White Privilege in the LDS Church: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

On August 15, the Church issued a revised statement about racism in response to the terrorism in Charlottesville. Its initial statement was too general; it left too much room for misinterpretation. The second statement states that “white supremacist attitudes are morally wrong and sinful.”

Amen.

Also, finally.

Finally, a statement about racism from the Church. I’m hoping for even more.

In her Op-Ed in Deseret News, Zandra Vanes writes, “Racism is a sin. An LDS Church definition of sin is “to willfully disobey God’s commandments or to fail to act righteously despite a knowledge of the truth.” It seems pretty straightforward, right? Except for that key word, “knowledge.” The fact is, there’s a facet of Latter-day Saints that don’t actually “know” what racism is or “know” that it’s a bigger deal to the church than say, swearing. And quite frankly, how would they know? If you go to lds.org and type in racism, there are resources, but refine the search to general conference, you’ll get a whopping result of … one. Do the same thing for pornography and you’ll get talks for days. That’s exactly how LDS folks know porn’s a problem and how to face it. We learn and teach about it within the church.”

It easier to believe that racism looks like white supremacists terrorizing Charlottesville because well-intentioned folks can tell themselves, I’m not like them. I’m not racist. In reality, racism is more subtle and insidious. It is “an invisible system conferring dominance” on one group. Newsflash: its white people. In an earlier post I wrote, “in its most basic form, racism is prejudice plus power. For better or worse, we are socialized to develop prejudices about others. However, as Peggy McIntosh writes, white people carry an invisible knapsack of privilege that most do not even realize they possess. These privileges are attached to great power. Conversely, people of color are acutely aware of the prejudice they face and the privileges and power that are withheld from them. The systems created by this combination of prejudice and power have been solidified and compounded throughout history and over generations. They are unquestioned because they are woven so imperceptibly, so normally, into our structures, institutions and beliefs. But, once you see this racism, it cannot be unseen. It is everywhere.”

White Latter-day Saints also have an invisible knapsack of privilege in the Church. The list below is inspired by Peggy McIntosh’s seminal essay, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack” in which she identifies the daily effects of white privilege in her life. She counts the ways in which she “enjoys unearned skin privilege and ha[s] been conditioned into oblivion about its existence.” It is this oblivion that allows so many white people to be unconscious oppressors.

Here are a few ways white privilege exists in the Church (most of the items below reference Latter-day Saints in the United States. Some may be applicable worldwide):

