense, a mixed-race family. After all, my wife and I and all six of our biological children are not only Caucasian but light skinned Caucasian. We have a hard time tanning; my wife was a red-head as a child; one of our sons still is a carrot top. We are the Wonder Bread in the bakery section of life.

Those who know us well - who have known us for more than the last two years - realize, however, that Hotel DeGraw has housed a Black "son", another Black young man and the three-generation family of that second young man. That experience has opened our eyes to the practical reality of the racism that still exists in our society.

What bothers me the most is when I hear members of my own religion who can't let go of the racial practices and justifications of the past. The following is a quote from Elder Bruce R. McConkie, perhaps the apostle who speculated more than any other about the racial issues of his day (emphasis added by me):

“Forget everything that I have said, or what President Brigham Young or President George Q. Cannon or whomsoever has said in days past that is contrary to the present revelation. We spoke with a limited understanding and without the light and knowledge that now has come into the world.
We get our truth and our light line upon line and precept upon precept. We have now had added a new flood of intelligence and light on this particular subject, and it erases all the darkness and all the views and all the thoughts of the past. They don’t matter any more.
It doesn’t make a particle of difference what anybody ever said about the Negro matter before the first day of June of this year, 1978. It is a new day and a new arrangement, and the Lord has now given the revelation that sheds light out into the world on this subject. As to any slivers of light or any particles of darkness of the past, we forget about them. We now do what meridian Israel did when the Lord said the gospel should go to the Gentiles. We forget all the statements that limited the gospel to the house of Israel, and we start going to the Gentiles.”
(”All Are Alike unto God” - BYU devotional - August 18, 1978)

I believe that part of what Elder McConkie's statement repudiates is the explanations used to justify the practices in question. Without direct revelation on the subject, individual leaders turned to the explanations of the society in which they lived - and spoke of curses and lineage and other "reasons" for their situation. Elder McConkie said we need to "forget about them."

I mention this here because I heard today the same justifications we should have left behind in 1978. I heard skin color called a curse - referring to Australian aborigines. My heart sank. Allow me to share my perspective - using the BofM issue of skin color as the example:
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The word “loathsome” is a socially defined word. It means “disgusting; revolting; repulsive” - not exactly how we would describe anyone being viewed by God. Therefore, any “loathsomeness” is, by definition, subjective - defined by the person or people calling someone else loathsome. Based on everything else (everything) I read in all of our scriptures, God does not view anyone as loathsome based on skin color. The most that could be asserted reasonably, imo, is that people’s philosophies, creeds and actions can be labeled as loathsome to God.

Where does that leave me? It leaves me to look at the Nephites in the exact same way that I look at the early saints - people with existing biases who needed a way to teach their children why they couldn't let go of those biases, even with the light of the restored Gospel and the actions of their original Prophet. In the case of the Book of Mormon, there were fairer skinned Nephites (due slightly to more constant and covering clothing and less exposure to the sun? - plus mixing with a people of similar ethnic descent?) and darker skinned Lamanites (due slightly to less constant and covering clothing and more exposed skin? - plus mixing with a darker skinned, indigenous people?). They hated each other - or, at the very least, were enemies. They also were family - at least, initially.

How does one distinguish between the good guys and the bad guys when they are family? How does a father justify the division to his children? The same way people all over the world all throughout history have done so - by the most visible and obvious difference - skin color.

Father: “Son, stay away from those wicked Lamanites.”
Son: “Why, Daddy?”
Father: “They don’t believe in God.”
Son: “How do I know that - and how do I tell who is who?”
Father (with loathing): “Just look at them. The Lord cursed them with a darker skin than us.”
Son: “OK, Daddy.” 

This has happened throughout the history of the world - probably in every society that has existed. I heard it in words just that clear from firmly believing Protestants when I taught in the Deep South - in the 1990’s. Why do we have to attribute it to God?

We know prophets are not infallible. We know God won’t force stuff on us that we can’t handle. We know he weeps over the actions and attitudes of His children. Just because people in the past (even inspired leaders) couldn’t get past this particular prejudice, why do we need to hold onto it when it no longer is taught in our day - and when the racism it breeds is condemned by our own leaders?

11 comments:

marinamo said...

