It so happens that I am the “irate” audience member to whom Elise Boxer referred in her comments on page 259 within the section, “Roundtable Discussion: Challenging Mormon Race Scholarship” of the Journal of Mormon History. So dramatic an adjective certainly heightened my interest in her and others’ comments in the section. I generally agree with Elise Boxer’s MHA presentation regarding settlers and indigenous peoples. My interest was in further understanding the dynamic with tools I learned studying Israel-Palestine. I’ll establish a general framework and then specifically discuss the comment I made in Boxer’s presentation. Here is Elise Boxer’s comment in the JMH:
(Response to “Roundtable Discussion: Challenging Mormon Race Scholarship” in Journal of Mormon History, July 2015, Vol 4, No 3)
“During the question portion of my panel, one audience member became irate. She pushed back on addressing questions of settler colonialism, wanting to focus on the violence indigenous people displayed toward one another. Yet in the field of indigenous history theorizing, colonization and settler colonialism are central to any discussion around the settlement of the American West. My work simply focuses on Mormon settler colonialism. Unfortunately, as a matter of course, these perspectives are either absent in the discussion or are resisted by a niche group of religious historians who wish to preserve a version of Mormon history that agrees with the religion’s triumphalist accounts of itself.”
Turns out I am not a religious historian nor have I any interest in preserving a triumphalist account of Mormon history. I am a social historian; British university-trained in international relations with a particular emphasis in Asia and BYU trained in history with secondary emphasis in Arabic, Mandarin and Middle East Studies. I am also a professional interpreter in Washington DC negotiating language between dominant and marginalized communities. I am currently writing a book about a Connecticut man who falls in with the Mormons and ends up affecting Asian colonial history of the 1850s.
I find the content of this Roundtable interesting and important. It seems to vacillate haphazardly, though, between a racial hierarchal structure within the United States and an international Mormon context. Since Mormons are located across the globe, I’ll take Mormonism out of the American-European context to address peoples who do not revolve around Western systems. I’ll also apply the concept of dual identity more evenly.
Gina Colvin points to a divergence between Western and indigenous scholarship in her introduction which I also feel needs to be rebalanced on page 20.
“Unfortunately, a failure to engage with research practices and contexts that challenge assumptions, and seek to work with and for people of colour is merely a reproduction of a long academic tradition of native “research” that Linda Smith rightly describes as ‘probably one of the dirtiest words in the indigenous vocabulary. …It is implicated in the worst excesses of colonialism.’”
But despite Gina Colvin’s multiple calls for a social justice approach to right this imbalance in western scholarship trends, Max Perry Mueller reminds us for whom academic research is actually intended on page 5:
“Of course, ‘the public’ is not exactly, or at least not directly, the scholar’s intended audience.”
Mueller implies that there is at least one more step between the scholar’s work and the work of social justice. Decision makers charged to create policy use scholarly research to apply social justice principles not academics.
I found the interplay between three identities interesting in the discussion: Mormon, the Other, and Euro-American. How, for instance, is this Roundtable discussion particularly “Mormon” in nature? Since Mormons, or even leaders, are not all white and American, essentially this roundtable discussion is not referring to Mormons but a particular subsection of Mormons.
Gina Colvin writes in her introduction on page 20:
“Missionary work of whatever denomination has long been a cog in the wheel of the Western colonizing project and relies upon doctrines of racial and cultural supremacy for its confidence in causing familial, and social upheaval wherever it goes. These theories of race, whiteness, and colonisation, I would argue, apply with the same force to the evangelizing work of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.”
The argument is that Mormonism is essentially a colonizing force against cultures and people of color. But does that ‘colonisation’ not hold true for anyone who becomes a Mormon? Wouldn’t anyone who changes their belief structure and behaviors to become Mormon, white or not, be therefore colonized? An abrupt move from Britain to the US frontier is as disruptive as a change in religion within an island nation. This Mormon colonization then is, for the most part, voluntary and an equal opportunity disruption.
Both Elise Boxer and Gina Colvin identified themselves in the discussion as indigenous first and Mormon second.
On page 280, Elise Boxer is quoted as saying:
“Because I grew up on the reservation, I privilege my Dakota identity.”
Gina Colvin is quoted on page 281:
“The fact is that I am safer in my Maori identity than I am in my Mormon identity simply because my Mormon identity is something given me by an institution.”
My question is then, if Boxer and Colvin are able to interchange or prioritize identities, why wouldn’t people with roots in Utah also have multiple identities from which to act?
