An Ongoing Obstacle
I devoted a class recently to discussing the social construction of race. We had watched a terrific film (Race: The Power of an Illusion) that convincingly demonstrates that “race” has no basis in biology. It recounts the historical creation of the concept in America as a rationalization to justify the hereditary enslavement of Africans and the taking of land from indigenous people. It highlights the Cherokees, who, though they had learned English, converted to Christianity, and adopted modern agriculture, in an effort to be judged “civilized,” were still robbed of their property and sent on the Trail of Tears.
During the discussion, one of my students, a young woman in the front row divulged that she was part Cherokee. She said that although she had grown up confused and embarrassed by the backward state of her Cherokee relatives, she was beginning to appreciate the role of prejudice, history, and accumulated disadvantage in making sense of this. I was very gratified to hear this.
As we continued, a student wondered whether the movie was correct that race “began” in America. It’s an interesting issue: clearly there have been geographically-based divisions throughout history that have correlated with variations in the physical appearance of those populations. And certainly people noticed and labeled each other by such differences. But what of this was “race”? I tried to make the case that previously and elsewhere, peoples might be termed Moor, Greek, Ethiopian, Englishman, or Turk with some sense of the physical typicalities of the people from those places, but that these labels did not make “race” the way we think of it now. It was in the American South that humans first grouped populations into a handful of essential, categorical “racial” groups, each of which were understood to be fundamentally distinct from the others in origin, capacity, and status. Prior to this moment in history, people would have been categorized as Christian vs. Heathen or Civilized vs. Savage, but not as separate races.
As I made this case, I noticed the part-Cherokee student shaking her head with a look of incredulity. The idea is a subtle one, so after class I made a remark to her in order to allow her to ask whatever question she had, privately. Her response shocked me. She could not see how it was possible that race was created here in America because… as a Mormon, she knew that God had created race (by darkening the skin of the ancestors of Blacks, Asians, and Native Americans) as a mark of shame to curse those who had disobeyed him. This, she reasoned, must have happened long before the beginning of slavery in America.
I shit you not.
She said this in all seriousness and confidence, without any hint of considering alternative possibilities to this religious dogma. I was flabbergasted. I asked her if this included the Cherokee, and she answered – without pause – that it did. I was immediately filled with sadness. My mind cycled around for some response that would educate but not alienate this student – and I came up empty. I thought of a dozen ways I could produce information that would contradict her received version of reality or call into question its ability to explain things. But I stood certain that any such arguments would simply be dismissed or interpreted through her current paradigm. I think my only statement was something like “There’s no way for me to argue with someone’s religion”. Lame.
I left the class with mounting anger! Not at the student, but at Joseph fucking Smith and Brigham fucking Young and all the other conspirators who wrote this evil racist elitist shit down and convinced her community to adopt it without reservation … for their own goddam selfish purposes. So now, an era later, here’s an intelligent young woman believing that she was cursed by her god, and obstructed from accepting the historical accuracy of facts that would potentially release her from this “shame”.
But as mad as it made me, I don’t fault the Latter Day Saints any more than any other egotistical power brokers of any age. Smith and Young were likely no more biased or racist than the average American of their day. They wrote and taught what they knew and were products of their time and culture. I have to fault religion itself, because without the blind acceptance of received wisdom that it demands, reasonable people would eventually recognize and compensate for the historical and cultural biases of the past, like we do with any other source. As is so often the case, committed religious “faith” stands in the way of knowledge, understanding, acceptance, and progress.