Jana Riess: What does an LDS Pioneer Day look like in the context of Black Lives Matter?

(Al Hartmann | Tribune file photo) Handcart pioneers are among the first off the starting line to start a past Days of 47 Parade in downtown Salt Lake City.

On Friday, Utah observes its annual Pioneer Day holiday, which commemorates the first Mormons who arrived in the Salt Lake Valley in 1847. 

Having fled religious persecution in Ohio, Missouri and Illinois, these Latter-day Saints sought a homeland outside the borders of the United States in which they could practice their religion. Since Utah was at that time part of Mexico, it seemed a safe haven.

This year, Pioneer Day is happening amid a global pandemic, which means there will be no parades through downtown Salt Lake City, no large cookouts, no reenactments or handcart pulls. (I did find an article about an outdoor heritage festival happening in St. George. The organizers say that social distancing will be maintained . . . but that they are also having some sort of bouncy castle for children, which seems like a social distancing nightmare. Masks will not be required.)

The context for Pioneer Day this year is also that it’s happening at the vanguard of the most significant civil rights movement that America has seen in half a century. What does it mean to celebrate it right now, in the midst of Black Lives Matter? As we engage in self-examination as a country, some people are thinking hard about the messages of celebrations like Pioneer Day.

Both of those contexts are relevant for understanding Pioneer Day 2020. On the one hand, the pandemic makes us more open to acknowledging the strength we gain from courageous people who have gone before us, people who faced hardship and emerged on the other side with their community largely intact. There’s definitely something about living through unprecedented times that makes us seek the wisdom of the past. For my part, during the pandemic my project has been to finally sort through my mom’s boxes in our basement, filled with letters, family history research and old photos. It’s taking a long time, but hey, what’s a global pandemic good for if not months-long family history projects that consume the entire surface of the dining room table?

On the other hand, the racial context of this spring and summer has Americans taking a hard look at history, whether it’s statues of Confederate leaders or traditions like Columbus Day or Pioneer Day. I’m just going to come out and say it: Pioneer Day has long been a celebration of whiteness, of Euro-American culture.

For most people today, this is largely unconscious, but in the 19th century, when the tradition began, I would argue it was intentional. Mormons in that period were eager to prove their American-ness, which meant their whiteness; in the pages of the Woman’s Exponent, for example, contributors repeated assertions that they were “daughters of the Pilgrims” and “of old Yankee stock.” They bristled at Protestant Americans’ depictions of them as something less than white (which happened often, as Paul Reeve’s excellent work shows). But they didn’t challenge the racial hierarchy that placed whiteness at the top; they only sought to cement their own place in that hierarchy.

I’ve written before about how Latter-day Saints as a people, and The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as an institution, have a long way to go in terms of confronting and dismantling racism. Don’t think that I don’t count myself in that group. This year, as I have focused on reading and listening to people of color, I’ve had plenty of uncomfortable moments of recognition where I’ve come face to face with being part of “covert” racism, the kind that is hidden and often unconscious.

Some people have diagramed this as a pyramid or an iceberg. The visible part of the iceberg, the portion that sticks up out of the water, contains overt racism: hate crimes, the N-word, swastikas, racial slurs. That stuff is, literally, just the tip of the iceberg. The much, much bigger part of the iceberg is down below, and it contains some behaviors I recognized in myself, like expecting POC (people of color) to educate me, prioritizing white voices as expert voices, having Eurocentric beauty standards, or being surprised when I first heard Jamal abu-Jamal on NPR and thinking, “He doesn’t sound Black.”

Yep, I’ve done all those things, and probably a lot more I’m not yet aware of. It’s humbling and hard to talk about the ways in which we are racist. But in the Latter-day Saint community, these are not yet discussions we’re having. Instead, too often, I hear a variation of “all are alike unto God” or “I don’t see color.” (Of course God loves us all equally; that doesn’t mean that racism isn’t real and terribly damaging. Weaponized in that situation, the “all are alike unto God” scripture is really saying “Your experiences as a person of color aren’t important enough for me to listen to.”)

Many Latter-day Saints are looking only at the tip of the iceberg — thinking that since we’re no longer actively denying priesthood or temple sealings to Black people, it’s all good. That because overt racism is no longer happening at the institutional level, the problem of racism is behind us and we can “Be One.” Which too often can mean “fall into line as part of the majority and Be White.”

Instead of congratulating ourselves about how we're not racist anymore, how about spending this Pioneer Day thinking of changes we can make to be anti-racist in the future?

It won’t be easy. Anti-racism work is hard, and it’s uncomfortable. I don’t know when or how it will end, or how much of myself I will have to surrender in the process.

Come to think of it, that sounds very much like a pioneer trek. Fresh courage take.

Editor’s note The views expressed in this opinion piece do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.