Email after schoolgirl’s suicide reflects LDS leaders’ increased willingness to confront racism

Some experts say they need to be even more direct, adding that church authorities may not know “just how bad it is in the trenches.”

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amos C. Brown of the NAACP and President Russell M. Nelson of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints during the announcement of new joint initiatives in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021.

Editor’s noteThis article mentions suicide. If you or people you know are at risk of self-harm, the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline provides 24-hour support at 1-800-273-8255.

The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints called on its members to “be inclusive, not just accepting” in an email it sent out this month.

The email came three days after the suicide of 10-year-old Isabella “Izzy” Tichenor, a Black and autistic Davis County student, and included resources for parents to help them talk to their children about embracing diversity.

The girl died after what her mother, Brittany Tichenor-Cox, described as relentless bullying over her race and autism. School district officials are in the process of launching an independent investigation of the matter.

Kimberly Applewhite Teitter, a Black Latter-day Saint who works as a Salt Lake City-based licensed psychologist specializing in racial trauma and child psychology, believes the church’s email represents both a response to Izzy’s death as well as a recent report issued by the U.S. Department of Justice. Federal investigators found “systemic failures in the school district’s handling of complaints of racial student-on-student and staff-on-student harassment.”

(Photo courtesy of Kimberly Applewhite Teitter) Kimberly Applewhite Teitter says she is "not sure there’s a clear sense in the upper echelons of the church of just how bad [racism] is in the trenches.”

Even more than these two events, however, Teitter believes the email represents an ongoing shift under President Russell M. Nelson’s leadership in the way church authorities address “inclusion and diversity issues.”

In the past, she said, they were more likely to sidestep conversations and concerns around diversity by emphasizing that “we are all united as children of God.”

For instance, this colorblind language is how many Latter-day Saint leaders have responded to the 1978 revocation of the priesthood and temple ban on Black members, evoking a verse from the faith’s signature scripture, the Book of Mormon, that “all are alike unto God.”

By contrast, the recent email linked to a Black Latter-day Saint’s story in which the author describes her own experience as the target of racism and other forms of discrimination in South Africa, where she lives.

“Seek to understand all perspectives,” stated the link to the article.

Janan Graham-Russell, a Mormon studies fellow at the University of Utah, said this pivot toward highlighting diversity reflects church leaders’ sensitivity to the increasingly international nature of the faith.

“The church recognizes that it’s a global church,” said Graham-Russell, who also is a doctoral candidate at Harvard University in religious studies. “Being more vocal about diversity and emphasizing belonging over mere inclusion is one way to help international members feel part of this growing faith.”

Top two leaders speak out

The email, listed under the church’s “Inspiration and News” group email, comes a little more than a year after Nelson spoke in General Conference about racism. In that talk, an excerpt of which is linked to in the email, the 97-year-old president said, “Brothers and sisters, please listen carefully to what I am about to say. God does not love one race more than another.” He then called on Latter-day Saints to “lead out in abandoning attitudes and actions of prejudice.”

A month later, Dallin H. Oaks, Nelson’s top counselor and next in line for the faith’s presidency, stated in a speech at church-owned Brigham Young University that Black lives matter is an “eternal truth all reasonable people should support,” before proceeding to decry “systemic discrimination” and police brutality aimed at Black Americans.

(Screengrab from BYUtv) Apostle Dallin H. Oaks addresses racism and Black lives matter in a Brigham Young University address on Tuesday, Oct. 27, 2020.

Both speeches occurred in the aftermath of a summer in which news of racial tension and discrimination dominated headlines across Utah and the United States. Yet even as the country’s focus on racism has ebbed and flowed since then, Latter-day Saint higher-ups have continued to revisit the issue.

In June, for instance, top church officials announced they would contribute nearly $10 million to humanitarian and educational funds designed in partnership with the NAACP and the United Negro College Fund.

(Trent Nelson | The Salt Lake Tribune) Amos C. Brown and LDS Church President Russell M. Nelson during the announcement of new joint initiatives with the NAACP in Salt Lake City on Monday, June 14, 2021. At rear are Henry B. Eyring, left, and Dallin H. Oaks.

Still, Teitter said, there’s much that remains unchanged when it comes to the church’s messaging around race and racism.

“At the end of the day, church leaders still see these as conversations meant to take place in the home,” she said, and not the public square — an idea she pushes back against.

“Those of us who are a racial minority really need to know that this is a global effort of abandoning prejudice and owning when you haven’t completely done so,” she said. “We don’t necessarily trust white families to be doing this work in their homes.”

Another theme the psychologist has continued to notice in these conversations on racial discrimination and trauma is the emphasis that, in the end, people choose when to be offended. In theory, Teitter agrees with this principle. In practice, however, she said this has historically meant “putting the impetus on people of color, marginalized communities to make white people feel safer.”

When asked why she thought church leaders might remain committed to this approach, Teitter pointed to the faith’s focus on the home generally, as well as its belief that members “should not be compelled in all things.”

Then, she added: “I’m not sure there’s a clear sense in the upper echelons of the church of just how bad it is in the trenches.”

As an example, Teitter noted the social media backlash she observed after Oaks’ BYU address. “What I saw was people counting on Oaks to have a caveat so they wouldn’t actually have to do anything about the statement,” she said. “When he didn’t give it to them, they didn’t really know how to act. Some started talking about how the church isn’t true anymore.”

Wary of critical race theory

In contrast, Graham-Russell sees church leaders’ framing around the subject as primarily strategic.

“Something the LDS Church has done for quite some time is to opt for ambiguous language when talking about prejudice,” she said, citing as evidence the near-total absence of the terms “race” and “racism” from the email’s linked content. “This way they are able to hone what they see as a centrist message that progressive and conservative members can interpret however they want.”

(Courtesy Janan Graham-Russell Scholar Janan Graham-Russell says The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints tends to use a "centrist message" on race and racism "that progressive and conservative members can interpret however they want.”

Ongoing controversies around how schools teach race has only added to leaders’ caution, she said. “They really want to avoid terms that might incite conversations around critical race theory.”

Although originally a theory generated by legal academics in the 1970s to describe the influence of race on American law, critical race theory has come to serve as a shorthand and rallying point for many on the right to refer to the belief that racism remains a major force in U.S. society and that schools play a crucial role in combating it.

Parents objecting to this point of view have formed organizations across the country, including in Utah, to oppose everything from the teaching of individual books to entire curricula. Among these parents’ objections is the belief that talking about racism serves to further divide students.

But, as Teitter and Graham-Russell stated, current research does not bear this up.

“White parents need to be telling their kids that there’s a good possibility when they see people that look different from them, that they’re going to make judgments about them,” Teitter said. “That doesn’t mean you’re a bad person, but you still have a job to resist that impulse.”

Here she pointed to an article from the church’s children’s magazine, the Friend, to which the faith’s recent email linked. Based on a true story, it begins with a child complaining to her mother that the new boy, named Musa, had mistreated his younger sister on the way to school, insisting on always walking in front of her. Later, the child realizes she was mistaken, that in fact the boy had been trying to help guide his sister to school after she had forgotten her glasses at home.

This, Teitter said, is a classic example of how people’s discomfort with those they perceive to be from “out groups” can quickly translate into negative assumptions about their character.

For this to change, she is emphatic: “Black parents can’t be the only parents socializing their kids around the reality of race.”