I didn’t expect to revisit this topic so soon, but here we go: America has a problem with racism. The recent vigilante lynching of Ahmaud Arbury in Georgia and the strangulation of George Floyd under the knee of a police officer in Minnesota have brought this issue to a head again in the United States.
We have made a lot of progress in the last 100 years. Discrimination based on race is explicitly forbidden by laws at all levels of government and by employer policies at most workplaces. But despite this progress people who belong to racial minorities continue to feel that things are not quite fair for them, and there are still measurable differences between races for things like income, upward mobility, and various health outcomes.
Please understand that my goal here is not to offend anyone, but simply to share my perspective as a human being, as a medical doctor, and as a person of faith, in the hope that it will be a useful voice in the dialog. I think part of what holds back societal progress on this issue is that a lot of us don’t feel safe to talk with each other about it, and I want to do my part to change that culture.
In the Zone
Comfort zone is a multidimensional concept that includes familiar geography, activities, circumstances, and people. Race can be one dimension of a comfort zone, depending on what positive or negative experiences you have had with people of different races. Life has a way of repeatedly throwing you outside of your zone, and usually that ends up being a good thing. Over the years my comfort zone has gotten pretty big when it comes to engaging with people of diverse backgrounds.
And do you know what I have learned? Intellectual brilliance, artistic talent, people skills, and moral integrity are independent of race. I have met the best and the brightest, and the worst and the dullest. Both extremes can be found in every ethnic group. It is absolutely useless and utterly unfair to judge a person’s worth or capability by the density of melanin in their skin. There is no correlation between these things. My heart resonates with the sentiment in Martin Luther King’s words: “I have a dream my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. I have a dream today!”
Medicine is a very diverse profession. Academia tends to view diversity as an end unto itself, and this certainly affects medical school class demographics. As disappointing and frustrating as this may be for the white male applicant with marginal MCAT scores, it nevertheless provides a rich cultural experience for medical students. I really enjoyed mingling with and working with other students from around the country and around the world, with different colors of skin, different religions, and different primary languages. This diversity is amplified during residency with the influx of foreign medical school graduates. I worked with people from every continent (except Antarctica) during my decade of training, and I think that was an important part of my education.
The diversity immersion experience is part of what makes the missionary program such a powerful cultural force among members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints. What happens to a society when you take tens of thousands of young adults every year and place them far away from home, often in foreign countries and speaking different languages? How does that affect your culture at home when these young people later return with a love for people and places that would otherwise be alien to them? They then pursue careers and build families, knowing first hand that the world is bigger than the bubble in which they live.
Racism vs. Comfort-Zoneism
Racism is a step beyond just having a restricted ethnic comfort zone; it is an actual aversion to or disliking of another race. Racists argue and believe that races other than their own are inherently inferior. This line of thinking leads to the justification of race-based segregation, oppression, lynching, and even slavery, genocide, and other crimes against humanity.
I think we do honest and well-meaning people a disservice by calling them racist just because their comfort zones may be smaller than we would like them to be. Someone who has lived all of their life in an ethnic monoculture cannot reasonably be expected to feel comfortable upon first exposure to someone from outside of that bubble. The best therapy for comfort-zoneism is exposure to diversity through life experience: visit places which are different from your home, read about the history and experiences of other groups, get to know neighbors, workmates, or classmates from other backgrounds.
Will these things also cure racism? I don’t know, but it’s worth trying. Truth is powerful stuff, if you can stomach it.
Racism is a recurring theme in the Book of Mormon because of the mutual distrust and loathing between the dark-skinned Lamanites and the light-skinned Nephites. The Lamanite cultural narrative, as recorded about 300 years after the two nations had split, incorrectly but unsurprisingly cast Nephi as the villain in their origin story:
“12 [The Lamanites believe] that they were wronged in the wilderness by their brethren, and they were also wronged while crossing the sea; […]
“15 And again, they were wroth with him when they had arrived in the promised land, because they said that he had taken the ruling of the people out of their hands; and they sought to kill him.
“16 And again, they were wroth with him because he departed into the wilderness as the Lord had commanded him, and took the records which were engraven on the plates of brass, for they said that he robbed them.
“17 And thus they have taught their children that they should hate them, and that they should murder them, and that they should rob and plunder them, and do all they could to destroy them; therefore they have an eternal hatred towards the children of Nephi” (Mosiah 10:12,15-17)..
Nephite attitudes toward the Lamanites were not always charitable either:
“23 Now do ye remember, my brethren, that we said unto our brethren in the land of Zarahemla, we go up to the land of Nephi, to preach unto our brethren, the Lamanites, and they laughed us to scorn?
“24 For they said unto us: Do ye suppose that ye can bring the Lamanites to the knowledge of the truth? Do ye suppose that ye can convince the Lamanites of the incorrectness of the traditions of their fathers, as stiffnecked a people as they are; whose hearts delight in the shedding of blood; whose days have been spent in the grossest iniquity; whose ways have been the ways of a transgressor from the beginning? Now my brethren, ye remember that this was their language.
“25 And moreover they did say: Let us take up arms against them, that we destroy them and their iniquity out of the land, lest they overrun us and destroy us” (Alma 26:23-25).
