Skip to main content
Racist Gods

“I’m not racist.”

How many times have I heard my white, religiously conservative friends and family make this declaration? How many times have I made it myself?

Many of those white friends and family understand “racist” to mean spewing racial slurs or actively participating in cross burnings or lynchings. We are so terrified of being associated with a moral failure of this magnitude that we won’t even listen to a discussion of internalized bias.

We simplistically see ourselves as either racist or not racist. There’s no in between. We can see gradations with any other sin but not this one. We might eat a little too much, but we’re not gluttons. We may not be the best at sticking to a budget, but we’re not shopaholics. But since being racist is 100% unacceptable, we’re unable to see ourselves as racist at all.

No one likes facing their faults. I’m irritated when someone points out I’ve interrupted them while they were speaking. In response, I want to tell them they were taking too long to make their point, or that they’d already made it, or that they’d interrupted me just two minutes earlier.

Most white people know we don’t “get it” when it comes to racism. And it’s human nature to dismiss what we don’t understand.

The truth is I’m mad because they’re right. After years of being a wallflower, I finally learned to be more assertive and participate in discussions. This was supposed to be a good thing. But now I go too far and have to consciously hold back. I’ve done something really rude by interrupting, even if unintentionally, and I hate realizing I still make these mistakes, despite years of concerted effort.

Likewise, most white religious conservatives are not open to considering we might possess a serious moral failing we’ve been unaware of our whole lives. We spend years putting our plastic into recycling bins and then learn that almost no plastic is ever recycled. We thought we were good, and now we discover we’ve been contributing to a terrible problem all along without meaning to.

Having good intentions doesn’t change the negative impact we make.

Most white people know we don’t “get it” when it comes to racism. And it’s human nature to dismiss what we don’t understand. “I’ll never need this stupid algebra.” “If I’m studying to be a nurse, why do I have to read Shakespeare?” “I’m Jewish. Why should I care what Baptists believe?”

My Mormon friends and family have an added challenge in addressing what we see as a “new” problem with our character. We base our lives on the doctrine that the ultimate commandment is to “Be ye therefore perfect.” We’re here to be tested, be purified, and become gods ourselves after Judgment Day.

Yet, even with this powerful self-concept, even as we plan to rule over our own worlds, we’re so fragile we can’t accept we might actually need to make a few additional changes to our behavior.

As a Mormon missionary in Italy, I was told, “You’re here to teach, not to learn.” We were special, the Marines of the missionary force, because we’d been sent right to Satan’s doorstep to do spiritual battle with the whore of Babylon. I knew nothing of Roman emperors, nothing of Mussolini, fascism, and the battles of WWII. I was taught nothing about Catholicism in preparation for my assignment.

I was expected to reach the hearts and souls of the Italian people without knowing the most basic information about them.

We had the truth, after all, and it wasn’t audacious to say so. It wasn’t our fault we were right and they were wrong. Those were the “facts.” We’d have told the Pope to his face if we could have gotten an audience with him. But apparently the Pope didn’t think we were important enough to be seen.

The hubris.

It’s not that one hour a week in Culture Capsule at the Missionary Training Center was useless, mind you. I did learn the words to “Zippiti Du Da” in Italian.

Most of my Mormon friends and family returned from their missions to Japan, Finland, Venezuela, and Belgium with little appreciation for the cultures they’d experienced.

Most of us forgot the languages we’d spoken for two years because there was simply no point in maintaining them. One family member chided me for writing portions of my journal in Italian, quoting a Church leader who’d said it was wrong to cling to the language we’d learned on our missions.

Scroll to Continue

Recommended Articles

I’d say this dismissal of other cultures was a problem particular to Mormons. Rather, it’s a problem central to white dominant culture in general. We’ve been conditioned by hundreds of years of colonialism and presumed superiority to feel no need to consider other points of view.

Mormons face yet another difficulty. We’re told not to “delve into the mysteries.” We teach the same basic lessons in Sunday School and Priesthood and Relief Society over and over and over. We’re never allowed to discuss outside the temple the teachings we learn inside. Even there, we’re always watching the same film, hearing the exact same words again and again, allowed only five minutes of meditation—and no discussion—in the Celestial Room.

We’re trained from infancy to open our minds only to the bare minimum of information we think we need. As if one could ever progress to either perfection or godhood with such a limited mindset.

As part of the dominant culture, most white people expect everyone else to learn our ways and adapt accordingly. We’re afraid that empathy means agreement, unable to see the unlikelihood that we could ever achieve perfection without cultivating that skill.

I used to feel proud I’d “served” as a missionary. Now I see my time in Italy as cultural imperialism.

Still, I’m glad I went because, despite everything, I did learn something.

I don’t like knowing I’m biased. It’s painful, annoying, embarrassing. I didn’t choose to be biased so it can’t be true.

Of course, I didn’t choose to be white, either, yet that’s also true. I didn’t choose to be gay, but it’s an undeniable fact. I didn’t choose to be right-handed.

I didn’t choose the local or national culture I grew up in.

It’s hard to overcome our culture, to be human rather than middle class, to be people rather than Republican or Democrat. It’s scary to change our worldview.

As Mormons, we expected it of Roman Catholics in Rome. As Americans, we expect it of other cultures around the world. As white people, we expect it of every other race and ethnicity.

Perhaps other white religious conservatives don’t expect to become gods in the afterlife, but many of us act as if we consider ourselves gods right now. Only we can be trusted to vote, only we deserve due process when encountering the police, only we deserve the benefit of the doubt in every situation.

I used to think Mormons were presumptuous to believe they could become gods. Now I see that same presumption among most white people. We don’t have to belong to a white supremacist group to think we’re superior, and to act and vote accordingly.

While I’m no longer Mormon, although I no longer believe in any deity, I still have a deeply ingrained desire to be perfect.

Of course, I’m not perfect. Neither are any of my white friends and family. Or people of any other race, ethnicity, or religion. But being imperfect doesn’t mean we’re “bad.” Unless we refuse to acknowledge that no matter how much of value we’re able to teach others, there is plenty we need to learn ourselves.

To whom much is given, much is required.

Did we really expect to “grow” without experiencing pain, self-reflection, and change?

The truth is it’s impossible to come anywhere close to being good, much less perfect, if we deny the oppression, suffering, joys, and triumphs of others.

Johnny Townsend

Competence in any field requires practice, and lots of it. If we want to develop cultural competency, if we want to be the best people we can be, here or in the hereafter, we’re going to need to start practicing more regularly.

Let’s make an effort to do something about it today.

Johnny Townsend