Untitled, Engraved Printmaking Plate, 8.25" x 9.75" Richard J Van Wagoner, Courtesy of Van Wagoner Family Trust**
After Senators Booker’s and Brown’s inconsistent answers to the question whether Mr. Trump is a racist — “I don’t know what’s in his heart” versus an emphatic “yes,” I looked up the word. Is everyone defining and using it the same way? Strangely, I thought each might have given the other’s answer. Are Senator Booker, an African American who has been forced to develop racial stamina, and Senator Brown, a Caucasian who has not, talking past each other? Can I trust the universal application of the dictionary meaning, particularly since I do not know the race and experience of the lexicographers? I have read arguments that dictionary definitions of racism are naïve and inadequate. This is what one online dictionary says:
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.”
While researching racism for this post, I encountered Why Are White People So Bad At Talking About Race? by Courtney Martin, an interview of Robin DiAngelo, the author of White Fragility. I’m becoming familiar with DiAngelo’s writing and lectures. What strikes me is not that I was an accidental and, eventually, a complicit racist as the term is defined above, something I discuss below. Rather, it’s that I am and continue to be so oblivious to the truth that our social order is built on a footing of white inheritance/privilege designed to sustain and propagate itself by continuing to advantage some and marginalize others. It’s also that recognizing this truth is much too discomfiting to those of us white folk — progressives many — who are confident we are positioned a morally safe distance from any form of racism.
Given my accidents of birth, I had little chance not to become a racist. I was born in northern Utah in the late 50s, male, white and to parents whose religion and culture were devout Mormon. I knew people of color were morally and spiritually inferior in the eyes of god. Why? God said so, through his mouthpieces to whom he revealed his eternal truths. Obedience to their words and directives was priority one and all else would fall into place. If it was good enough for god, it was good enough for me. The year I was born, Mormon apostle and apologist Bruce R. McConkie published Mormon Doctrine. My parents had a copy of the thick black tome and eventually, and proudly, I acquired my own. I studied it, marked it throughout with red pencil, and took it with me to Japan in 1977 as a missionary. That edition included a discussion of consequences on earth of a war in heaven:
“In the pre-existent eternity various degrees of valiance and devotion to the truth were exhibited by different groups of our Father’s spirit offspring . . . some were more valiant than others. . . . Those who were less valiant in pre-existence and who thereby had certain spiritual restrictions imposed upon them during mortality are known to us as the negroes. Such spirits are sent to earth through the lineage of Cain, the mark put upon him for his rebellion against God and his murder of Abel being a black skin. . . . Negroes in this life are denied the priesthood; under no circumstances can they hold this delegation of authority from the Almighty. . . . The present status of the negro rests purely and simply on the foundation of pre-existence. . . . The negroes are not equal with other races where the receipt of certain spiritual blessings are concerned, particularly the priesthood and the temple blessings that flow therefrom, but this inequality is not of man’s origin. It is the Lord’s doing, is based on his eternal laws of justice, and grows out of the lack of spiritual valiance of those concerned in their first estate.”
Mr. McConkie visited the Japan Kobe Mission in early 1978 and spoke at a mission conference. His words are seared in my memory. I wrote about it in my daily journal. With unwavering hubris and certainty, he bore solemn testimony to us that “the negro” would not receive the blessings of god’s priesthood until the second coming of Jesus Christ. Later in 1978, that abruptly changed. No, to the best of my knowledge Jesus hadn’t reemerged in all his glory. But the church, seemingly trying to catch up with the times, let “the worthy negro” receive the blessings of god’s priesthood anyway. Apparently, this had not been some eternal truth after all, but rather a convenience of changing times in which Mormonism followed with cowardice rather than led with moral courage. On August 18, 1978, Mr. McConkie gave his never mind speech:
“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.”
It didn’t make a particle of difference what anyone had said for the first 150 years of Mormonism and the first 20 years of my life? Yes, I paid close attention to this shit. And to exclaim everything is forgotten [and forgiven?], history erased, he may have overlooked the fact that generations of Mormons were indoctrinated with the tenets of overt racism as commanded from above. How one eradicates racism from his entire formative upbringing and experience, coupled with a religion and culture steeped in and built on white privilege and designed for self-propagation, was a mystery. In fact, a major premise of the Mormon Church’s sacred canon, one that distinguished the good guys from the bad guys throughout Mormon mythology, was that the ancestors of American Indians and Latin Americans were “cursed” with dark skin due to their wickedness and unbelief. See Book of Mormon, 2 Nephi 5:21:
“And he had caused the cursing to come upon them, yea, even a sore cursing, because of their iniquity. For behold, they had hardened their hearts against him, that they had become like unto a flint; wherefore, as they were white, and exceedingly fair and delightsome, that they might not be enticing unto my people the Lord God did cause a skin of blackness to come upon them.”
“My people,” as I understood it, were god’s favorites who were not to intermarry with the cursed, the ones like the negro, on god’s shit list. How many times did I read that and similar “scripture”?
I am not suggesting god was a white supremacist. I reserve judgment, however, for the Mormon leaders who created him and perpetuated these hateful myths. Unfortunately, I lacked the wherewithal to muster the moral courage or outrage to recognize this for what it was. If it was good enough for god, it was good enough for me. So yes, I was a racist, and the June 1, 1978 Mormon manifesto didn’t miraculously cure that malignancy.
Long after I departed the Mormon church, church officials attempted to eliminate “vestiges of racist theology that linked dark skin to spiritual accursedness.” Online chapter headings in 2 Nephi, Chapter 5 changed from, “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites are cursed, receive a skin of blackness, and become a scourge to the Nephites,” to “Because of the unbelief, the Lamanites are cut off from the presence of the Lord, are cursed, and become a scourge unto the Nephites.” A second chapter heading in Mormon, chapter 5 changed from, “The Lamanites shall be a dark, filthy, and loathsome people . . .” to “Because of their unbelief, the Lamanites will be scattered, and the Spirit will cease to strive with them . . . .”
