Race, Culture, White Guilt, and Mormon Letters

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.

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21 Responses to Race, Culture, White Guilt, and Mormon Letters

  1. Moriah Jovan says:

    Thank you, James. I really REALLY liked that.

  2. Wm says:

    “So what’s a writer to do? How do we write productively about race in a Mormon context?”

    I think one thing we do is get more experience, both mediated through culture and directly through church service, with race and ethnicity and gender and sexuality and class in a Mormon context.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Yes. I think research and experience are a nice combination for a writer.

      It occurred to me during our recent stake conference that mormon.org may be a valuable resource for creative writers. You’re not going to get a ton of depth, but I just found a profile of a guy from Zimbabwe in about 5 seconds of looking: even the short profile gives some insight into what interests and life details of a character might be. And then I can look up details on things like how the education system the profile mentions works, etc.

  3. Scott Hales says:

    This touches on a lot of things that I’ve been thinking and writing about lately. In fact, I’ve spent most of today working on the paper I’ll be presenting next week at the AML Conference, which touches on many of these very issues–and provides some alternative conclusions about “Quietly” that redeem it in my eyes…although I readily agree with much of what you say about that short story and “White Shell,” which I think works better in its expanded form.

    I guess I have a lot to say about this subject. I mean, I agree with your overall argument, but I think we need to be careful about dismissing stories about white guilt. To a certain extent, I think we need them as a way to come to terms with our past and initiate the process of suffering and healing. I also think they are useful ways to get conversations going, which is one reason why I like “Quietly” and “White Shell” despite the problems you indicate in your post.

    At the same time, I think we need to be careful that we don’t use the white guilt story self-righteously.

    I’ve also been thinking lately–and I’m going to try to touch on this at the conference–about the ethics of white American writers telling multi-cultural stories from the perspective of characters who are neither white nor American. I mean, on the one hand, writing fiction is all about appropriating the perspective of someone not like yourself. But do things change when the perspective being appropriated is that of a marginalized group or an ethnic or racial minority? Does fiction writing then become an act of colonization?

    In your readings of “Quietly” and “White Shell,” you seem to suggest (and correct me if I’m wrong) that they do become an act of colonization–at least insofar as they become “a vehicle for the white American author’s concerns.”

    But how else are stories about the non-American experience going to be told when we don’t seem to have a lot of non-American or non-Western writers telling them?

    The easy, safely PC solution would be to avoid telling these stories, not try to presume that you understand how a Mormon in Rwanda feels, stick to missionary fiction, or rural Utah, or whatever, and maintain the current state of Mormon letters. Or, play the reluctant colonizer, try your best, do your research, talk to people, and tell your multicultural stories–polluted though they may be with Western perspectives and presumptions–hoping that they will broaden the landscape of Mormon literature and encourage more people to explore non-traditional Mormon experiences.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Speaking specifically about “Quietly,” yes, I think it’s fair to call it out for projecting a clearly American voice onto a faux African context. I also think that in trying to acknowledge racial tensions, it ends up sending the message that “this is a white church,” which pushes “brown” members to the margins like we (if you count me as brown, otherwise “they”) have to justify their presence in the church. Not helpful.

      As far as what to do: I agree with both you and William that research is essential. “White Shell” is way better on that count. I think in addition to research, you should take pains to think about the overall impact of your story and aim to create space to talk about cultural issues rather than aiming for an indictment of racism or something.

      And I think you should try to get beta readers who have some association with the culture. I mean, when I write about Punjabi stuff–which is part of my own family history and tradition–I still try to run it by relatives who speak Punjabi, spend time in Punjab, etc.

      Given the number of social connections we have in the church, my guess is that most LDS writers have met or talked with at least a few Africans. If somehow you don’t know any Africans, surely you have friends with African friends in their wards. Why not just post something on facebook saying you’re looking for LDS people from x general region in Africa as test readers for a short story?

      • Scott Hales says:

        One thought that I have is that we need to make clear we distinguish between perception and reality. The Church does not present itself as a white church or an American church and it is doing much to promote a more accurate, multi-cultural face for the church. Even so, that doesn’t change certain perceptions about the church–not immediately, at least. I don’t think we should try to dismiss the fact that some people perceive the church in certain ways because they often have unfortunate experiences that inform their perceptions.

        With “Quietly,” I also think it’s important to remember that the story was written in the mid to late 1990s before the Church really began to celebrate diversity in a more visual way. Also, I think its important to remember that the story came out of the the 150th celebration of the arrival of the pioneers. The Utah pioneers were all over the place in Conference and Church publications. So, it maybe has lost some of its relevance, but it’s important for what it tried to do and where it tried to take Mormon literature.

