BYU students of color say there is racism on campus — regardless of what you think about the volleyball incident

Students talk about their experiences and what they’d like to see happen next at the private school owned by The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kylee Shepherd, new president of the Black Student Union at BYU, and she, along with Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, who are members of the Black Menaces, are pictured on campus on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

The first time Taran Trinnaman was called the N-word at Brigham Young University, he was walking to a pharmacy to get cold medicine for himself and his roommates.

They were too sick to go out, so he offered to run. He was just about to there, stepping off the curb to the crosswalk signal near the duck pond on campus, he said, when a car sped through the light and nearly hit him.

“Get off the road, n-----,” he recalls the driver shouting at him.

As the passengers inside the car laughed, he stumbled back. Trinnaman said he couldn’t get a license plate number, but he remembers seeing the blue blur of BYU T-shirts as they drove away.

When he got back to his apartment, he said, he dropped the NyQuil on the floor and broke down sobbing.

It was 2014, Trinnaman’s freshman year at the Provo school and the start of his experiences with racism there that he said were ultimately part of why he decided to later transfer to Utah Valley University. As a Black and queer student, he said, he didn’t feel safe at BYU.

Trinnaman and other students of color and alumni at BYU who spoke to The Salt Lake Tribune all recounted similar experiences with being called slurs by classmates — casually while running errands, in the middle of class or shouted at them in passing.

“It’s just so commonplace at BYU,” said Eleni López, a Latina student at the school. “I think every student of color here has a story like that.”

BYU was in the spotlight this past month for accusations of racism at a volleyball game. Duke player Rachel Richardson said she heard “very distinctly” someone from the BYU student section calling her the N-word while she was serving. But the Provo university later said its investigation found no evidence of that.

The incident has drawn national attention, with social media attacks and the withdrawal of another team that declined to play against BYU. Locally, it has divided the campus and the community within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, which operates the private university.

Those who don’t believe Richardson point to the school’s inability to corroborate the account as an indication that the slur was never spoken. Some are describing it as vindication, showing that the school and its fans are not racist.

But students of color at BYU say the volleyball case is not a litmus test.

It doesn’t matter if slurs were yelled during the game or not — though most said they stand with Richardson. Even if it didn’t happen, it doesn’t mean BYU doesn’t have an issue with racism, Trinnaman said.

(Taran Trinnaman) Pictured is Taran Trinnaman, a former student at Brigham Young University who transferred to Utah Valley University over concerns about how students of color and LGBTQ students were treated by BYU.

Their experiences, the students say, are the real test, and show there’s a problem. And now, they’re worried about the chilling effect the volleyball incident might have on students reporting racism going forward.

“We have all been Rachel,” said Kylee Shepherd, president of BYU’s Black Student Union and a member of the Black Menaces, who are using social media to try to address racism at the university. “And you might not believe us. We might not have what you’d consider sufficient evidence.”

But, she added, “our experiences, our voices should matter. That is proof. And we know what’s really happening here, the names we’ve been called.”

Experiences with racism

López said she’s had white students tell her the only reason she was accepted at BYU and the only reason she got a scholarship was because of the color of her skin. Then they’ll laugh it off like it was a joke, she added; “But it’s not funny.”

Shepherd recounted people on campus touching her hair without asking, questioning why it was so curly. They’ve also asked her why she “dresses like she’s white” but have also told her “not to act so Black.”

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Kylee Shepherd, the new president of the Black Student Union at BYU, who is also a member of the Black Menaces, is pictured on campus on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

A lot of the racism they experience at BYU, the students say, is intertwined with beliefs connected to the LDS Church. Trinnaman said a white student in one of his classes argued that he should be able to say the N-word because he served a proselytizing mission for the faith in a Spanish-speaking country. In another class, Trinnaman said, a different white student defended reading the Bible to say that Black skin was a curse.

López said she and other students of color have similarly been labeled “Lamanites.” That’s considered an offensive term that comes from the Book of Mormon, describing a group of people damned by God, with the scripture saying it caused “a skin of blackness to come upon them,” making them “loathsome unto thy people.”

