I have two contrasting stories to begin this post.
The first: six months after I was baptized into the Church, I took a job based in Brazil. Two weeks after I moved there, the bishop called me in and gave me a new calling: Young Men’s President and Sunday School Teacher for the Youth (two callings in one!). Given that there were only about eight men in the ward with the priesthood, these callings should not have been a surprise, but they certainly were at the time.
So for about a year I taught the youth for two hours nearly every Sunday. And after I had been there for a year I was visited by a friend from the States who came to Sunday School and said to me, “wow, it must be strange for you to teach a class filled with black kids.”
I turned to him and said, “what are you talking about, they aren’t black.” But then I stopped and thought about it. And indeed they all were black, and I hadn’t even noticed. I had been so nervous about simply doing the job, and so anxious to do it right, and so nervous about learning Portuguese and teaching in Portuguese, that I had never even thought about the race of the young men and women — I had simply seen them as young human beings being taught by a very imperfect teacher who knew less about the Church than they did.
Now, another story. I once worked at a newspaper (I will not tell you which one, but I worked at several newspapers early in my career) that was obsessed with racism. They developed a special “diversity committee” to make sure that when a new reporter was hired race was one of the first things considered. So over the years lots of people applied for jobs there and many dozen were hired, but of course hundreds were turned down.
At one point a friend of mine came to the diversity committee and asked them to reconsider one of the people who was turned down. He was a white man. The committee said, no, they could not reconsider this because they needed diversity in the newsroom and there were too many white men. And besides he wasn’t that great of a reporter anyway. And my friend said, “well, did you know this person is handicapped and is in a wheelchair?”
The committee members were stunned. All of them were obviously thinking the same thing: how could they pass as good sensitive people who were for diversity if they were not allowing diversity regarding the handicapped? So, of course they ignored the fact that this man was “not that great of a reporter anyway” and quickly hired him now that they knew he was handicapped.
Question: who in these stories were the real racists?
While you’re pondering that question, I would like to add that we Americans (and Brazilians in different ways) have made tremendous strides towards becoming less racist. Clearly our histories are filled with racist horrors (Brazil did not give up slavery until two decades after the United States).
As a church, we Latter-day Saints need to face the fact that racism is part of our history. And we also need to face the fact that, based on my experience with a long line of family members and others, many of our members, especially older members, are indeed racist. I have close family members, some of whom are deceased, who would regularly say the most racist things you could imagine. And they were temple recommend-holding members.
But we have made tremendous strides on the issue of race. Ever since I have been a member (going on 10 years now), I have not heard a single member make what I would call a racist comment (unless you count the person visiting me in Brazil who asked about the race of the young men and young women, and he meant it in a “tender, sensitive liberal way” not a “racist conservative” way). In those 10 years, I have been a member of three wards, in Brazil, in Miami and now in Colorado, and I have visited probably a dozen others.
Let me point out that I regularly hear racist comments at work. I heard some just last week, as a matter of fact. But for me Church is, these days, a non-racist haven where people are just people.
When I think of race the way Heavenly Father most likely sees it, I think of the temple. People are people regardless of their skin color, and the temple, with its simplicity, seems to emphasize that. And without being too immodest, I think I achieved a brief moment of non-racism while living in Brazil and teaching that class. It was not planned or expected — it was a natural consequence of trying to serve others and being completely overwhelmed by my own inadequacies.
But one of the things that life has taught me is that we don’t become less racist by obsessing about race. In fact, we generally become more racist by obsessing about race. The newspaper “diversity committee” was all about self-righteousness — they were the only truly non-racists in the entire newspaper because they were on the diversity committee! They were trying to change to world and make it less racist! And in fact, they were making it more racist because they began to identify people only by their race.
So, my plea to Latter-day Saints is: people are people. Try to see them as Heavenly Father does. And that also applies to people whom you think are racist. Heavenly Father loves them too. There is a tremendous amount of self-righteousness in running around pointing out to the world how racist they are (and by extension how non-racist you are).