Didn’t make a particle of difference to me. The further I get from my decision some 25 years ago, the less relevant and more absurd all this seems.
Confronting my racism hasn’t been easy or, frankly, consistent or persistent. In fact, I haven’t understood the degree of its perpetuation or the depth of its insidiousness. It’s been somewhat more difficult for me than, say, addressing the overagainstness of homophobia, another of Mormonism’s evolving but sustained wars on immutability. When one of your best friends and your brother are gay, the shit doesn’t resonate at quite the same depth, at least for some.
It has taken some time to develop my own moral code, a work in progress. Yes, confronting my racism is rather disquieting, an uncomfortable disassembly. DiAngelo explains what she means by white fragility and how to push back against participation in white privilege. You may not agree with her, but her views are worth serious consideration:
“[White fragility] is meant to capture the defensive reactions so many of us who are white have when our racial world views, positions, identities, or advantages are questioned or challenged. Because we live in a society that is deeply separate and unequal by race — and we are the beneficiaries of that separation and inequality — we are insulated from racial stress. For example, as a white person, I move through the world in racial comfort, with a taken for granted sense of belonging and expectation of racial acceptance.
“Now let me be clear: this does not mean I have had no struggles or faced no barriers. But I have not faced this one — racism — and not facing it has helped me navigate the barriers I do face. Because I so seldom experience racial discomfort in a society my racial group dominates, I haven’t had to build racial stamina.
“Most white people consider a challenge to our racial world views as a challenge to our very identities as good, moral people. It doesn’t take much — the mere suggestion that being white has meaning often triggers defensive emotions such as anger, umbrage, and hurt feelings, and behaviors such as arguing, denying, explaining, minimizing, and withdrawing. These responses work to repel the challenge, return our racial comfort, and maintain our dominance within the racial hierarchy. They also work to punish people of color into not ‘going there’ with us, into staying ‘in their place’ and working to keep us comfortable lest we lash out and make things worse for them. In this way, white fragility is not weakness per se; it is a powerful means of racial control and the protection of our advantage. . . .
“It may be more useful to think about how to use that privilege to open the door to others. Our voices tend to carry more weight, so how might we use them? For example, breaking with white solidarity and making sure that whenever decisions are to be made that affect the lives of people not at the table, you make sure to get them at the table. Once they are at the table, listen, believe, make space. And consistently break silence with other white people about racism. . . .
“We have to recognize white space as racially active, not neutral or inactive. For example, I ask this reflection question in my workshops: ‘What are some of the ways in which your life has been shaped by your race?’ . . . .
There are three consistent patterns that emerge for white people in answering that question. First, white people are deeply uncomfortable (sub-pattern: if we are paired with a person of color we want them to go first so we can model our answer on whatever they say). Second, it is difficult for us to answer that question with any depth or nuance. I have seen white people not be able to fill 60 seconds in answer to that question. Third, when we do answer it, we tend to organize our answer around people of color — a story about my first cross-racial friendship, something someone said about people of color, what my parents thought about them, etc.
“What this reveals is how deeply we associate race with people of color. If they are not present or we are not referring to them, we believe that there is no race at play. “White people often say that since they lived in an all-white neighborhood or rural setting, they know nothing about race. We have to understand that white space is teeming with race. First, in that it is not a fluke that our environments are white; it’s the result of decades of policies and practices. And second, every moment I spend in all-white space I am being reinforced in a white worldview. . . .
“I hope that I am less white, but it’s for people of color to decide if, in any given moment, I am behaving in less white ways. Thinking about it like that keeps me humble and accountable, and reminds me that it is an ongoing process. I can’t be certain of how I am doing, but indicators are that I have a fairly wide variety of authentic, sustained relationships with people of color, they convey to me that they consider me a supportive white person, and they are able to let me know when I am not behaving in supportive ways. I care to know how it’s going for them. I listen, I believe, and I speak up.
“In my experience, most white people believe that niceness is all that is required. We smile at people of color, we are friendly, we go to lunch on occasion. Therefore, we are good to go. But while niceness is better than meanness, it is functionally fairly useless in terms of strategic action. In other words, niceness is not courageous. It won’t break with white solidarity and it won’t get racism on the table when other white people who control the table want it off the table. Niceness is status quo and status quo is racism. Further, what we think is nice may not land that way on people of color. And much of the undermining and hostility they experience happens behind the smile. I can be nice to someone’s face and still undermine their leadership in passive aggressive ways.
“As for what is hardest about trying to be less oppressive, it is how seductive the forces of complicity are. How comfortable it is not to break with white solidarity. How rewarded I am when I don’t make other white people racially uncomfortable. And how ill-equipped I am to determine how well I am doing, given my socialized investments in white supremacy. This is the arrogance, complacency, and apathy I refer to when I say white progressives can be the hardest; we are so sure we have already arrived. And interrupting all of that within myself is hard and on-going.
“The best part is how fantastically transformative it is. How stimulating and liberating. The personal, psychological, intellectual, and emotional growth! The alignment of what I profess to value with the actual practice of my life. The freedom from shame and guilt I feel when I take responsibility to act and repair, and the cross-racial trust repair builds. How this work has pushed me past my conflict avoidance, how brave I have become! Building beautiful authentic relationships that I was denied growing up and for most of my adult life. Overcoming the lie that I was told in countless ways that relationships with people of color were not valuable to have. The expanded humanity!”
*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
**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.comare hers