Editor’s note • This is the second of a two-part series reflecting on Donovan Mitchell’s time in Utah, his critiques of the racial culture here, and how his words have impacted some in the state. It contains discussions of racism. Part 1 is available here.
The former Jazz star said that living in Utah became “draining” because of the pushback he received for his off-the-court endeavors. Mitchell also said that it’s “comforting” and “refreshing” to be playing in front of other people of color, when his previous stop was noteworthy for its incredibly homogenous racial demographics.
Not everyone was angry, though.
Actually, a number of people in Utah — the ones Mitchell usually found himself advocating for during his time here — found plenty of truth in his words.
They felt his comments hitting home and making sense, they saw themselves reflected in his words.
And now they want to have a conversation about their own experiences.
Feeling the drain
It’s no secret there’s a lot of stuff that I dealt with being in Utah, off the floor. If I’m being honest with you, I never really said this, but it was draining. It was just draining on my energy.”
— Donovan Mitchell, to Andscape's Marc Spears
Jordan Brown knows exactly what Mitchell meant about Utah being “draining” sometimes.
He is a Black man whose family moved to Ogden when he was 18. He played two years of basketball as a walk-on at Weber State, and now, at the age of 31, is a third-year medical student at the University of Utah, hoping to specialize in adolescent and child psychiatry.
He has experienced blatant racism here, such as when, as part of a recent medical rotation, he went in to check on a combative 12-year-old.
“We walk in and he looks at me, and then he just says [the N-word]” repeatedly, Brown recalled.
Horrifying and demeaning as that was, he says it’s actually the sheer accumulation of more subtle incidents that are wearing him down.
A few years ago, his wife, a white woman who works as a dental hygienist, was making conversation with patients, proudly bragging about her husband applying for med school. Too many of them — not knowing Brown was Black — told her, “’Well, if he’s not a minority or a Black person, he doesn’t have a chance to get in. … That’s all they care about now.’”
Further compounding the hurt was when another student in a group setting pointed to Brown’s new dreadlocks, and asked, “Are you going to go to interviews like that?” And before Brown could respond, his academic adviser chimed in, “Of course not. He’s not gonna go with his hair done like that!”
Alisha Archibald can relate.
A Fijian-Indian adopted at 6 weeks old by white, Mormon residents of Utah, she’s been called racist slurs because so many people just assume she’s Black: “‘You’re obviously not white and you’re too dark to be Latino.’”
As a 6-year-old in Bountiful, some sixth-graders followed her home, keeping up a running commentary about how she “‘had dirty, rotten skin, like a rotting banana.’” A few years later, at The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints’ Especially for Youth program, a mom walked up and told her, “‘It’s so nice that you’re here so it’s not so vanilla.’”
Now, as a 28-year-old Millcreek resident who works as a community marketing manager for concert promoter/venue owner S&S Presents, most of the bigotry she encounters is implicit rather than malicious — well-meaning people going overboard with what she terms “Get Out” racism, after the Jordan Peele movie: “Where it’s overcorrecting … the opposite of mean racism to the point that you’re being so weird and nice about it but you’re still singling me out as not being white.”
Dr. William A. Smith is a Chicago native, who is Black. A University of Utah professor and the Chief Executive Administrator for Justice, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion at the Huntsman Mental Health Institute, he has now been in Utah for 23 years.
An incident he had a few weeks ago, though, is just the latest to weigh on him. He was at the dentist’s office, and while booking his next six-month check-up, encountered a white man about his own age.
“He says, ‘Oh, my gosh. I didn’t know colored people come to the dentist’s office! I thought your teeth was so strong you need a wrench to pull ‘em out,’” Smith recounted. “… But as I’m leaving, he said, ‘Merry Christmas, and God bless you.’ That left me with the feeling that he didn’t realize that he said anything that would be perceived as racist, that in his mind, he had a casual conversation with this Black gentleman.”
Byron Colindres is a Honduran-American whose parents immigrated to the United States in the 1970s. He grew up in West Valley City but now lives in Lehi, is married to a white woman, and has three young boys. Among the elder two, who are close in age, one is “blond-haired, blue-eyed,” while the other “is a little bit darker, like myself.”
Like those others, though, he too has experienced blatant racism, but it’s the more nuanced stuff that really gets to him.