  1. When at church, a church function, or socializing with other Latter-day Saints, White Latter-day Saints (WLDS) can, if they wish, arrange to be in the company of other white people most of the time.
  2. If they feel uncomfortable, misunderstood or mistrusted, WLDS can avoid spending time with people of color socially, at church or church functions. And, for WLDS, experiences as a minority are temporary. WLDS can usually return to a place where they are in the majority (i.e. after a mission).
  3. If they feel isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance or feared in the LDS community, WLDS don’t need to wonder if their race is the cause.
  4. When moving, WLDS can be pretty sure they can move into a ward with other white people.
  5. WLDS can open church materials, or view church media and see white people widely represented. In some older church videos, white people are painted brown to portray people of other races.
  6. WLDS can be sure their children will be given church materials that show their race.
  7. WLDS can easily find religious paintings, post-cards, posters, children’s books and magazines containing images of Jesus with white children and/or featuring white children.
  8. WLDS can see paintings of people of their race in the temple – Biblical figures will often be painted to look white.
  9. WLDS can see people of their race in the temple video.
  10. Current and former members of the First Presidency and the Quorum of the Twelve Apostles are all white.
  11. Most speakers during General Conference are white.
  12. WLDS can be sure that at least one, if not all, members of their ward and stake leadership will be of their race.
  13. When WLDS watch the Mormon Tabernacle Choir perform, they have no difficulty finding someone of their race. In other words, MoTab is overwhelmingly white.
  14. The contributions of WLDS are the main focus of lessons on church heritage and history.
  15. “Pioneer” in the Church is nearly always synonymous with a white experience.
  16. A WLDS can be pretty sure her/his voice will be heard, even if s/he is the only white person in a group.
  17. WLDS can be casual about whether or not to listen to a person of color’s voice.
  18. WLDS do not have to educate their children about systemic racism in the church to protect their spiritual, emotional, and physical safety.
  19. WLDS can choose whether the Church’s legacy of institutionalized racism will affect their religious experience.
  20. WLDS will not be told their skin color is a result of sin.
  21. If WLDS are set-up on dates, they don’t need to wonder if race was the connecting factor.
  22. WLDS don’t need to worry if race is the reason they are single, and/or rarely date.
  23. When a WLDS marries a WLDS, no one assumes they met while one served a foreign mission. In contrast, if a person of color marries a WLDS, many assume the couple met while the WLDS served a foreign mission…because how else would they get together?
  24. WLDS usually do not need to worry about the racial attitudes of their children’s church leaders, teachers or peers.
  25. WLDS parents can easily arrange playdates with children that share the same race and religion as their own.
  26. If something unpleasant happens at church or with another Latter-day Saint, WLDS do not need to wonder if the situation or interaction had racial overtones.
  27. WLDS can make mistakes, forget their visiting/home teaching, forget to respond to emails, or be late for meetings and not have people attribute these choices to the culture or morality of their race.
  28. WLDS can speak in church without putting their race on trial.
  29. When WLDS give talks in church, no one expresses surprise at how well they speak English.
  30. WLDS can listen to original stake or General Conference messages without using headphones or losing meaning in translation.
  31. WLDS can participate in class without being asked to speak for all white people.
  32. If WLDS hold leadership positions in church, they can usually be sure that complaints about their leadership are not race-related.
  33. WLDS can find many people of their race at any Church-run school.
  34. WLDS will almost never be asked where they are from, and/or greeted in a foreign language by returned missionaries hoping to find someone from their country of service.
  35. WLDS can behave in ways that don’t fit the church norm without worrying people will attribute it to their color.
  36. Music at church almost always reflects a white, European musical style; other musical traditions are not considered “appropriate” for church.
  37. WLDS can go to church functions and find foods that fit their cultural traditions. Unless…see #39.
  38. WLDS culture, music and food is considered normal; other people’s traditions, music and food might be acknowledged or appropriated during an annual ward activity.
  39. WLDS do not have to experience the dissonance of attending church with people who support political policies and rhetoric that oppresses people of their race.
  40. WLDS can remain oblivious to the language and customs of people of color who increasingly make up the church’s population, without feeling any penalty for this oblivion.
  41. White Savior complex.
  42. White church culture and norms are often conflated with the gospel.
  43. WLDS can ignore the perspectives and powers of people of color at church without fear of repercussion.
  44. If WLDS declare there is or is not a racial issue in the church, their race will lend them more credibility for either position than a person of color will have.
  45. WLDS can worry about racism in the Church without being seen as self-interested or self-seeking.

For me, the Church can be a place of paradoxes. It is where I experience racism espoused by good-hearted, loving people. Over the years, and particularly in our current political and social context, it has become increasingly difficult for me to reconcile these two opposing realities.

I’ve come to the conclusion that ignorance can no longer be an excuse for perpetuating racism. It can no longer be an excuse for unintentional micro-aggressions. More and more voices are speaking about and against racism; ignorance is now willful and destructive. It upholds racist people, policies and systems. See: current events.

We cannot teach love and unity between all people without a willingness to do the work required to get there. Professing “I love everyone; I don’t see color” is just another form of racism; it negates the voices and experiences of people of color, and perpetuates the status quo. We can only pray our way to love and unity after we do all that we can do.

This means we cannot be silent. Silence is complicity. Silence is violence. We are not silent about pornography. We are not silent about chastity. We cannot be silent about racism.

We have to talk about racism in the Church. We have to teach about it. We have to speak up against it. We have to embrace discomfort and engage in difficult conversations if it means we can become a Church where “neither were there Lamanites, nor any manner of –ites; but they were in one, the children of Christ, and heirs to the kingdom of God” (4 Nephi 1:17).

14 thoughts on “White Privilege in the LDS Church: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack

  1. Not sure if you’ve seen this article. It points to a history of racism in the church that contributes to the realities of today. http://archive.sltrib.com/article.php?id=5371962&itype=CMSID

    “LDS leaders offered no apology nor, at the time, any in-depth analysis of the reasons for the exclusionary policy. Justifications, including the notion that blacks were descendants of a biblical bad guy, Cain, or that they were less valiant in a premortal existence, continued to be taught and touted by members. Statements dismissing or denigrating blacks offered by previous Mormon authorities remained in print and often were embraced by believers long after the ban’s demise”

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  2. By your definition isn’t God a racist? He set up the laws of genetics so that white parents only produce white children. And Jesus must be too because he chose 12 white apostles to minister with him. And they both appeared to a white boy in the woods. I’m not a racist though because I pass the basketball to my black teammates every Saturday morning. I’m not saying there aren’t racist mormons but I think you are extreme in your views. I wish you the best in your endeavors.

