Below are the remarks I gave to the Temple Har Shalom of Park City on 6/19/2020. Edits have been made to provide greater context and for additional resources to be included. Thank you to Rabbi David and the wonderful people of Temple Har Shalom Park City. Your faith is radiant and I appreciated the opportunity to worship with you all.
I moved to Utah 12.5 years ago in January 2008 when I transferred to BYU. I was a new member of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints as of a year and was eager to make new friends and establish my life here. As much as I have enjoyed the years I have lived here, there are times when I face racism in social, professional, and spiritual ways.
While we continue to do our part to combat COVID-19, we have also watched racial tensions that have always existed bubble up to the surface where it can no longer be ignored by the masses. Utah may sometimes appear to be in a bubble, but it is not immune to racism. When I talk about racism, I don’t mean slavery or the Klu Klux Klan. I’m talking about systemic racism, racial insensitivities, and unconscious biases. Just because Black people make up roughly 1% of Utah’s population, doesn’t mean what is happening in other states isn’t happening here. My life would probably be easier if I were to pack up my belongings and move somewhere that I would have a larger community that I could connect with, but I don’t want to leave. I have an opportunity to make a great place a better place.
Today is Juneteenth — a holiday that celebrates when ALL slaves in America were emancipated at the end of the Civil War. Many are taught that slavery ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, but slavery continued for 2.5 years until Union soldiers rode to Texas to spread this message to the last of the enslaved. When the slaves were made known of this, some left the fields immediately, some remained with their masters because they thought this news was too good to be true, and some had no idea what the word *free* even meant. They were born in bondage, raised in bondage, and the same was for every generation before them. They were living in a country where freedom had been declared for nearly 89 years, but yet that freedom was conditional. It meant all who were white were free in 1776. All who were Black were not enough to be included in that declaration. These groups of slaves were being told they would no longer have to pick cotton or tobacco as free labor, they could receive wages for the first time in their life, that they no longer had to endure whippings by cruel slave owners, that their bodies would no longer be mutilated out of curiosity, that they could decide to be whoever they wanted to be.
But those freedoms didn’t last long. While slavery may have ended, the racist beliefs of those who once enslaved continued on. After slavery, voting rights were stripped, Jim Crow laws were implemented, and thus began a new era of systemic racism. These injustices still exist today. Since 1619, Black people in America have been desperately shouting for equality. We may no longer be in actual chains or out in fields as free labor, but we remain enslaved by unjust systems and institutions.
I want to share some examples with you, some personal examples of where injustices continue here in Utah. The world we live in says I am not enough, but hopefully, you can join me in proving that I am enough.
Everyone will experience forms of oppression and discrimination, but the life of a Black American is unique. Before we even take our first breath, the world has decided that we are less than. Some medical professionals see our pregnant black mothers and deem us unworthy of care. Black women are 3–4 times more likely to die from pregnancy-related causes than white women and black infants twice as likely to die than white infants. This isn’t because our bodies are less capable of carrying a child or giving birth. This isn’t because black babies are not physically fit to survive past infancy. It is because in hospitals and doctor’s offices across the country, we are not treated the same. We too know our bodies, but often it is assumed that we are uneducated and thus not in a position to request certain care or receive second opinions.
Six months ago, I endured an emotionally painful health/medical experience. Due to how raw and recent this was, I won’t share the details that are most personal to me. However, I will note that for five months after that experience, I continued to have complications. I am lucky to work for a great company where I am given fantastic medical insurance, but I still have to endure the humiliating experiences that are certainly not covered in my benefits package. Once I thought I was healing, I began to notice something was wrong and had an idea of what it was. I saw the same doctors time and time again and explained that what they gave me was not working and that I was still in pain. I was told that I needed to not stress and that it was all in my head. I requested testing where appropriate to gain more clarity and my doctors were reluctant or often refused to do any testing that would provide answers. When I finally was able to have lab work and testing done, I was pricked numerous times by needles, given medication that was too much for my tiny frame (I am only 5ft tall and barely weigh 100lbs), and frustrated by how I was spoken to. I cried myself to sleep every night and I begged God to please help me convince a doctor that I was worth listening to. Finally, the last doctor I saw was able to discover the main issue. While doing so, he also was able to resolve the issues that had developed along the way. Turns out, that my original theory of what I thought had happened 6 months earlier was correct. I don’t have a medical degree. But I do have a body and a brain. Together, my body and my brain communicate in ways to make things known. I have had white friends who have endured the same compilations I dealt with and they were listened to immediately. I even went to doctors recommended by those same white friends and was told by those doctors that they would not treat me. I just happened to finally stumble upon the one that would listen to me.
Historically, Black people have been used as scientific experiments in America. We were not considered human and therefore it was assumed we could feel no pain. So our bodies were opened up out of curiosity, our bodies were violated for pleasure, and our bodies were mutilated for sport. And this continues on…
Dating is difficult, no matter how old or young you are. As I am now in my early 30s, I definitely choose to not put up with what I used to put up with, but I am often amazed by the crazy situations I find myself in. A few years ago, while on a date, I was told by my date that I was “pretty for a Black girl.” I asked him what he meant and he went on to explain that to him, Black women just weren’t as good looking, but not to worry because he found me to be attractive. On this man’s scale of attractiveness, my race fell near the bottom. And somehow he thought it would be a compliment to me.
