Ethics Race & Ethnicity rns-ee-migration

Do Mormons Experience the Same Prejudice as Blacks?

This week the Bloggernacle hills are alive with the sound of outrage about a white Mormon editor at Utah Valley magazine who claimed the handle “women of color” to describe the colorfully dressed but all-Caucasian females on her staff. What does this debacle tell us about Mormonism, race, and persecution?

In case you haven’t heard the story, the fiasco involved the headline “women of color” to describe the photo at left, which features no such women to speak of. After being criticized on earlier this month, the headline went viral and the editor (whose name I am not publishing here because I think she is probably a very kind person who is genuinely trying to understand why her headline was offensive) wrote about her “unplanned 15 minutes of fame” on her public blog.

But rather than apologizing, the blog post seems to demonstrate a further lack of awareness about race, especially when she compares the experience of being black to that of being Mormon:

“Although I don’t know what it’s like to be black and I’m not a minority in my valley, I am a religious minority in the United States. As a member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, we are headline news in 2012. The media have published a mix of accurate and inflammatory articles about what we believe. Having Mitt as a member has elevated the interest level and the attacks toward our church. So in a small way, I can understand minority groups feeling misunderstood and misrepresented by the media. I’ve tried to think through an equivalent headline about the minority group of which I’m a part.”

Now, what she says here about Mormonism is true.  There is some very real prejudice against Mormons, as you can see in last week's Washington Post story about how blacks and Mormons remain the two groups facing the most suspicion in the USA.

For example, 20% of voters say they would be uncomfortable if a Mormon married into their family, while 14% say this about African Americans. According to McKay Coppins’s (excellent) interview last night on CNN, the percentage of voters who say they would not vote for a Mormon has hovered around 18% since Mitt Romney’s father ran for president in 1968. 80% of Americans say they know little or nothing about Mormonism.

I’ve blogged myself about some of the pain I have experienced when people judge or reject me solely on the basis of my Mormon faith. Anti-Mormonism exists.

But the Mormon experience of prejudice is in no way comparable to what African Americans go through. Consider this:

So it's incomprehensible to me that a white Mormon could claim she has experienced the same degree of prejudice as African Americans or other persons of color.

But let's look back to the original headline. The editor honestly wants to figure out why it was so offensive. She writes: 

“…here’s the thing. Although hundreds shared their opinions online or in an e-mail, I don’t believe one person clearly articulated WHY this headline was offensive. I’ve heard it was hurtful. I’ve heard it was insensitive. I’ve heard it was wrong. But I didn’t hear why. Although I used the phrase and photo to depict another definition of “color,” my article didn’t mention ethnicity nor mock the black woman’s experience. Please help me understand how this “set back civil rights two decades” and “personally attacks black women.” Although I regret the headline and by all means wouldn’t print it again, the resulting dialogue has been enlightening — and confusing.”

She raises an important question. Vine Deloria and others have written about the dangers of white people co-opting the minority experience, which can be seen as an exercise of dominion, when a powerful majority compromises a minority group’s right to name and define itself.

I wonder if some of her confusion is less about what the media has jumped on (the fact that she lives in 99%-white Utah County) than about broader cultural appropriations of the term “women of color.” She’s not the only one trivializing the phrase. For a good summary of the origins of the 1977 term “women of color,” watch this interesting 3-minute interview about it on YouTube with one of the term’s creators, Loretta Ross.

One of the things Ross notes is that the term is not about biology (having black or brown skin), but about politics; it was created as part of a political agenda for liberation and equality. It’s not about being “colorful,” but about minorities working in solidarity with other oppressed people for racial and restorative justice. “This is a term that has a lot of power for us,” she says. “But we’ve done a poor-ass job of communicating that history so other people can understand it.”

Divorcing the term “women of color” from its origins insults women who seek to name themselves. Using it to describe colorfully attired white women co-opts and trivializes a powerful term of another group's history.

About the author

Jana Riess

Since 2008, Jana Riess has been an acquisitions editor in the publishing industry, primarily acquiring in the areas of religion, history, popular culture, ethics, and biblical studies. From 1999 to 2008, she was the Religion Book Review Editor for Publishers Weekly, and continues to write freelance articles and reviews for PW as well as other publications.

She holds degrees in religion from Wellesley College and Princeton Theological Seminary, and a Ph.D. in American religious history from Columbia University. She speaks often to media about issues pertaining to religion in America, and has been interviewed by the Associated Press, Time, Newsweek, People, the Boston Globe, USA Today, the Los Angeles Times, and Newsday, among other print publications, as well as “Voice of America,” the "Today" show, MSNBC, and NPR’s “All Things Considered,” “Tell Me More,” and “Talk of the Nation.” 

She is the author, co-author, or editor of nine books, including Flunking Sainthood: A Year of Breaking the Sabbath, Forgetting to Pray, and Still Loving My Neighbor; What Would Buffy Do? The Vampire Slayer as a Spiritual Guide; Mormonism for Dummies; and The Writer’s Market Guide to Getting Published. She blogged for Beliefnet before coming to RNS in 2012.