Johnny Townsend: Getting to the truth of racism is everyone’s responsibility

We can’t solve a centuries-old problem with thoughts and prayers alone.

(Rick Bowmer | AP file photo) In this Oct. 5, 2019, photo, The Salt Lake Temple stands at Temple Square in Salt Lake City. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints added new language to the faith's handbook Friday, Dec. 18, 2020, imploring members to root out prejudice and racism, adding significance and permanence to recent comments by top leaders on one of the most sensitive topics in the church's history.

Growing up Mormon, every time I encountered “anti-Mormon” information, I was told, “It’s from a non-member” or “It’s from an ex-Mormon.” This was always followed with, “Who are you going to believe? If you want to know about chemistry, you ask a chemist. If you want to know about running, you ask a runner. If you want to know about Mormons, you ask a Mormon.”

This made perfect sense. Anyone who wasn’t Mormon could easily have an agenda. It could be sour grapes if they’d been excommunicated. They could be trying to make the LDS Church look bad for other reasons. They could simply be mistaken. After all, if they had never been Mormon, could they really know what they were talking about?

But too many of my Mormon friends and family don’t grant the same degree of authority to others. Who better to inform us about racism, for instance, than those who have been oppressed by it? Instead, we rail against the “dangers” of critical race theory. We flatly refuse to examine the facts.

Of course, not every purported “fact” these days is true. As Mark Hofmann showed members of the LDS Church, not even every historical document is real. We should question and verify any new information that feels threatening.

But questioning isn’t the same as blatantly denying reality. The evidence detailing systemic racism is overwhelming.

When we as white folks finally do try to address it, we’re warned, “Be prepared to feel uncomfortable.” That makes us want to retreat immediately.

I know people who walk out of a room any time an awkward scene comes up on TV, even in a comedy. No one likes feeling uncomfortable.

And, perhaps worse, addressing racism is also inconvenient.

Recently, some coworkers asked me to join an anti-racist book club that would meet twice a month. Unfortunately, the meetings would be held Friday afternoons, on my day off. I didn’t want to be tied down during my few hours of freedom.

Yet what was the alternative? I couldn’t attend meetings during a work shift.

We can’t solve a centuries-old problem with thoughts and prayers alone.

OK, so we’ve buckled down and are finally engaged. And then we hear some Black activists claim that everything a white person does, even efforts at anti-racism, is self-serving. We’re just trying to feel good about ourselves.

Well, of course we are. Everyone wants to feel good about themselves. We do it by telling people our religion is best. Or our race. Or our country.

Or our political party.

Whatever it takes, right?

I accept accusations of selfishness and ignorance and imperfections of all kinds because those accusations are true.

But doing anti-racist work is still important for me as a white man because I benefit from living in a society that is increasingly just and equitable.

Some of my Black coworkers say, “We didn’t create structural racism. It’s not our job to dismantle it.”

And white coworkers say the same thing. “I didn’t create this. Why is it my job to fix it?”

The truth is it is your responsibility. And it’s mine. It’s the responsibility of everyone who wants to be a decent human being.

Because decent human beings fight injustice. They’re at least willing to examine the evidence.

A friend once told me about the breakup of her marriage. “I complained that he wasn’t willing to make a single change I’d asked for. And do you know what he said? ‘Why should I make any changes? I’m getting what I want.’”

It’s clear that many white folks don’t want to make changes because “the system” benefits us as is.

We regularly hear that “Most people are just doing the best they can.” But it isn’t true. I’m not doing the best I can. I’m doing as much as I’m willing. I hope to increase what I’m willing to do but I’m definitely not doing my best yet.

So, should white people open ourselves to the examination of structural and systemic racism? Should Mormons?

If we think we’re already living in the promised peace of the Millennium, perhaps we don’t need to.

But if we want to experience any peace in the meantime, we’d better start doing the work necessary to achieve it.

Johnny Townsend

Johnny Townsend, Seattle, is the author of several books including “Am I My Planet’s Keeper?” “This Is All Just Too Hard,” and “What Would Anne Frank Do?”


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