Like Americans today, the Nephites and Lamanites sometimes needed a stern lecture about racism. Here is Jacob, calling the Nephites to repentance:
“5 Behold, the Lamanites your brethren, whom ye hate because of their filthiness and the cursing which hath come upon their skins, are more righteous than you; for they have not forgotten the commandment of the Lord, which was given unto our father—that they should have save it were one wife, and concubines they should have none, and there should not be whoredoms committed among them. […]
“8 O my brethren, I fear that unless ye shall repent of your sins that their skins will be whiter than yours, when ye shall be brought with them before the throne of God.
9 Wherefore, a commandment I give unto you, which is the word of God, that ye revile no more against them because of the darkness of their skins” (Jacob 3:5,8-9)
The Apostle Peter received a revelation in the early days of the Church of Jesus Christ, instructing him to extend the gospel message to all the people of the world, not just to his own ethnic group. His words on this occasion don’t leave much room for racism:
“34 Then Peter opened his mouth, and said, Of a truth I perceive that God is no respecter of persons:
“35 But in every nation he that feareth him, and worketh righteousness, is accepted with him” (Acts 10:34-35).
Some Historical Perspective
Reading the slave narratives was an important part of my education on this topic, and I think the world would be a better place if more white Americans would read them. Problems with race relations in America stem from more than just garden-variety racism. Hundreds of years of slavery, ended by a bitterly fought Civil War, and then a failed Reconstruction and persistent institutional oppression for over a century past abolition — this is a fertile ground for resentment. Is it any surprise that the consequences of this history are still reverberating loudly in our society?
I belong to a religious minority with a history of severe persecution, including lynchings, mobbings, and state-sanctioned oppression. Members of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints relocated from the eastern states to the Rocky Mountains in the mid-1800’s to escape this persecution. Perhaps you could say that my ancestors who crossed the Great Plains in wagon trains and handcart companies were exercising their white privilege, because mass exodus wasn’t an option for the southern slaves at the time.
Latter-day Saints have not faced persecution anywhere that severe for over 100 years, and have been very successful at integration within the larger society in America. But the cultural legacy of the 19th century persists within the Church, not only in heroic artwork and songs about our pioneers, but also in a smoldering persecution complex among many members. With that in mind it is easy for me to sympathize with a group that was oppressed far more severely, for far longer, with less complete resolution of grievances.
Of Such is the Kingdom
When I was 9 years old and halfway through 3rd grade, my family moved to Stockton, California, where I attended an inner-city school. I had never been around so many dark-skinned people in one place before, but I don’t remember being very concerned with that fact. What bothered me more was that I didn’t have any friends to play with, and I think I would have been perfectly happy to play with a green-skinned kid, as long as we got along.
Over time I got to know a few people. There was a girl in my class who rode the same bus home as me, and we became friends. One day as I sat in the seat behind her on the bus my attention was drawn to her hands.
“Your palms are white,” I said, noticing this for the first time.
She held up her hand and turned it back and forth. “Yeah,” she said, and shrugged her shoulders. “It’s always been that way.”
I reached out and held my hand next to hers and we compared their color. The back of her hands had dark skin, like the rest of her body, but her palms were as pale in color as mine were.
I looked at her dark black hair, and noticed something else that made me curious. “Your hair is so curly!” I said.
She pulled at some of the strands, and I was astonished at how long they were. She let go, and her hair immediately sprung back into its former shape. I was very impressed.
“What does it feel like?” I asked. Can I touch it?”
She smiled and said, “Yeah, you can.” I spent a few seconds feeling her hair and testing its elasticity.
“I’ve never touched a white person’s hair,” she said.
“Oh, you can touch mine if you want,” I said.
She reached up and felt my hair. “Oh, it’s so straight! It feels so weird!” she said, and laughed.
For some reason this simple experience burned itself into my memory. I can still feel the texture of her hair on my fingers, softer and smoother than I had imagined, and different than any hair I had felt before. I can feel her hand stroking my head, and see the look of amusement and satisfaction on her face at this new sensory experience. And in my mind I can still hear the roar of the engine and see the Otto Drive Elementary School playground through the window as the bus pulled away a minute later.
Both of us crossed a new horizon that day, reaching beyond racial boundaries to satisfy an innocent childhood curiosity. We learned that yes, we are a bit different, but we are also much the same. Her curiosity was the mirror image of my own, and the little intimacy we shared — our human connection — underscored our common humanity.
And that is really the point here. All human beings are brothers and sisters, children of God. The only race we need to worry about is the human race. Our Heavenly Father loves everyone, and sent his Son Jesus Christ to die for us all:
“27 Hath he commanded any that they should not partake of his salvation? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but he hath given it free for all men; and he hath commanded his people that they should persuade all men to repentance.
“28 Behold, hath the Lord commanded any that they should not partake of his goodness? Behold I say unto you, Nay; but all men are privileged the one like unto the other, and none are forbidden.
“33 […] and he inviteth them all to come unto him and partake of his goodness; and he denieth none that come unto him, black and white, bond and free, male and female; and he remembereth the heathen; and all are alike unto God, both Jew and Gentile” (2 Nephi 26:27-28,33).