Both Inouye and Boxer site examples of encountering people who identify as Mormon from Utah who make unintelligent assumptions. Inouye is quoted on page 278:
“The only really annoying thing that happens with me regularly is that Mormons, usually from Utah, tell me in a really nice, enthusiastic Church-voice that they’re impressed that I speak English so well.”
Boxer relates a similar experience on page 280:
“In these white spaces, my identity was always challenged. I was complimented on my English or my level of education.”
When a person who lives in Utah reacts to Boxer or Inouye inferring their Otherness, is that person acting out their Mormon identity or their small town/farm community identity, their Euro-American-centric identity, or their conservative talk radio identity? Are Boxer and Colvin permitted to act through the lens of their other identities, but people who live in Utah are not?
As a white person who grew up in Asia, Asians often assume I am ignorant of basic cultural knowledge even when I learned that knowledge along side them at similar ages. Making assumptions based on appearance and race is not a Mormon, white or American phenomenon.
Colvin reminds us on page 282:
“Because white folk characteristically don’t want to see themselves as socially constructed, they want to see themselves as normal, immutable, and beyond interrogation and observation.”
Many of the most egregious of these ‘white folk’ unwilling to be socially deconstructed live in rural areas with almost no exposure to different people and culture. Their paradigm is speaking more than a certain Mormon persona, just as a Maori New Zealander’s paradigm is a legitimate struggle against a dominant European race trying to break down his or her culture. Neither the white folk on the farm who has never been to New Zealand nor the Maori New Zealander might fully acknowledge or incorporate in their arguments the very real paradigms and constraints of the other they are critiquing.
Colvin reminds us on page 14:
“However, while there is a painful correlation between skin color and reduced life changes, the causes are not skin color.”
Perhaps more than skin color is affecting the interplay between periphery and core then. Here is another example of why sometimes periphery criticisms of Mormonism fall flat. When a conservative Republican white Mormon from Utah prays for soldiers in the military, who are they praying for? It turns out that Mormons often serve on both sides of many of today’s battles. Who or what are they actually praying for? Or, are they using their American identity rather than their Mormon identity to pray for the American? If it is important for this American to unlearn one of their identities to embrace other Mormons, then why is it not important to unlearn other identities? Or is a Mormon identity a passport binding people of significantly different values and hierarchies together in an uncomfortable dialogue of give and take?
Colvin reminds us in her introduction that this is a broader Western-European construction on page 18:
“In the colonial and even post-colonial era, racial knowledge begot racialized hierarchies of power. Daniel Goldberg suggests that anthropological and biological interest in difference led to the construction of an historical racial order. These renderings, were, of course, attached to the West’s interest in appropriating the world’s resources.”
Does Mormonism’s appropriation of more tithing dollars fall within the goals of traditionally colonialist, racial hierarchies appropriating more world resources? These tithing dollars often go to the communities who contribute them.
Who is actually doing the oppressing then? Mormons who live all over the world and are of various cultures, or Mormons who also identity as white Americans who live in the western part of the United States with European colonialist frames of thought and may not have been exposed much to liberal education and varieties of people and may have some influence over decision makers?
Decoupling identities is not only important for the peripheries but also for the core along the intermountain west of the United States. For the core in Utah, who may not have exposure to many other races and cultures, how do they learn the international Mormon context let alone believe it is important for their individual immediate lives to understand? Go on a mission? These same folks likely are also not reading scholarly journals.
Gina Colvin points to this idea on page 281:
“In terms of my work in Mormon studies, my interest is therefore in pushing boundaries so that indigenous folk who bring their politics, their concerns, their activism, and their unique spiritual expressions feel safe and accepted in Mormonism. It’s not the other way around—where Mormon scholarship has been about fitting the institutional narrative into indigenous spaces, all the while taking up that space.”
This is a valid point. Taking Euro-American models and forcing indigenous peoples within those models is taking up space for unique expression. However, would Colvin’s approach to Mormon studies be appropriate for all people of color’s unique needs? Probably not. Politics, concerns, activism, unique spiritual expressions are localized. Hong Kong natives waved their colonial flag this week against Chinese authorities. Some Thais feel at a deficit with the international system because they don’t have an English speaking population and colonial trading networks. There are different dynamics and reactions to colonialism across the world. Again, a dual identity, Mormon and some other identity is key to understanding the dynamic in the peripheries but also in the core.
Actually, from an international point of view, if Mormonism were truly American, as Elise Boxer might agree, it would be a product of the natives to the land. It is not. Mormonism is originally British, established by Britons living in north America along with immigrants arriving from Britain and other European nations.
