Editor’s note: During Winter Semester 2020, journalism students examined several societal issues that directly impact the BYU community because “The world is our campus.” This story is part of a series called “The World Meets Our Campus.”
COVID-19 has cleared BYU of its student population, but the reality of what some students have dealt with in the past and will likely face when they return hasn’t changed.
Both Russell M. Nelson, President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, and BYU President Kevin J Worthen issued statements on Monday, June 1, condemning racism in any form and calling for change.
They acknowledged that racism is a continuing problem in the nation and on campus, after nationwide protests over the recent deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor and George Floyd became catalysts for nationwide protests and violence.
BYU and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints have experienced issues with racism for years, and people of color are struggling to find the respite and refuge that the majority find in these places.
BYU’s student body is largely caucasian; 81% of students identify as caucasian, while black students make up 1% of the school’s population. BYU advertising student Kofi Aidoo said coming to BYU was very isolating for him because he is one of a handful of black students at BYU.
“When I first got here, you just felt out of place. You’re just the only one in the room for everything: church, the gym, classes, meetings,” Aidoo said. “Whenever you’re the only black person in the room, you’re most looked at to represent every black person in the world for these people.”
Though feeling out of place as a minority doesn’t equate to racism, attitudes that frame non-white students as “other” do.
Racism in the Church
Today’s racism within the Church can be traced back to its early attempts to be seen as a white church, according to Paul Reeve, a professor of Mormon history at the University of Utah.
Reeve found that in the 19th century the Church accepted Native Americans and African Americans into its congregations when the rest of white Americans believed those people should be rejected and segregated. “As a result you have the conflation of Latter-day Saints with other marginalized groups,” he said.
According to Reeve, the Church then tried to distance itself from minority converts and members by implementing race-based restrictions. The Church’s Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood says President Brigham Young announced that black Latter-day Saint men could no longer receive the priesthood in 1852, and Reeve said these priesthood restrictions were solidified by Joseph F. Smith in 1908.
Although the Church officially allowed black males to receive the priesthood in 1978, the Church continued to maintain its “whiteness” during this time, according to Reeve.
Even in the 21st century this image of whiteness stuck with the Church. Reeve pointed to Mitt Romney being called “the whitest white man to run for president” in the New York Times as proof that Mormonism and whiteness are still connected.
“In the 19th century, Mormons were perceived as not white enough,” Reeve said. “By the 20th and 21st century they had become too white.”
Racism at BYU
Many of the racist attitudes Reeve traces back to the Church’s early history have spilled into BYU’s campus culture. In the past couple of years, there have been a handful of events that highlighted the racism on campus in addition to what minority students experience every day.
In November, someone posted unauthorized stickers and posters around campus that contained white supremacist messages. In October 2018, a student showed up to a Halloween event on campus wearing blackface as part of a costume. The student later apologized and said he realized the costume was offensive.
More recently a BYU black and immigrant panel in February ended with a Q&A full of racist questions, submitted anonymously by people in the audience at the event. The questions asked why there is no white history month, why African Americans hate the police and why there were no white people on the stage.
In response to the panel and the racist questions, students wrote op-eds and posted their perspectives on Twitter and social media. Some students said BYU is partially responsible for the racism on campus, and others argued it’s not BYU’s fault.
BYU history professor David-James Gonzales posted one of his student’s Salt Lake Tribune op-ed and a BYU law student’s op-ed on the corkboard outside his office. Gonzales said these op-eds explained what institutional racism was and how BYU was responsible for creating an environment that allowed for the racist comments at the panel.
Shortly after he posted the op-eds, someone stuck their own response on his board that criticized him for only sharing certain views and not others.
“How ironic for you/your students to be claiming and exercising your unfettered right to express and post publicly on campus your criticism of BYU and simultaneously asserting the university should shackle and chain speech you don’t approve of,” read the post on his board.
Gonzales has taught at BYU since Fall 2018, and he said this wasn’t the only instance of racism he has seen. “There’s something about the campus climate and culture that makes it so that students feel like they’re entitled to go out to a student of color, whether that was Latino or African American, and to make a racist comment.”
He added that while many students think of racism in terms of things like school segregation or the Ku Klux Klan, racism can be more subtle. “I think there’s a fundamental misunderstanding by a lot of our students of what racism is,” Gonzales said.
He pointed out that oftentimes BYU students have grown up in places with similar demographics to BYU where the majority of residents are Caucasian with only a few people of color. “Students misunderstand racism because they grew up in environments where they don’t see it,” Gonzales said. “It’s certainly never been taught to them; it’s certainly never been explained to them.”
In February, two black BYU advertising students, Evelyn Harper and Kofi Aidoo, published a website called Check Your Blindspot with the aim of helping BYU students understand what racism is and what black students experience on campus.
Harper and Aidoo have experienced racism on campus. Both students said they have gotten used to what it is like to be a black student at BYU, but when they first arrived, it was hard.
“I just kind of felt misunderstood by lots of people, and people just kind of assumed a lot about me from just my race and ethnicity,” Harper said. “That for me was really off putting because it just meant I had to explain myself even more to people.”
Aidoo, from California, and Harper, from Indiana, said they feel like students are shocked to see them, and sometimes the other students stare at them because they are black students. “People don’t stare at me where I’m from,” Harper said.
Harper and Aidoo’s project split the solution into three steps: accept that racism is an issue, have empathy for those who suffer due to racism, and show up and help. “I think empathy is kind of where all of those things come from,” Harper said.
Aidoo added that empathy is understanding that not everyone’s experiences are the same. “When you come to BYU, it’s the Lord school; it’s the perfect place. For a lot of the students, that’s how it’s perceived as,” Aidoo said. “We fail to realize that not everyone’s experiences (are) perfect like that.”
Aidoo and Harper hope to see changes on the institutional level to help combat racism at BYU. Aidoo said adding a general education course about race and ethnicity like sociology 323, sociology of race and ethnicity, would help students. He also said he’d like to see a similar class for faculty members.
In addition to adding required classes on race, Aidoo said he’d like to see racism defined in the Honor Code, so it could be a reportable offense. Currently the Honor Code says students and faculty should respect others but doesn’t include anything about racist comments or attitudes.
President Worthen acknowledged the comments made at the black and immigrant panel were racist at a later Black History Month event called Perspectives. Harper said she appreciated that he addressed the issue. “I do think we have a different president that’s actually willing to at least try to figure it out,” she said.
Gonzales said he has learned a lot about what it is like to be an undocumented immigrant or a part of the LGBT community by listening to their experiences. “The important thing to do is to find people that have experiences and perspectives that come from cultures, ethnicities and races that you don’t and listen to them,” Gonzales said.
At the most recent General Conference of the Church, Elder Jeffrey R. Holland of the Quorum of the Twelve mentioned the need to end racism. “May we hope…for the gift of personal dignity for every child of God, unmarred by any form of racial, ethnic or religious prejudice,” he said during his talk about hope. Reeves said the Church and its leaders need to do more than just speak out against racism and acknowledge that some previous teachings within the Church were racist.
The Gospel Topics essay on race and the priesthood says the Church doesn’t stand by these teachings and leaders now condemn all forms of racism both in the present and the past.
“‘We taught that. We practiced, produced, created racism, and it was wrong.’ That’s what the church needs to say,” Reeve said. “Until the Church actively teaches anti-racism, we’ll be stuck with our racism.”