        Incidentally, a former member of the elder’s quorum in my ward was from Ghana, and he once said that he at first resisted baptism because he was put off by what he perceived as a white, Americentric church–much like John in “Quietly.” I also had several mission companion in Brazil who had issues with the American presence of the Church and its former policies about race. Like John, they had strong testimonies, and lived the gospel, but they also did so under certain internal tensions.

        To a certain extent, really, I think we all do so under one tension or another, and fiction is a good place to examine these tension.

        At any rate, I guess what I’m saying is that I agree that “Quietly” is a vehicle for white guilt, but I also think it recognizes a real tension that exists in the church. And for me, I thing “Quietly” is more about that tension than, say, outing the Church as a white Church.

        And by the way, this is really helping me think through my conference paper. Thanks!

        • James Goldberg says:

          I think fiction is a great place to explore tensions…and maybe a step further from “Quietly” is to see we need to capture both sides on the tension. We need to hear about the discomfort and the draw together, or the tension isn’t clear.

          A Congolese friend once said something about how she knew the Book of Mormon was true, but couldn’t bring herself to read certain parts again. In a story, I’d want to know where the commitment to the book comes from along with the source of the pain.

          I actually knew an elderly convert in Germany who said the same thing about the Book of Mormon, only it was the war chapters she couldn’t stand to read. Again: the tension is interesting because of the dual feelings of empowerment and alienation.

  4. C. M. Malm says:

    Totally off-topic, but can I infer that you are Paul Gill’s cousin? Wow, small world.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Nephew. Glad to know you are acquainted with the man I idolized through my childhood (and admire now, since it turns out idolatry is discouraged…).

  5. Jonathan Langford says:

    Telling stories from a point of view not our own is always fraught, and particularly when there’s a history of oppression involved. That said, it seems to me that if we don’t try to tell stories from other people’s points of view, we deny the possibility of getting past those differences — and deny the underlying gospel truth that identity as fellow members of the household of God (both as Church members, and more importantly as children of a common celestial parent) trumps all earthly identities. Inevitably, though, in doing it we’re going to make mistakes.

    This, it seems to me, is one of those areas where the gospel requires us to do something we know we’re going to fail at, which in my view is the awful and terrifying message of the Garden of Eden story. We *must* rely on the Atonement, because the only way forward involves making mistakes that will (among other things) harm others in ways we cannot heal.

    On a different tack: I’ve come to believe that every human culture (at least, those that are not totally corrupt, which I acknowledge as a possibility but would be very hesitant to assert that any real human cultures fall into) share both areas that align with gospel truth and areas that conflict with gospel truth and standards. It’s also my belief that the postmodernists are at least partly right, in that all of us inevitably see the world through the lenses of our own cultures. Which suggests to me that there are elements of the gospel that we are blind to because of the blinkers provided by our own culture. The best hope for coming to know the gospel in other ways is communion with people from different backgrounds, whose lenses perceive different truths from ours (or at least in a different way). Which may not address James’s concerns, or Scott’s, but provides me at least with something I need, which is a way of valuing cultural difference while acknowledging gospel truth that ultimately transcends cultures.

    • James Goldberg says:

      And actually, this is something that would be cool to get from Mormon stories. What does, say, a Buddhist convert intuitively “get” about the gospel that Americans may struggle with?

      There are certainly some prophecies in the Book of Mormon I think it’s way easier for Latin American readers to take at face value than for American readers to catch.

      By looking at different ways of living the gospel, we may become clearer on what exactly the core gospel is.

  6. Jessie says:

    I don’t know if we will ever get better at talking about racial tensions within our culture as a church until we get better at doing that as Americans in general. It’s not just church members that have trouble talking about racial or cultural differences, and even specifically the problem of white guilt. And, honestly, it’s not just Americans who experience racial tensions in wards and stakes. I’ve seen major rifts in Spanish-speaking wards between members who have come from different countries and different socioeconomic backgrounds who, despite their common language and membership in the Church, would normally not have anything to do with each other and now have to try and overcome that cultural baggage to create ward unity.

    • James Goldberg says:

      Yeah…and that might be a cool story to get at the issue of difference. Sort of like Alfred Uhry’s “The Last Night of Ballyhoo” which deals with tensions between old, established Sephardic Jewish families in the south and recently immigrated Ashkenazi Jews.

