Several of my mom’s siblings were in town this weekend, including two brothers from England, so we had our Goldberg family seder at my grandma’s house with two dozen members of the Gill clan in attendance. Because we had lots of kids and lots of first time seder participants, I stuck to my four-page ultra-abridged version of the Haggadah with only one of the added activities, so we were through in about half an hour. Even in that short time, though, I felt like we’d gotten the spirit of the observance: children had been interested and had thought about the Passover story as a part of our own shared story; adults had thought and talked about bondage and deliverance, about how in every generation we need to realize we’re in Egypt, and then pray for help to get out.
A little after the seder, my daughter asked uncle Stephen (from Yorkshire) what time it was. He said it depends on where in the world we’re talking about, and told her the current times in Utah, England, and Saudi Arabia. He then pointed out that the weekend was about to begin in Utah, had begun in England, and was over in Saudi Arabia (due to the time difference and weekend difference in Muslim countries). This got my grandma talking about her grocery shopping routines in Bangalore (remember: you can’t just pick something up at Ahmed’s on a Friday) and Stephen talking about how to manage phone meetings between engineers in the U.K. and Saudi Arabia given only three shared days of the work week. I don’t remember exactly where we all went from there, only that we grown-ups largely told stories that involved navigating cultural difference. There’s the story of a sister missionary who was surprised at the sheer number of same-sex couples in India–not realizing that in India, public displays of romantic affection are generally taboo while same-sex friends are more comfortable with physical contact than in the United States. And there are the stories of failed cooking instructions between people of different cultures, based on different unspoken assumptions about what is available and how to cook.
Most of the stories were funny–we like to laugh–though on reflection some were funny only because our confidence enables us to frame them that way. We like the story, for instance, about how a San Jose real estate agent tried to steer my uncle David away from a certain house because it was in an area “where all the Asians live” without realizing that a half-Punjabi guy with a South Indian wife is not likely to be bothered by living where all the Asians do. The story could be told as sinister, of course, but since we’re quite happy with our own lives, we’re typically more amused than outraged by encounters with others’ misguided narrowness. (I think here of the exultant sense of triumph in the Br’er Rabbit story that ends with “I was born in the briar patch”).
Some stories, of course, have an element of exasperation as well as humor. Ask my grandma about standardized testing and she’ll probably tell you about the time my aunt Sheila was teaching in Montezuma Creek and one standardized test question was something like “Where would you be most likely to see a boat?” Unfortunately, the multiple-choice question writer hadn’t realized that “behind a car” is actually a reasonable answer for Native American kids who see boats mostly when attached to trailers and moving down a road.
Other stories don’t have much humor or exasperation. There’s one about the time back in the 1950s when my grandma risked her job by whispering in Spanish to one of her students with persistent attention problems to “turn around!” From that day on, the relationship between them was different, she says. I guess it’s this: she wasn’t just another face of the school to him once she’d done that. A few words of his language from a white-skinned woman in a place where Spanish wasn’t welcome were enough to set her apart as someone to be listened to. The tone she tells the story with suggests it isn’t about the unjustness of school policies that keep a teacher whose childhood was in split between Chihuahua, Hidalgo, and west Texas from talking to an immigrant kid in a language they share. No, it’s almost reverent: a story of quietly following a higher law of individual connection when rules or policies are no longer sufficient to our fundamental need to serve.
There’s been a lot of talk lately in the media about Mormonism and racism, and it’s not entirely unjustified: in each of our standard works, we still have evidence of times when righteous people felt superior to others on the basis of differences in language or skin color. And among some Latter-day Saints today, similar attitudes persist.