I have dear friends who would in no way believe they are racist. I mean, if they were, they wouldn’t be friends with me, right? But what many of them don’t understand, is that there is an unconscious bias that exists, one in which they were born into. So when I hear the N-word or an inappropriate joke is told at my expense, I ache inside. When they see the look on my face, they typically nudge me and say “You know I’m joking, right?” Instead of sticking up for myself, I usually awkwardly nod while I shrink inside. Upon learning that, some have asked me, “Liese! You should have told them it was wrong! Why didn’t you say something?” What I have come to realize is that I risk some of these dear friends becoming defensive and refusing to validate my pain. Sometimes it feels easier to shrink inside than to risk having to see that the people you love and value for all that they are may not love and value you for all that you are.
Recently, I have seen white friends who have gotten defensive and their friends come to their defense. The reaction is always, “If anyone knew your heart like I do, then they wouldn’t...”
Recently, on a jewelry Instagram account, the owner was criticized for not being clear on how she was going to donate the proceeds from her sales. The criticism was valid as it was unclear and portrayed in a way that seemed self-serving. However, it is unlikely that the owner intended her posts to come across that way. It is more likely that she had the best of intentions. But…
I am here to tell you that it is 100% possible to be a good person with a good heart and STILL miss the mark. Being nice is great, but it is not always a redeeming quality. I don’t want someone to defend their good heart. I want someone to believe, like I do, that they are capable of having a great heart, a better heart, than just a good heart. Why would anyone want to defend themselves from being able to become better than they could be? People are loud and angry right now because the injustices of so many are not something to sit back and be quiet about. After reviewing the comments, they were less rude or hateful, and more so an expression of confusion over whether this was a way to promote themselves and demanding clarity so as not to further confuse other potential buyers. Before rushing to defend the people you know because you know their hearts, encourage meaningful conversations where a safe space can be created to admit fault while still having a good heart that can grow into a better heart.
When I came to BYU, I thought that I was coming to be with my people. I was only a member of the LDS Church for a year and I was so excited to be apart of that community. As a 20-year-old living in Provo going to BYU, I had a conversation with a Mormon bishop that has continued to haunt me to this day. In our meeting, he asked me how my dating life was going. I informed him it was fine, but with a difficult semester, dating wasn’t really a priority. When I asked him why he was asking, he responded with, “Well, you know, I just want to make sure that you are being able to go on dates because there aren’t many of your people here at BYU.” As someone who tries so hard to give everyone the benefit of the doubt, I didn’t want to accuse him of saying what I thought he was trying to say. So I asked for clarification to which he replied, “You see, many white men just aren’t attracted to Black women. It is what it is, but I didn’t want you to wonder in case you were concerned about not going on as many dates as your roommates likely are.” I was heartbroken! I thought I was with my people. I didn’t classify my people based on the color of their skin. But the very people I thought were mine did not see me as theirs.
This is not the case for every LDS member, but I do wrestle often with the fact that I am a member of a Church that has a racist past. I’ve heard many members provide various excuses and justifications for the words of leaders that they revere. The same men and women who line the margins of my scriptures have told their congregations that someone who looks like me is not enough when it comes to marrying into their families, worshipping in the temple, and fully partaking of the blessings I believe God awards to all of his children. In a recent article by Michelle Quist, she writes:
“According to the church, repentance requires one to “seek forgiveness from those you have wronged, and restore as far as possible what has been damaged.” In other words, the wrong needs to be acknowledged. The church’s essay on Race and the Priesthood includes a statement that the church didn’t allow men to hold the priesthood or black families to participate in temple ordinances. But the passive statement lacked any acknowledgment that these practices were racist, and certainly failed to apologize for them.”
I love my Church, and first and foremost I love God, but those that are considered my people deserve an apology. As stated by Meg Conley “Visitors are Welcome but not welcomed.” If the walls of God’s churches proclaim that all are welcome, then truly all must be welcomed.
In the last few weeks, some of my white friends have told me I am too loud or too vocal, that I’m too angry and have made some people feel uncomfortable. To that, I say: Good!
In order to change, it means we must feel a little uncomfortable. Otherwise, when comfortable, we don’t move. It is time to move. It is time to act.
Don’t police my tone.
Don’t be afraid to teach your children about these things. Their schools will not, so you must. Children are probably the best at understanding justice. They are taught early on how to share and what is fair/unfair. Continue teaching them what is fair/unfair so that as adults they treat everyone as equals.
To close, I want to share that this week has been extremely difficult. I have wrestled with ongoing messages that I am seeing online and that I am hearing from friends that continue to suggest that I am not enough. My skin is the reason that the world decided I am not enough. Every black person alive and long before our time were seen as not enough. I didn’t sign up for that. None of us signed up for that. But tonight I plead with you to see me as enough. To love me as I am enough. I’m sure you all are good people. Will you accept my invitation to become even better people? Will you stand by my side and together we can prove that when I too am enough, then we all are enough. Today on Juneteenth, I hope you will take note that none are free until all are free.