The good news is there really seems to be hope for the future. I know that my daughters, being in an international community, are in a different environment than the average American kid, but there is such a level of tolerance among their peers that it really gives me hope. Obviously, your children have also been raised to be accepting of all. As each generation becomes more tolerant and fewer parents are passing intolerance onto their children, hopefully this way of thinking will become a thing for the history books. (And then the human race will find some other way to discriminate...?)

Mama D said...

Thanks for posting this, Ray. It is important to be introspective and review our attitudes and reasons for our abilities to be tolerant/intolerant.

I like your perspective, Marina! Tolerance is something that can be taught and modeled by example. Email me about upcoming changes in your life. :]

Paul M. said...

Speaking of tolerance, one has to wonder how long it will be before some future GA encourages us to "forget everything" we've been told thus far about the worthiness of gay men.

Mama D said...

Paul, I do not want to pick a fight, as I am very non-confrontational. But I see at least one major difference. Blacks didn't sin *only because of their skin color,* subsequently being withheld from the priesthood before 1978. (Though some attributed it to a curse from God.) I have yet to be convinced that gay men (or women, but you are thinking in terms of priesthood) aren't breaking a pretty basic commandment. As I read and understand it, the Family Proclamation is a pretty recent up-to-date revelation/statement that is quite clear on that subject.

I do not say that to be intolerant. I know there are many good, kind, successful, happy people who also happen to be gay. And I believe in agency and the ability of individuals to make their own choices. But I don't equate sexual orientation and skin color as equal determinants in priesthood worthiness questions. For example, there are no questions about skin color in a temple rec interview, but there are about keeping your covenants of chastity and fidelity to your spouse (as defined by the Gospel and the Church; ie: man and woman). I just don't see them as correlaries.

marinamo said...

Michelle, I will not urge you into a fight you don't wish to have, but I do want to comment on your statement:
" Blacks didn't sin *only because of their skin color,* subsequently being withheld from the priesthood before 1978."

Blacks were not withheld from holding the priesthood because of any sin whatsoever; not skin color (if that can even be fathomed as being a sin) nor anything else. They were not able to hold the priesthood simply because it was not acceptable to the society of which the church was a part. No sinning involved at all.

I am in agreement with Paul that homosexuals are discriminated against within the church (and within society) because they are not acceptable to society at large and hope for the day that tolerance will win out on that front as well. It may seem strange to some now to consider a homosexual marriage to be equal to a heterosexual marriage, but I have to say it blows my mind to think that good, intelligent people could actually believe a horse was of more worth than a Black American--and yet they did. My hope is that eventually reason will prevail for homosexuals as well.

Mama D said...

Marina, I did not mean to imply that I think that skin color is a sin. That is as obvious to me as it is to you and Paul. I know that society (including Church society) at the time determined the lack of priesthood for Blacks. And I would agree that homosexuals are discriminated against.

I consider myself fairly tolerant, although I also know there are certain lines I draw wherein I can be pretty obstinate and not very clear-headed.

I believe that Church and society policies may eventually change (and probably even *should* be changed). But I don't think that Gospel DOCTRINE will change. The definition of marriage didn't come from me, or any particular prophet, or the Church organization -- it is Heavenly Father's definition. He is the one who has been clear that marriage is to be between a man and a woman, and that sexual relations are only to be exercised within that union. And that is the basic reason why I believe that homosexuals are breaking commandments.

Some will claim that is just blindly following a mantra "God said it; therefore it must be true." However, I personally haven't "blindly followed" (if one wants to call it that) since I was a little child. (Though I don't consider children being blind, or blinded, in this sense.)

I have a lot of faith and trust in, and personal experience with, Heavenly Father and His plan and the atonement of Christ covering for a multitude of sins. (I'm not implying others don't...) I can believe, even *know,* this is doctrine while still being non-judgmental and tolerant about those who choose not to live it.

Mama D said...

Sorry if we're threadjacking your post, Ray. Jump in here if you desire!

Paul M. said...

Michelle, I am a bit confrontational, but I hope you will understand that the confrontation is not with you, but with the topic at hand.

We all agree that skin color is no reflection of our acceptance before God. But Brigham Young disagreed, explaining that “the law of God in regard to the African race" was that the penalty for interracial marriage "under the law of God, is death on the spot. This will always be so" (Journal of Discourses, vol. 10, p.110).

