Black and White Thinking

Mormons like to say that racism is in their past (of course, 1978 is a fairly recent past), but they forget that doctrinal racism extends beyond the denial of the priesthood to those of African descent.

According to Mormonism, people are chosen and blessed or cursed by racial and familial lines. Thus, the seed of Cain was cursed, as were the black-skinned descendants of Laman and Lemuel, while the “fair” seed of Nephi was blessed.

Assuming for the sake of discussion that the Book of Mormon is an actual history, all we know is that the Nephites were “white and delightsome” in comparison to the “dark, filthy, and loathsome” Lamanites. But we really don’t know what that means, do we?

Race seems to be a social construction that is largely unrelated to physical characteristics. I read a study years ago of mestizo and “native” communities in Guatemala where the author discovered that there was no discernable genetic difference between the communities but that they self-identified as part of the respective groups by adopting certain social markers.

Similarly, North Americans tend to lump all descendants of Africans as “black,” even though the peoples of the African continent are more genetically diverse than people anywhere else on earth. By contrast, in Brazil, where native, European, and African communities have lived and intermarried, there are not the hard and fast racial divisions we see in the US.

Thus, most North American readers of the Book of Mormon view the white/black contrast therein as mirroring their own social expectations of race. I saw this last night on a Mormon-themed message board, where someone was discussing some uncorroborated text from the Spanish conquistadors about blonde, fair-skinned natives.

The conquistador, Pedro Pizarro, reported in his account of the great Spanish invasion of South America in the 1500s, that while the masses of Andes Indians were small and dark, the members of the ruling Inca family were tall and had whiter skins than the Spaniards themselves. He talks of them having blue eyes, corn-blonde hair and white skins. (Heyerdahl, ibid., page 351).

What I find so remarkable is not the strained attempt to find evidence for the Book of Mormon but the attempt to inject favored European racial characteristics into the Book of Mormon. Mind you, I think when Joseph Smith was writing the Book of Mormon, he had in mind for his Nephites a European, white race, in keeping with the Mound Builder myths of a lost white race that had been killed by the Indians.

But the text itself never specifies this kind of racial division that we see these modern believers constructing. This continued obsession with race is just one product of Mormonism’s antiquated notions. Unfortunately, this kind of racism is canonized in scripture, so it is likely to remain indefinitely.

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3 Responses to Black and White Thinking

  1. Jay says:

    He talks of them having blue eyes, corn-blonde hair and white skins.

    Do any middle eastern people have blue eyes or blonde hair? Wouldn’t this be evidence of a Vikings or perhaps Europeans? I don’t really see how anyone could say (even if it were true) that this is evidence for the existence of Nephites.

  2. runtu says:

    Neither can I. Hence the post. What it is evidence for is an imposition of North American racial distinctions on a book that may or may not have some basis in reality.

  3. Ray Agostini says:

    Assuming for the sake of discussion that the Book of Mormon is an actual history, all we know is that the Nephites were “white and delightsome” in comparison to the “dark, filthy, and loathsome” Lamanites. But we really don’t know what that means, do we?

    Some nuances here. First, I don’t believe the BoM is an “actual history”. In several scriptures the Lamanites are pointed out as being “more righteous” than the Nephites, especially in regard to monogamy and family loyalty. I haven’t seen any indication that Samuel the Lamanite’s skin colour changed, though I may have missed that, and the idea that skin colour can change when one “repents” is pure religious myth. If that was really the case, then all the Blacks and American Indians would have changed skin colour after conversion. 2 Nephi 26:33 also promotes the idea that all people, regardless of race or colour, are “equal before God” (and even base Heathen like me). This was obviously totally lost on the Brethren until Bruce R. Mc Conkie “rediscovered” it post-1978. Note too, that what the BoM teaches in this regard, is totally contrary to what apostles like Mark Petersen taught, and also Alvin Dyer, and several books on the “race question”, including Mc Conkie’s Mormon Doctrine prior to subsequent changes. I think the concept of “dark, filthy, and loathsome” may refer to a “state”, rather than external skin colour (which is what Brant Gardener also suggests). If you take the BoM in full context, then it seems to me this is what it means, notwithstanding the mythic idea that skin colour can change upon repentance and conversion, but that’s only if you accept the BoM as largely mythic, which the majority of Mormons don’t. The original text of the BoM also read “pure and delightsome”, not “white and delightsome”.

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