Racism at BYU

October 1, 2019

Web Only Fall 2019 Feature

Kirstie Stanger Weyland was born in Ethiopia then later adopted and raised in the Provo-Orem Utah area. She served a Spanish-speaking mission to Panama from 2015-2016. Kirstie completed her Bachelor of Science degree in Sociology and a minor in Africana Studies in April 2018. She worked as an administrative assistant for the Priesthood and Family Department of the Church for almost a year, assisting in research efforts for the new Children and Youth Development Program, the Come, Follow Me Curriculum, and the Scriptures Divisions within the Department. Kirstie is currently a 1st year Graduate Student in the Sociology Department at BYU. She is hoping to study crime and deviance, immigration, and public policy.

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 My “Foundations of the Restoration” professor justified the priesthood ban for blacks by saying, “Let’s not pretend that God hasn’t made racial restrictions for the priesthood and gospel before. He didn’t want the gospel being taught to the Gentiles at one point. I don’t know why God makes these restrictions but he let both go on for a long time.” Although I might not know the history of these restrictions well, I was offended by his statement and his attempt to brush off questions about the topic. I was the only African-American in this class of 200 people yet everyone who asked a question had a problem with the ban, and the professor responded defensively to them. His approach to shutting down students’ questions and telling them to not criticize past prophets hindered our ability to ask questions and not accept everything with “blind faith.” 

A friend of mine from BYU (who is white) and I were talking about the resurrection and what would physically happen to us. He asked me: “Don’t you think that after the resurrection you’ll be white like Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ?” His incorrect assumptions that were 1.  To be perfect we all need to be white and 2. Heavenly Father and Jesus Christ are white. I responded: “No absolutely not. If God wanted me to be white, he would’ve made me white in the first place. My physical features are connected to my African heritage as well as my skin color which are a part of my identity. Also, there is no revelation or scripture that ever mentions the race or skin color of Christ or Heavenly Father, only that we were all made in Their image, and I know that I am also made in their image. 

When I worked in the Family Home and Social Sciences Writing Lab at BYU, there were many students who wrote opinion-based research papers that had racist undertones to them. One student, for instance, wrote a paper about why affirmative action is wrong, citing a court case of a white Texan girl who sued a Texas University for allowing black students admission when they allegedly had lower grades and test scores than her. This student wrote that: “it was obvious that these black students could not have all gotten in because of merit.” I pointed out to her that she was making a logical fallacy—but even though I called it a logical fallacy, I knew her assumption was based in racist beliefs.

I usually internalize the bitterness I feel as a result of encountering people or comments that are racist. I’ve learned to deconstruct the hate, resentment, and embarrassment I have felt so I don’t carry it with me. I hear racist things said in class and often can’t bring myself to counter it with a better argument without feeling angry. I don’t always want to hold the burden of speaking up against racism because I am often the only minority in the room. I wish I had more allies to help me. Luckily I have found a number of allies who care about me personally and who care about racial issues at BYU. 

The gospel and my belief in the power of forgiveness have helped me deal with the racism I encounter. I have had to constantly remind myself that I am not a member of the Church because of the people, and I do not go to Church for the people there. I love my Savior and my Heavenly Father and I know I belong to their restored Church. I can’t live with the burden of racism without the Savior’s love and the power of His atonement to heal the wounds and pain I feel from being black in America and in the Church. I’ve become more empathetic of people’s situations and imperfections. I have many imperfections as well—racism isn’t one of them, but for others it is; but that doesn’t make them worse than me. If I don’t allow others the same courtesy to mess up, like I do for myself, then I would be a hypocrite. Forgiveness and empathy is always lighter to carry, and don’t destroy my personal wellbeing. 

I think that in some ways my experience is different than other black students at BYU because I grew up in Utah and I am used to being the only black person in school and at Church. I was also raised in a white family, so the white cultural aspects of Utah aren’t very different from what I was raised around. I’m not as familiar with parts of black culture that are more common in other parts of the United States. It’s really important to understand that black students’ life experiences are different. I know it must be especially hard for black students who come from predominately black areas and/or come from non-member areas. I know one way to combat the discomfort of being the only black person in many contexts is to make friends and allow people to get to know me for who I am. I’m sure that growing up in an all-Mormon and all-white cultural context has helped me understand the culture here but making friends and feeling alone in a sea of white members of the Church can be intimidating to other black students.  

There are some things I wish would change at BYU to improve the experience of black students. For instance, I think professors need to be well-educated on topics of race and be sensitive when they are talking about race in a class, with or without racial minority students present. A class at BYU could easily be made up of all white students, and I can imagine there are a few insensitive and racist comments spoken openly without a person of color present. Professors need to be our allies and have sensitivity training by others who know how to teach topics on race, racism, and African-American History.  

Within the Church, I wish there was more talk against racism in Church lesson manuals and devotionals (both BYU and churchwide). We need this topic addressed at greater length and in greater depth than in one sentence in a General Conference talk. Conversing about an issue makes it clear what the issue is, and what is and is not a personal opinion. The statement the Church released condemning white supremacy and racism after the Charlottesville Massacre is a clear example that the Church has not made it clear enough in the past that it doesn’t support white supremacist ideals or racism. Why should that have to be clarified by the church? Using direct and clear language when it comes to the priesthood ban needs to happen. For the past 187 years, people inside and outside of the Church have thought it’s a white church, led by white leaders. Members need to be taught about black pioneers, including African American members of the Church, and not just members in Africa and congregations in Africa who have different experiences with racism in the Church and in their countries.  Every time I go to the temple or to a new ward people shouldn’t assume I’m a convert, but should try to welcome me and get to know me.

I first learned about the Church’s history of racial restrictions from a devotional talk that Thurl Baily gave on TV. I was a young girl and I felt hurt and shocked at the notion that such a racist policy was in place in Christ’s church. It was as a student at BYU that I read in detail about the history of racism and the priesthood ban in the Church. I was so upset that prophets and apostles, who were ordained of God, could make such racist comments and condone the restriction. No wonder there is so much racism among members of the church; they can quote prophets and apostles with those same sentiments. I had a really difficult time afterwards with trusting these imperfect men to be better than the way they were raised in a broken society. I can remember dreading General Conference—expecting to see more white men and white women receive leadership roles. I was pleasantly surprised to see Elder Gong and Elder Soares made apostles, and thought about the millions of members who can relate to them and feel represented in an all-white/almost all-Utah leadership. That conference was an answer to my prayers because I realize that we do have imperfect members and leaders but because Christ is perfect and He the head of the Church, things will get better. We still have progress to make, but I am confident that we are moving in the right direction. I am beyond grateful for the strides being made to have more multi-cultural inclusion within Church leadership, as well as the increased efforts of General Authorities to visit non-white nations. It seems like we are moving toward an age of inclusion, respect, and anti-racist ideals. I also appreciate that the entire church is going to celebrate the 1978 Revelation on the Priesthood for its 40th Anniversary, knowing that has never happened before.

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