NO ONE’S BORN A RACIST?*
That’s Not What I Was Taught. That Die Was Cast Long Before I Was Born
The Marble Shooter, Oil on Panel, 36" x 24", Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust
Legitimized and encouraged by the likes of Individual-1, white supremacy’s worldwide resurgence caused me to examine and attempt to deconstruct the sources of my own racism so I could understand it and set out to remove that severe character flaw. In the wake of the scandal surrounding the Governor of Virginia, I committed one such effort to writing and posted a personal essay concerning my own struggle with racism: Traces of Blackface in the Mirror
From time to time I’ve half-joked that merit-based systems are the real source of the hatred and fear exhibited by the extremist racist KKK Nazi white supremacist nationalist separatist alt-right types. Enjoying lives advantaged by the spoils of inherited privilege (white, male, Christian(ish)), they worry, the half-joke goes, that decisions going forward could start to be made on the merits.
Activists, resisters, and others with a conscience often declare “no one is born a racist.” That statement makes perfect, logical sense, of course, but I react with something akin to cognitive dissonance or inexplicable doubt about its veracity whenever I hear it. Upon further self-reflection, I’ve concluded that my strange discomfort must be a reaction to the formative religious teachings used to indoctrinate me and others. I am spending considerable effort trying to eradicate from my mind and character the immoral and indefensible racist impulses resulting from the dogma I was taught as a child and teen — that god favors whites because they are morally superior to . . . well . . . others. That’s pure, unadulterated racism.
prejudice, discrimination, or antagonism directed against someone of a different race based on the belief that one’s own race is superior.
synonyms: racial discrimination, racialism, racial prejudice/bigotry, xenophobia, chauvinism, bigotry, bias, intolerance;
the belief that all members of each race possess characteristics or abilities specific to that race, especially so as to distinguish it as inferior or superior to another race or races.”
In June 1978 (just shy of my 20th birthday) the Mormon church prophet announced that god had told him henceforth all worthy men, regardless of race, could receive the blessings of the priesthood. Since then the church has gone through tortured excuses, explanations and justifications for withholding the priesthood from the “negro” during the first 148 years of its existence, particularly in the face of extensive, racist speeches and writings on the subject by the men, always men, who claimed to speak for and reveal the mind and will of god.
I frankly don’t care about the Mormon church’s latest spin or excuse, be it that the deprivation was god’s directive, was based on now outdated or debunked eternal truth as revealed by god, was never actually (or is no longer) embraced by the church as doctrine, dogma or canon, was simply a policy — a purportedly necessary product of society and the culture of the times, or whatever they come up with.
I also don’t care whether or how the Mormon church explains that pre-June 1, 1978 “negros” were “cursed” with black skin because of misconduct in the “preexistence,” but post-June 1, 1978 “negros” don’t carry that “curse.” Same with American Indians whose skin was darkened as a “curse” due to their unrighteousness. (The Book of Mormon is a seriously racist tome.)
What I do care about is the lasting effect the formative racist instructions had on me during the early part of my life, the origins of that character flaw, its utter despicability and irrationality, its stubborn endurance, and the most effective means to root out that rot. Regardless of the Mormon church’s current efforts to explain away or justify its history of racist pronouncements advanced as god’s eternal truth — as heard and understood by impressionable young minds, after-the-fact rationales do nothing to repair the damage.
Drilled into me as a child and teen — on a weekly if not daily basis — was the emphatic directive that the Mormon leaders, to the exclusion of all others, had a direct pipeline to god and they alone declared god’s eternal truth, what they said constituted the actual words god had spoken to them, and I was not to question but must believe, obey and incorporate whatever they said as values in my life.
Early on I was taught that god was a separatist in the “preexistence” and fortunately for me, I was one of god’s “elite.” As a 12-year-old, I received a “blessing” that confirmed my elite status, that god had saved me for the “last days” because of my valiance. The “blessing” reassured me my stead with god was favored, largely because I had made the right choices in the “preexistence,” unlike the “negros.” They were cursed with dark skin because their enthusiasm for god’s plan wasn’t to his liking, or something like that.
Some Mormon leaders who were most vocal about the “negros’” moral inferiority found support for this view in the writings of Joseph Smith, the church founder, including his purported translation of Egyptian scrolls that, the Mormon church claims, supplement and elucidate the biblical stories relating to the first families on earth and their progeny.
As an infant and young child, I couldn’t know or understand it. From a very early age, however, I came to believe that I, along with all white people, was born a racist. Of course, I didn’t think of it in offensive terms. Something so vile and pernicious, presented to a child and young teen as god’s truth, seemed innocuous and reassuring. I was, after all, morally superior. Based on the self-assured utterances of those who claimed to speak god’s eternal truths, I came to believe that cast was die well before I was born.
If it was good enough for god, it was good enough for me.
*My brother the very talented fiction writer and novelist, Robert Hodgson Van Wagoner, deserves considerable credit for offering both substantive and technical suggestions to https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com
**Richard’s list of honors, awards and professional associations is extensive. He was Professor Emeritus (Painting and Drawing), Weber State University, having served three Appointments as Chair of the Department of Visual Arts there. He guest-lectured and instructed at many universities and juried numerous shows and exhibitions. He was invited to submit his work as part of many shows and exhibitions, and his work was exhibited in a number of traveling shows domestically and internationally. My daughter Angela Moore, a professional photographer, photographed more than 500 pieces of my father’s work. On behalf of the Van Wagoner Family Trust, she is in the process of compiling a collection of his art work. The photographs of my father’s art reproduced in https://medium.com/@richardvanwagoner and https://lastamendment.com are hers