It obviously was not “always so.” It is easy for us to excuse BY’s arrogant racism by saying it wasn’t doctrine because it is now not considered doctrine, but to LDS who were alive at the time it was certainly was as important a definition of “family” as the Proclamation is to us today. I see no reason why that definition might not be further modified.

As the evidence mounts that homosexuality is not a choice, the Church has begun to soften its position. The BYU honor code no longer distinguishes between homo- and heterosexual activity; an openly guy man may attend as long as he agrees to live by the same standards his straight friends must accept. General Authorities grant interviews to media outlets conceding that homosexuality is not always a choice. Are we to believe that this is merely a concession to the popular media, but not a reflection of God's will?

Many people seem willing to admit BY made mistakes (I don’t know if there is any alternative) but nobody wants to admit that the same kind of mistakes might be perpetuated today. The church’s discrimination against homosexual men may one day seem as strange as its discrimination against blacks seems now.

Papa D said...

Paul, I don't think it's that no one "nobody wants to admit that the same kind of mistakes might be perpetuated today." I think MANY don't want to admit that possibility, but I for one am not going to speculate one way or the other. In order for this to change, the prophets will need direct revelation, imo, since the very foundation of marriage as it always has been defined scripturally is at stake.

Until/unless that happens, I support the current position - that extra-marital heterosexual activity is the same as its homosexual counterpart - that someone living an active homosexual lifestyle is no more sinful than someone living a non-marital heterosexual lifestyle. If that is a first step, fine; if it is the final step, fine. I believe that God will sort it out in the end, and I glad that the Church has recognized how difficult its basic standard is for many to live - that asking someone to live without hope is a terrible price that many simply will not be able to pay. Personally, no matter what happens in this life, I believe that such a recognition opens eternal possibilities that previously were closed theologically. For that, I'm very glad.

marinamo said...

"The definition of marriage didn't come from me, or any particular prophet, or the Church organization -- it is Heavenly Father's definition."

"...the very foundation of marriage as it always has been defined scripturally is at stake."

In response to both of these comments:
As humans, whenever information comes our way it goes through various filters of our mind. Our past experiences and current knowledge (and of course various other things as well) actually shape the way we will end up viewing/interpreting/internalizing the new information we have received. This is true no matter if the new information is coming from our spouse, our kid, or even God himself. This is true no matter if I am me, a rice farmer, or even a prophet.

God did not change his mind and decide that Blacks were not sinners afterall. The experience and knowledge (etc.) of the prophet had finally gotten to a point where he could process the information he was getting and form it into a policy that makes sense to us all today (given our own filters of experience and knowledge, etc.)

I believe the same will occur for homosexuals. You say God defined marriage and it does not include homosexual relationships; I am saying that the definition we attribute to God is a definition that has been filtered through human minds that are subject to the filters of experience and knowledge (etc.), and I imagine God just may breathe a sigh of relief when we, as a society, finally manage to get to a point where our filters (experience and knowledge, etc.) allow us to process the information about homosexuality into something that makes a little more Christian-like sense.

backandthen said...

Going back to the subject of skin color I have a hard time explaining how my mother did not teach me to be racist (sorry to write here the big nasty word but...) but I have a good story about my sister which is very interesting.
Once, when my sister was 3 years old (I was 17) we were watching a very old american cartoon on TV. In this cartoon there was a mean little girl who liked to torture little animals. the maid of the house was mad at her because of that and came to spank her. As usually in this kind of cartoon you could not see the face of the "grown up" but you could see the legs (black) and here the heavy accent.
My sister who was very focused on all that happened (she was 3 years old and this was intense to her LOL) said "her mommy is mad at her". I just wanted to point at her that there was very little chance that the black woman could be the girls mother, nothing more. I started saying this to her and my mother snapped at me a "shh!!". Of course she did not mean to be mean herself. I understood on the spot what was wrong and I did not say anything anymore.
My mother did not teach us to mind color, she taught us to be careful about cultural differences and you don't have to have a different skin color to be culturally very different. Try to have a stupid American and an arrogant French in the same room and try to have them discus on about any subject, even something has stupid as water, and you'll get a fight worth what's going on in middle East.