The lyrics were co-written by a 17-year-old Asian Latter-day Saint in Utah, who based them on a biblical verse, Isaiah 1:18, which says "though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be as white as snow."
The song refers to Christ's ability to cleanse humans of their misdeeds. The chorus includes the lines: "They can be white/Bright as the day/after the night/He'll take all the stains away."
It repeats the line "they can be white" three times in each chorus.
Concerned Mormons began pointing out the piece's insensitivity last week, when resources for the Young Women curriculum were posted on the church's official website.
"Because 'white' and 'whiteness' are so entangled with the concept and experience of race, this song is very inappropriate," Janan Graham-Russell, a black Mormon writer in Evanston, Ill., said on Facebook. "I get the [doctrinal] idea but more care should be taken with anything involving the word 'white' and the LDS Church because of its history and the present experiences of black members."
Graham-Russell's critique isn't of the young songwriter, she emphasized in an interview, but with "the series of adults who allowed it to be published."
Being so tone deaf to members of color, she said, shows a lack of awareness of the past and current racial tensions.
It is "symptomatic of not having honest conversations about race and what has been said about whiteness and blackness in our history," Graham-Russell said. It also reflects a "lack of inclusive voices in positions of authority."
The faith's top 15 leaders are all white males. Some wonder whether the church can effectively use "white" as a symbol any more.
"The word 'white' is probably no good for Mormons, because we know Mormons have a heritage of associating whiteness (meaning purity) with whiteness (skin color)," Andrew S. wrote on a Wheat & Tares blog. "The church needs to focus on other analogies to restoration from sin, because it's not a hypothetical to note that the church has believed that dark skin itself was a sin one needed to be cleaned from."
The church has officially denounced past "theories" that saw black skin as a sign of "divine disfavor."
A song aimed at young Mormons is not a good medium for complex notions about sin, argued Rigel Hawthorne on the same blog.
Whiteness referring to race "is not what is written, but it is what will be heard," Hawthorne wrote. "Congregants who are not musicians generally don't pay attention to the lyric close enough to catch the full meaning — especially hearing it the first time. But the one line that will be heard is 'They (those people) can be white.'"
Graham-Russell was pleased to learn the church listened to feedback and is pulling the song but worries about how it was approved in the first place.