One boy also told López, she recalled, that after serving in a Latino-majority country that he developed “Lamanite-ism,” where he found women of color more attractive because there weren’t as many white women around.

“That’s just extremely painful to hear,” she said. “And we’re hearing things like this every day.”

While the interpretation of “dark skin” being a curse is no longer considered part of the faith’s teachings, its mistaken inclusion in a printed 2020 Sunday school manual caused alarm. An apostle later said he was “deeply saddened and hurt by this error, and for any pain that it may have caused our members or others.”

López said she has heard racist comments her whole life growing up in the church, including as a kid in primary classes. Grace Soelberg, who is biracial and graduated from BYU in fall 2021, has said the same, saying she first heard the N-word from other kids calling her that in church. The slurs continued through her college classes in Provo, she said.

To doubt that those experiences are real and to suggest that racism doesn’t exist at BYU and within the LDS Church is not ignorant — it’s delusional, López said. It adds to the pain, she said, and lets the problem continue.

The reason so many students believe Richardson’s story, she and Soelberg said, is because it’s so similar to what they’ve experienced. “I can’t prove all of these stories that happened to me,” Soelberg said. “But I know it happened.”

She said the church has a history of racism that has contributed to a culture at BYU, such as the former priesthood ban on Black men or leaders speaking against the Civil Rights movement.

Just this year, clips of a speech from Brad Wilcox, a BYU professor, went viral after Wilcox said those who question why the priesthood ban wasn’t lifted 1978 “should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”

Wilcox later apologized, but the school did not take any action to discipline him and he remains on staff.

Soelberg said she wonders whether people who say there isn’t racism at BYU forget about those headlines or if they actively chose to ignore them.

What is BYU doing about it?

In February 2021, BYU released a report that for the first time acknowledged widespread and significant concerns about the mistreatment of minority students on campus. It noted that students of color often “feel isolated and unsafe as a result of their experiences with racism at BYU,” and there’s a critical need for leaders to make changes.

Several linked to that report on social media after the volleyball incident. When it came out, some students said, it felt validating. But now, they say, not enough is being done to act on the findings. Soelberg said she feels there’s more of an effort to blame an incident on a specific person than “look at the systemic issues and how it perpetuates racist attitudes.”

Brigham Young University, though, says it is actively working to make campus better for students of color.

It formed the Office of Belonging in 2021, which was recommended in the February report. Part of its mission, as stated then, was to work to implement the other solutions laid out and combat “prejudice of any kind.”

During the first few weeks of the new term this fall, the office has been posting on BYU’s Instagram page and holding events on campus to talk about belonging. Vice President for Belonging Carl Hernandez said in one video: “I want each student at BYU to know that they belong here.”

BYU declined to make Hernandez available for an interview with The Tribune.

(Brigham Young University) BYU Office of Belonging Vice President Carl Hernandez speaks to Yolanda Pierce, dean of the Howard University School of Divinity, at a lecture at BYU on Thursday, Sept. 15, 2022.

School spokesperson Carri Jenkins said there are seven full-time employees and six students who work in the office. The school’s hope is to expand the number of students involved to 30, she said.

Currently, she said, they are working to provide “education to all campus areas about how to recognize and eradicate prejudice.” The office has brought several speakers to the school this month to talk about racism; that includes two members of “The Black 14,” who were kicked off the football team at the University of Wyoming in 1969 when they wanted to protest BYU and the LDS Church’s treatment of the Black community.

That event will be Friday before BYU’s football team faces off against Wyoming on Saturday.

The office is spending this semester looking at feedback and ideas from students, Jenkins said, on what solutions to put in place. It has resources available at belonging.byu.edu. And Jenkins said the staff is currently working on a reconciliation process for anyone on campus to use if they experience or witness discrimination.

What students of color want to see

Madi Hawes, who is Mexican and Cherokee, said she appreciates the school working on the issues, but she feels the current efforts are “performative.”

Getting a free T-shirt to sign a pledge to be welcoming, she said, doesn’t solve the issue. She said she sat outside watching that event last week from the Office of Belonging, and she said she saw one student sign their name on the banner and then overheard them making fun of transgender individuals a few minutes later.