In fact, Mormonism may be more constrained by location than by leaders and hierarchies. Mormonism as a vassal to Siam, for example, in the 1850s would have had no trouble carrying out its doctrine of plural wives. The doctrine of plural wives, thus, lays dormant when Mormonism is a vassal to US laws and values. Mormonism has demonstrated a willingness to move beyond traditional Western value systems.
Perhaps, though, some would agree that certain western values, such as monogamous marriage and basic standards for academia, are preferable to indigenous or Mormon standards. Who decides which western standards to adopt and which to fight as Gina Colvin says on page 277:
“In this respect, the object is to reform and talk back to these official histories.”
The techniques to fight back, including ideals of social justice originated as a reaction to Euro-American slanted research using Euro-American trained thought. Traditional indigenous histories confirm the authority of the ruling power and do not attempt to secularize or reorder hierarchies. Attempting to create neutral histories that highlight the conquered is not a typical indigenous approach to writing history. To professionalize Mormon history is actually to Westernize it along Euro-American models of scholarship.
If indigenous peoples use Western models of scholarship to fight back, they could use their own value systems to evaluate Euro-Americans leading to judgments and decisions that do not preference Euro-Americans. They would need to have a secondary link to authority to create change within the Mormon community. Essentially an indigenous person among the top fifteen in Mormon leadership would create that link between academia and policy implementation. But as we discussed, even an indigenous person might not endorse a fully indigenous approach without some assumption of Western standards let alone that particular person’s style of implementation.
That indigenous mindset often has been changed and shaped by Western ideals and the currents of other civilizations just as the Western mindset has changed with the encounter of indigenous peoples. What balance of western and indigenous values and norms would be acceptable to the greatest number of people within that indigenous community and then within the global context? Has any community ever been fully western or fully indigenous or fully Asian for example? Intercultural communication, trade, domination and dispersal has been going on for hundreds of years among many civilizations even before the colonial period. The indigenous person closed off to any cultural exchange would be just as intolerable to the whole as the white folk just off the farm with little or no exposure.
Finally, racism is not a universal global phenomenon but a Western created hierarchy that affects people globally. Gina Colvin eludes to this on page 14.
“Race is an ‘empty’ category that, when excavated and deconstructed, is an unstable and problematic signifying system bearing no relationship to the ‘fact’.”
Racial hierarchy is Western created, impacting many but not all people globally who interact with Western systems and peoples. All societies, however, have hierarchies but orient them along different criteria. To evaluate Mormons in various contexts, other hierarchies must also be employed or compared to Western racial hierarchies. This is the crux of the comment I made during Elise Boxer’s MHA presentation in 2014. As a long time student of Palestinian-Israeli dynamics, evaluating cultural conflict requires comparing behaviors and hierarchies in a wider context and with equal consideration for both civilizations’ positive and negative attributes. Because Mormonism is not simply white and American, indigenous Americans may need to incorporate broader arguments addressing multiple identities and constraints, including other non-white Mormon indigenous peoples, beyond the scholarship already done on American indigenous colonization.
For example, instead of looking solely at oppressor-victim models, which often emphasize one civilization’s worst moments with another’s best moments, I am interested in also comparing how each civilization behaved within similar circumstances in other periods of history to find nuances to Mormon settlement history. Mormon settlements are in some cases now being dispersed with newcomers. I am interested in both civilizations’ full range of emotions, allowing them to act and be acted upon, to experience hate, anger and dominance as well as joy, love and compassion. This challenge is not meant to replace or destroy Boxer’s work in indigenous scholarship but to Mormonize or internationalize the discussion bringing in contexts beyond white America and beyond one time period. Just because lay Mormons believe Mormonism is American, doesn’t mean scholars need to be constrained by that narrow field.
Where does racial hierarchy become a Mormon problem rather than a generic Euro-American problem?
Three identities interplay here, Mormon, the Other, and Euro-American. Which balance of each, who is ascendant, is a constant negotiation of nuances and domestic constraints with competing value systems and hierarchal structures. Using race to make assumptions is not only an American white contagion but a human one. Finally, for many across the world the West is not a large factor in daily life, as much as Euro-Americans perceive it is. For those locations, though, where Euro-Americans assert the most domination, the world does seem very much dominated by a blood-thirsty greedy West. Finally, Mormonism has crossed Western social norms and cultural borders but is vassal to the legal code and social structure of the location where it is headquartered within an American context. Certain indigenous-centered cultural practices within Mormonism may be more constrained by its location and vassal status than by its hierarchy’s unwillingness to experiment.