But here’s the thing: my grandma knows Spanish largely because of callings issued by Brigham Young a hundred and fifty years or so ago. She married a Punjabi guy over the objections of Arizona state law but with her father’s firm support because her dad knew my grandpa was a faithful member of the church, and her dad’s confidence in their shared faith was stronger than any possible doubts about race or culture. My Gill grandparents and their descendants speak a total of eighteen languages to date, and have talked about the same unifying gospel in each of those tongues. Two of my half-Punjabi uncles are LDS bishops in England now. Yes: through the LDS church, the sons of a man born under British colonial rule are spiritual leaders in Britain.
And it’s not just my family. Mormonism has been a great source of strength for people of many backgrounds, and has helped bridge or call into question ethnic and racial divides at least as often (and probably much more often) over the past hundred and eighty years than it has reinforced them.
So what’s a writer to do? How do we write productively about race in a Mormon context?
I enjoyed how Richard Dutcher dealt with racial issues in his missionary movies: acknowledging the existence of racial tensions and concerns, but also giving us non-white characters who have a clear sense of belonging in and benefit from their membership in the church. I also enjoyed Paul Rawlins’ “The Garden” (available in Dispensation: Latter-day Fictions), which offers us a white missionary both excited and terrified by people in the townships of South Africa, and a religious (not Mormon) black South African man who makes choices situated in his own difficult family experiences and powerful Christian faith. And I enjoy Scott Hales’ very short story “Album” which acknowledges cultural tension within the church but doesn’t inflate that tension into a disproportionately central conflict in the character’s life.
Not all well-intentioned recent Mormon Lit is successful, though. I was really bothered by Todd Robert Peterson’s “Quietly” (also available in Dispensation), for example, because I felt like the early parts of the story were a vehicle for the white American author’s concerns about race rather than probable motivating concerns of an actual elder from Zimbabwe. It also reduced its central character to those concerns: we see him resenting white church leaders, feeling disconnected from “white prayers,” and wryly noting that General Conference spends more time on the suffering of the pioneers than discussing Hutu-Tutsi violence in Rwanda, but we don’t ever see why he joined the church or what strength he is currently finding in it (and we don’t find out anything, really, about the secondary African female LDS character as a person, though we do get a bizarre, exoticized, Western-myth-reference description of her as an object of desire). I can see how an author like Peterson would feel like he was making an important contribution by not being afraid to engage with racial issues…but he doesn’t end up offering us a productive way to talk about culture and race.
Arianne Cope’s “White Shell,” yet another story in Dispensation, is better in that it gives detailed descriptions of how its protagonist’s Navajo assumptions create misunderstandings and tensions with her white American host family as she participates in the church placement program. But the story stacks the deck rhetorically by making the protagonist atypically young (age seven rather than a high school student) for the actual, historical placement program and by focusing on racially problematic scriptures and cultural beliefs without sharing much about the larger frame of the gospel. So while the detailed discussion of conflicting cultural assumptions makes “White Shell” a far more productive talking point than “Quietly,” the tone of racial indictment still ends up reducing a Native American experience of Mormonism to one dominated by racism rather than a more complex, holistic and realistic experience.
I am bothered by each story I think, because in trying to raise awareness about racism in the church, each implicitly asserts that ours is an essentially white faith, and that ethnicity and Mormon identity are in inevitable competition with each other.
That is not the case, and I think it’s very harmful to believe it is the case.
The church doesn’t keep statistics on race (and in a worldwide church, it’s unclear in any case whose version of race you’d use to measure), but if you add up membership by country, it seems likely that “non-white” members outnumber “white” members today. With so many people from so many cultural backgrounds making lives in the church, I think we need more works that show how people successfully make multicultural lives in the church and fewer writers who focus on making a case for white guilt.
Even if there were no overtly racist attitudes among Latter-day Saints, we’d still have to deal with the challenges of navigating many cultures, and there’d still be things said or done that don’t help with our goal to treat each other not as strangers and foreigners, but as brothers and sisters in a family built around Christ. I hope we as writers learn how to help real Latter-day Saints navigate those tensions, and I hope that in the process we’re able to show how people from many backgrounds can be true brothers and sisters in a shared faith.