People treating his sons differently based on their complexions. Store employees making it a point to keep a close eye on him when he’s shopping. People staring at him wherever he goes in Utah County, making it apparent they view his presence as anomalous and aberrant. Someone asking him where he’s from, with the clear implication that they mean “What country?” rather than “What city?”
“When we think of racism in Utah, we’re never talking about just blatant white supremacy,” Colindres said. “It’s little things that just slowly eat at you. It’s these little things that just chip away and chip away and chip away.”
The importance of seeing yourself
It’s a little comforting for me, 100%. … To not see many of us in the crowd [in Salt Lake City], I tried my best to make sure I invite young Black and brown kids to games, to be around the community. But just to not see us there, it was definitely tough. And being in Cleveland now, you see us courtside. It’s just refreshing. It’s a blessing to be back around people that look like me.”
— Donovan Mitchell, to Andscape's Marc Spears
Darlene McDonald, an author and community activist, notes that it should be neither revelatory nor troubling that people of color seek out other people of color. For that matter, white people do it, too.
She points to the work of Beverly Daniel Tatum, an expert on the psychology of racism who wrote the landmark book Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria? back in 1997, and released an updated version two decades later. The basic premise is even in racially diverse schools, patterns of self-selected segregation and racial grouping among students occur naturally and organically.
“This stuff is old — we just need to learn it, so we can understand human behavior and how we interact with other people,” McDonald said.
Meanwhile, Archibald has felt both extremes of her otherness — the isolation of being an aberration in a sea of whiteness, and the euphoria of finally feeling like she fit in somewhere.
“The thing about that Donovan article that stood out to me is he talked about not seeing himself here, which I relate to a lot,” she said. “I also never saw myself. I didn’t know any dark-skinned women of color — Black, Indian, nothing.”
She recalled being at the Fourth of July parade in Centerville, trying to locate the spot her grandparents had staked out: “I looked around and there was not a single person of color in like 1,000 people; it was just me, and it felt so weird and kind of claustrophobic in a way that I can’t explain.”
Conversely, it wasn’t until she was 16 or 17 and started going to Spy Hop (a nonprofit digital media arts center for students ages 9-19) and met some Black kids that she realized how important it was to her mental well-being.
“It finally gave me the opportunity to interact with people that understood my experience. … That’s something that white people will never understand because you’re never going to know what it’s like to not see yourself for that long,” Archibald said. “You’re never gonna know what it’s like to spend almost two decades never seeing yourself, and then later realize, ‘Oh, I thought I was ugly and nobody wanted me because I wasn’t white.’ I thought that my skin was ugly, I thought my hair was ugly. I thought all of these things were wrong with me. Nothing was wrong with me — I just never saw myself anywhere.”
Mitchell, meanwhile, after Tuesday night’s return to Salt Lake City, made it clear that he still sees Utah’s people of color, offering some words of encouragement on his way out.
“The biggest thing is keep fighting. And when I say that, I mean keep trying to inspire change. Understand that this isn’t gonna happen overnight. I said that when I first got here, I’m still saying it — this isn’t gonna happen overnight. Especially people that are obviously here in Salt Lake — it’s not easy. It’s not. And I think we all know that in this room,” Mitchell said. “I encourage everybody to use their voice to continue to speak out. It’s not an easy thing on a day to day. And I’m upset that I can’t be here to continuously speak on it. But understand that we hear you. We hear you calling for help in different scenarios, whether it’s social justice, racism, police brutality. We hear you. I think sometimes as a people, we feel unheard.
“… You can’t change unless people are uncomfortable,” he added. “Getting uncomfortable, having those uncomfortable conversations, and doing things that are just uncomfortable, trying to inspire that within our culture, within this world.”
Breaking down walls
McDonald believes Utah is at something of a crossroads.
She considers herself lucky. She lives in South Salt Lake and fell into “the most wonderful community of really, really close friends [who] are diverse in economic background, diverse in religion, diverse in race and ethnicity — and that has given me a very full life, that made Utah home for me, and I couldn’t imagine leaving.
“But I’m an exception rather than a rule,” she adds. “I know a lot of people that left because they could not create that here.”
She also knows many people of color in the state who are millennial, who are in childbearing years, that are weighing whether to stay and raise a family here or to go elsewhere.
“That is happening now,” McDonald concludes. “We have a problem in this state.”