  7. Th. says:


    I would love to see BYU’s MFA program giving out fullride scholarships to international students. Let’s develop this talent. It must exist.

    • James Goldberg says:

      I’ll bet they’d give the scholarship if we could raise the money. ;) Though since BYU is more interested in national-market literary and commercial writing than with Mormon writing, I don’t know how much it would help.

      It might be better, actually, for a writer interested in Mormon and international writing to spend time in a writing program in Britain. I don’t know much about the programs there, but my impression is that British audiences (including writing teachers) are a little more used to the international than American audiences, who rarely read anything in translation or that takes its foreign setting for granted (except, you know, the Bible).

  8. You point out something interesting. That even those of us who feel we are advocates for inclusion are basically racist in a way, because we call it “inclusion”, as if those of other races and cultures aren’t already included, don’t, in fact, make up a larger percentage of the LDS population at this point than whites. But I’d argue that we still need to make efforts and evangelize. How many GA’s are white? How many from another country? We’re slowly becoming more diverse at every level of the church, but there’s a road ahead of us. And as much as we’d like to be able to make it a non-issue, as long as it’s an issue for some, it’s an issue that all of us have to deal with.

    I say this as a white mother of two black daughters. Who grew up in neighborhoods where racial diversity was about as common as Mormons were… that is to say, not very common.

    I gleaned a lot of reading material from this post, thank you for that.

    • “Inclusion” is in the eye of the beholder. I’m 2 1/2 generations American (my great-grandparents and both of my grandfathers were immigrants). I knew some of my French paternal immigrant ancestors, and although my Polish maternal grandmother and her sisters were born in the USA, they were fluently bilingual, and conducted the conversations they wanted to keep private in Polish. In addition, I have what looks like a complicated French surname that I’ve always had to pronounce and explain for people I meet, so despite being a Caucasian I grew up with a heightened sense of ethnicity. At age 19 I enlisted in the military, which is the country’s ethnic melting pot. I joined the Church when I was stationed in Germany, and my military globetrotting eventually led me to Hawaii for four years, where I attended church with people of Japanese, Filipino and Samoan descent. I left Hawaii and moved to Virginia, where there are many people of color, but when I went to church and ascended the rostrum to introduce myself, I was stunned to be confronted by a sea of pale pink faces: it was total culture shock. Then, I saw a Samoan man in the third row of pews on the left, and relieved to find a “familiar” face, I addressed my remarks to him.

  9. Excellent work, James. I really enjoyed this article. Your viewpoint is always so refreshing.
    In the context of this article, I’m curious to how you would react to how I deal with race and culture issues in _A Roof Overhead_. Are you planning on seeing it this weekend, by chance? If not, I could send you a copy of the script.

  10. Merrijane says:

    I’m late to the party. As I read your essay, I kept thinking about the cultural and racial difficulties that existed when Jesus Christ established his church the first time. The bible gives us a sense of great tension between the original Jewish Christians and later Gentile converts. How did leaders and members overcome it back then? Did they even try? Were they successful? BTW, I’m in the middle of reading your Five Books of Jesus. It is soooooo great. I can’t over-emphasize how much I’m enjoying it.

    • Merrijane,

      I want you to know that when I read your comment in my email, I abandoned my laptop for a moment for some celebratory whooping and endzone-style dancing over your compliment about my book. For a person as arrogant as I am, I can be awfully insecure, and so a qualified compliment means more to me than perhaps it should. ;)

      I’ve read some scholarship on ethnic relations in the Roman world and the evidence is that they were pretty bad in general…early Christians would have had to deal both with the specific Jewish-Gentile tensions and with the common and natural lack of trust between different communities in a violent and difficult world.

      In the long term, they appear to have done very well: Christian bonds are alive long after Roman-era ethnic rivalries are dead and forgotten. But yeah: we only get hints of what it was like in the shorter term. And it’s interesting to think about what sort of troubles the early church had to go through.

      Huh. Come to think of it, the seven presidents of the seventy we have today came out of an early dispute over ethnicity/race. Out of struggles comes important growth.

      • Merrijane says:

        Ha! Glad I could make you happy–I certainly understand how you feel. Would you believe my poetry is not universally admired? :) I’ve been reading snatches of your book to my 7 and 9-year-old boys because (though I’m sure they don’t get all the nuances) you write so clearly that it bring things to life in a way they can understand. Just like Nephi: “I glory in plainness; I glory in truth; I glory in my Jesus …”

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