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      1. Do you mean brown like Nephi the middle eastern Jew? My point is that Jesus didn’t go around and pick a few people of each race to serve as apostles from the surrounding countries and God gave no affirmative action type of commandment that I’m aware of in the scriptures that skin color should factor into callings. I’m not trying to be a jerk but it i just don’t agree with most of your points of so called white privilege. It is actually a disadvantage for a racist person of any color to be able to “arrange to only socialize” (from your point 1) with only people of their own color because they will never get to know people and break out of stereotyping others. The privilege would be to live in a very diverse ward and be “forced” into talking to and serving with people every color. I think the more we keep focusing on racism the worse it’s going to get. I thought it would get better when we elected President Obama but it seems worse. If you’re personally being discriminated against then I’m sorry. we all need Jesus’s help to overcome the injustices of life- the ones we cause and the ones we have to suffer. Let’s focus on people. I know you have good intentions and I’m sure I sound like a jerk to you but this my take. On another note you have a beautiful family.

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        1. We should always focus on loving and understanding people. We are to love as Christ loved, which is individually and perfectly. However, we can’t focus on people and thus, remain blind to systems. White privilege isn’t about overt, individual acts of discrimination; it is about social systems that impact people differently. One doesn’t need to have overtly racist beliefs in order to benefit from or perpetuate systems of privilege. I disagree with your idea that focusing on racism makes it worse. Ignoring it makes it worse. It is there, it has always been there, the systems in place were created generations ago and then maintained both intentionally and unintentionally. Talking about racism might make someone who has never thought about it deeply or experienced it personally uncomfortable – perhaps this is why it feels like it’s getting worse; it’s just being brought into the light. But until people can talk about it openly, we won’t be able to address its impacts nor move forward with positive change. Awareness is the first step. Dialogue and understanding are all parts of loving others – it’s not always easy or comfortable, but it is definitely worth it!

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    1. My definition of racism is prejudice plus power. God has power, but no prejudice; He knows and loves all of his children. So no, by this definition, God is not racist. As several people already commented, Jesus and the Apostles were Middle Eastern Jews. They were not white. Racism has nothing to do with biology and everything to do with socialization. It seems that you have misunderstood the main points of the blog.

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  3. I think we need to be careful when making such statements when we do not distinguish the church (Gospel of Jesus Christ) from the culture of the church. If you have a true testimony of the gospel and live by its principles, then your at least trying to live a life apart from racism by treating people as children of God instead based on their race or ethnicity. HOWEVER, most points of this list are spot on, as being a non-white LDS member, I’ve experienced much of this. The culture of the church does breed overt racism given that it was started by white people in a time period where “science” tried to justified the genetic “inferiority” of our African-American brothers and sister. There are also racist members, unfortunately, that try to use scriptures, or discourses of Brigham Young (a prophet, but a very MORTAL prophet), to justify racism. And definitely, there is overt racism, as so beautiful demonstrated by Rick Erekson…”And Jesus must be too because he chose 12 white apostles to minister with him.” We so quickly forget that the Bible and the Book of Mormon, holy scriptures, were mostly written and were accounts of non-white people. This topic must be discussed more often by everyone on all levels of the church.

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    1. Thank you for leaving your thoughts! I really appreciate your differentiation of the gospel and the culture of the Church. I think that there are a lot of really genuinely loving people who really try to love others and treat them as children of God, but who are also completely unaware of the ways we have all been socialized to see and react to race. This is how we end up with people who are generous and kind, but who simultaneously and usually unconsciously do or say things that hurtful, or that perpetuate the inequitable status quo. The overt racism is easier to recognize and denounce. I think that the covert, subtle racism is sometimes more destructive.

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  4. As a person with white skin married to a person with dark skin, I find many of these statements true. My spouse comes home from church and talks about how racism exists. It has opened my eyes to things I’ve never seen. I think racism can take on many forms, though, and can exist with people who don’t have “power”. I’ve heard these comments many times: “You must be right because you’re white”. Or, “That’s too whitish for me”. I often walk into a room when im with my spouses friends and family and they give me the exact treatment you described. Yes, i can return to my mostly white friends, but my point is, prejudice exists in every race and we all need to work on it.

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    1. I agree that prejudice exists in all people and that we must work to develop greater understanding. The combination of prejudice and power – racism – is oppressive because people with power acting on their prejudices create systems and institutions that elevate some and hold back others. This isn’t to say that prejudice in any form isn’t terrible – it absolutely is! – but that it doesn’t have the same effects and systemic racism does in society.

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