She and other students said they want to see more substantive changes. Soelberg said BYU should hire more faculty of color, which is one of the recommendations from the 2021 report.

There was a dean of underrepresented students on campus several years ago; that position was eliminated after little action, Soelberg said, and is now the dean for student success and inclusion.

Another solution from the 2021 report was for BYU to update its general education requirements for all students to include discussions on race. That hasn’t been implemented. But it’s the top thing students of color say they’d like moving forward; it was also suggested before the report in a 2020 student-led petition.

Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, a member of the Black Menaces, said he and others started their TikTok page to draw attention to the lack of understanding white students have about marginalized issues. And it’s gone viral.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) The Black Menaces have been filming TikTok videos addressing racism, at BYU in Provo, on Friday, April 8, 2022. From left are Nate Byrd, Rachel Weaver, Kennethia Dorsey, Kylee Shepherd, and Sebastian Stewart-Johnson.

He believes that shows the need for BYU to have more conversations on a broader level, to open up the discussion and lead out.

“It won’t fix everything, but it will change the mindsets of people at BYU,” Stewart-Johnson said. “Right now, there’s a lot of racism, and it’s not being checked.”

“There’s just no excuse any more,” added Shepherd, also with the Black Menaces. They would also like to see anti-racism training for all faculty and staff.

But Clark Gilbert, commissioner for the church’s education system, said last month that he rejects “the world’s” diversity training and wouldn’t institute it. The standard discussions about equity and inclusion “are not the way BYU should do it,” he said.

Jenkins, the school spokesperson, said the university is “in the process of developing curriculum” for diversity training of its own.

However, it also removed an online anti-racism course developed by a Black member and hosted by Deseret Book after the creator posted a criticism of a speech by a church leader, who urged BYU students and faculty to defend the church’s stance against same-sex marriage.

Hawes thinks that’s a mistake. She believes those lessons would help address the lack of understanding and exposure to culture she feels a lot of the white students at BYU have. “The first time someone spoke against my race or ethnicity was at BYU,” she said.

Another student messaged her online and said she was too light-skinned to be considered a minority. She reported it to the school’s Honor Code Office but said the employee there shrugged it off as the other student “being a jerk,” Hawes said.

“There’s just a total ignorance of these issues on campus,” Hawes added.

She said one thing BYU has recently done is move up the Multicultural Student Services office at BYU from the bottom floor of the student center to the main floor. Again, she said, students weren’t asking for that. And to her, it feels less important compared to other actions that students of color are calling for.

Will there be a chilling effect?

Hawes fears the response to the volleyball incident will make students of color even more hesitant to speak up.

She questions the investigation by BYU, which was conducted by the school instead of an independent third party. And she feels many have misconstrued the conclusion. The school didn’t say there was no shouted slur, only that is couldn’t find evidence of it; that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen, she said.

Shepherd is concerned that Black students will assume they won’t be believed if they come forward. “Why should I report anything?” she asked. “So you can tell us we’re liars? That hurts just as much.”

Stewart-Johnson added: “I don’t trust BYU with my experiences.”

Soelberg said, too, with the reaction from fans to Richardson’s report of the slurs — attacking her and her family — she thinks students will worry about being pilloried online for saying anything.

When fans at the University of Oregon shouted “f--- the Mormons” during the BYU football game last week, there was instant uproar about religious bigotry and bias.

Students of color at BYU said they wish there was the same kind of reaction for those trying to talk about racism on campus. “BYU is supposed to be Zion, and it’s hard for people to break up their mindset and know there are flaws here,” Stewart-Johnson added.

Shepherd said what students of color really want is accountability; they want to be able to report being called the N-word and know they’re believed and that appropriate discipline will occur for the offense.

Without that, she wonders if students of color will stop enrolling at BYU, worried about being called the N-word just walking to the pharmacy.

(Francisco Kjolseth | The Salt Lake Tribune) Sebastian Stewart-Johnson, of the Black Menaces is pictured on the BYU campus on Friday, Sept. 23, 2022.

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