The solution, in her eyes, is finding ways to tear down the artificial barriers that separate us and to foster more understanding, which will enable more people to cultivate a personal community like she has.
It’s a strategy that’s worked for Jazz guard Jordan Clarkson.
“The people that I’m surrounded by are all different shades of people — Samoans, Polys, White, Black, Asian, whatever it is. I’m really out here in the community, so I see it hand in hand,” Clarkson said. “This whole state is a [potential] community! I probably wasn’t something they’ve seen before, somebody who was just tatted up or whatever, you know what I mean? But I think they embrace me, and I embraced the people here.”
McDonald said she tried to reach out to Mitchell, to be an ally, to help him, but she was rebuffed by his representatives. She believes that had the Jazz not traded him to Cleveland, he eventually would have left Utah of his own accord — not because he never liked it here, but because he increasingly found local opposition to his social views overly antagonistic. That is what was most draining.
Archibald tells a story about how she loves going to visit her uncles in Brooklyn and how she enjoyed a trip to London right before the pandemic for the same reasons: Nobody is looking at her or noticing her … because there are enough other people of color that she doesn’t stand out.
“It feels great. Nobody staring, nobody’s watching me in a store, none of it,” she concludes. “Nobody sees me because it doesn’t matter.”
Some may not ever come around, but Salt Lake City’s Blair Hodges, a white man who created and runs the “Jazz Fans Against Racism” social media platforms, is convinced that plenty of other white people will.
Rather than be confrontational or preachy, he tries to make his point in ways everyone can understand.
“If people say, ‘Well, racism happens everywhere,’ then I’ll respond, ‘That’s exactly right. There’s racism all over the place. Let’s talk about what it looks like here and what we can do about it here,’” Hodges said. “Or I’ll give an example of, if I peed my pants a little bit, and someone’s like, ‘Hey, you peed your pants,’ and I was like, ‘Oh, but that guy peed his pants, too!’ — that doesn’t solve anything. I still peed my pants, and I’ve still got to change my underwear.”
Brown is also trying to find common ground.
Though not Mormon himself, he said he actually appreciates the strong LDS culture here, that he admires the emphasis on values and family. Now, he’s trying to convince those who would tell Black people to quit talking about the impact of slavery, to let it go because it was so long ago and has nothing to do with now, to recognize that there are meaningful parallels in their respective pasts.
“I have always found it interesting how they cherish pioneer history, how even though that was hundreds and hundreds of years ago, there’s Pioneer Day, and they celebrate it, and people talk about their pioneer ancestry, how they feel close to their ancestors and what they’ve gone through and the suffering that they’ve experienced, and how proud they are,” Brown said. “And I would just say, imagine having those emotions and feelings and love for your community and what your people have gone through and the suffering that they’ve experienced and the discomfort and the pain, and [then] having someone say, ‘Well, that was hundreds of years ago, it doesn’t matter. Get over it. It’s a long time ago. Why do we even need to discuss it? It’s a moot point. It doesn’t matter.’
“… That is the real message that people need to understand — that this isn’t a Black issue exclusively, in that you cannot relate. I think a lot of people can — especially here, especially people that come from oppression and persecution and unjust attacks against their people,” he added. “You would think that people who identify with those types of things would feel like a kinship to people who also come from oppression. The stepping-off point is to learn not sympathy — I don’t want people to feel bad for me, I want people to empathize with me, see that we are the same human beings.”
Colindres echoed that sentiment while bringing the conversation back to Mitchell: It can make a big difference if you view his comments not as the words of a famous basketball player, but of an everyday person.
“When you don’t have that [same] experience, you can separate him as an athlete/entertainer from his humanity,” he said. “… I read all over social media, ‘He has a lot of money; must be rough.’ It’s just the ability to separate Donovan Mitchell from his humanity — he’s a millionaire versus he’s a human, you know? But I’ve never heard of any scenarios where you can buy your way out of racist acts.”
McDonald, like Brown, also invoked a church truism in arguing for people to perhaps be more willing to listen to and accept what Mitchell and others like him have to say. If it helps, view him as a member of your ward, standing up and taking an offered microphone during a “Fast Sunday” sacrament meeting.
“[Don’t react as though] if he’s not lying he’s a drama queen looking for attention. If that’s the response, this is not going to get better,” she said. “Because he just bared his testimony to you.”