In the late 19th century, thousands of human hands were systematically amputated from enslaved Africans who failed to meet quotas for extracting rubber in the Congo. Nearly three decades after the United States abolished the practice of slavery, rubber was bought and sold to feed a growing demand in the international tire market created by Dunlop and the Goodyear Tire & Rubber Co.
This is just one small glimpse into the brutal history of the transatlantic slave trade that robbed the personhood and freedom of millions. Millions more were tortured for centuries while black and brown bodies were systematically purchased, exploited, raped and brutalized in state-sanctioned violence. The consequences of this system still deeply impact our world today.
This is likely why comments by anti-polygamy activist Angela Kelly raised concerns at a caucus lunch this week as she advocated to vote against Senate Bill 102, which reduces bigamy among consenting adults to an infraction.
Kelly, a white woman and director of Sound Choices Coalition (a group that seeks to criminalize polygamy), used her invitation to speak with the Utah Legislature’s House Minority Caucus to draw comparisons between Mormon polygamy and slavery. Taking her comparison a step further, she singled out Rep. Sandra Hollins, the only black legislator in Utah, by handing her a name tag that read “Slave” and verbally referenced Hollins’ black skin.
The act drew public outrage for good reason. Not only are Kelly’s words racist and aggressive, they are concerning coming from someone claiming to advocate for the marginalized.
Polygamy is not slavery. Polygamy is its own system with its own unique challenges and we needn’t plunder the traumas of the trans-Atlantic slave trade to highlight those issues.There are plenty that stand on their own.
To effect change and disrupt power structures, we need a working knowledge of how those structures interact. Kelly’s remarks reflect a privilege that lacks important historical distinctions. This context is critical to helping victims and survivors from these communities get the justice they deserve.
My work allows me unique and exclusive access to some of the most isolated fundamentalist polygamous groups in the American West. As a born-and-raised LDS monogamist, feminist activist and researcher on the history of polygamy, I have struggled to accept some of the nuances that challenged my preconceived notions about these communities.
Polygamy is hard. I still don’t like it. It systematically discriminates based on gender. It commodifies women. I’ve seen true horrors as the result of this doctrine.
Hyperbole and aggression often are the result of not feeling heard, but our frustrations don’t have to come at the expense of compounding oppression for others. It would be tempting to draw comparisons to some of the crimes in plural communities to slavery, but it is irresponsible and lazy to do so.
Responsible advocacy requires we set aside our own emotional reactions and work together on solutions that are effective. Sometimes, in our greed for righteousness, the ends justify the means and we become little different from the fanaticism we aim to disrupt.
I, too, am hungry for easy solutions, but am suspicious of them when dismantling systems of oppression. Lawmakers have responsibly considered some of those intersections and the Senate unanimously voted to approve the bill Friday. That was the right move.
It is unfortunate that Kelly continues her comparison, one that is dangerous and irresponsible. She should apologize and find a better way to articulate her goal. We can’t tackle complex issues until we are willing to be honest about the spectrum of challenges that exist within the communities we serve, even if they disrupt the binaries in our passion for justice. It’s not easy or simple, but that is the work.
I’m not arguing for purity in our activism, but accountability. We should advocate for our causes and bring justice to communities without stomping on the painful and complex histories of other marginalized groups.
Lindsay Hansen Park is the executive director of the Sunstone Education Foundation and the host of the Year of Polygamy podcast. She lives in Salt Lake City with her family.