In My Hometown

I live in Bountiful, UT. I mostly grew up here, and graduated from Bountiful High School. I moved away, and then back here as an adult. Last night, as I was going to bed, I came across this (content warning: racism and swearing):

It makes me sick. No one deserves this, least of all a child, and I hope the people who did it are found and dealt with appropriately, because this isn't just a harmless, "kids will be kids" situation, and it's not the kind of thing the victims can easily shake off. Now they have to go to school and live their lives wondering which of the many faces around them belong to people who see them this way, who felt they deserved this treatment. Nothing they could have done, no context, makes this act of racist harassment acceptable. I'm embarrassed for my community. I hate so much that this can happen here, in a place where I've met so many kind and decent people. In the place where I first learned to love those who weren't like me. 

This makes me feel awful, But it also made me reflect on some of my own experiences, so I'm going to tell a couple stories and express a few thoughts.

First of all, let me say that I am very happy to have a mixed racial heritage, including people from various parts of Europe, but also from the Hawaiian islands, and going further back, from Tahiti and China. I was raised to remember and cherish my Hawaiian ancestry, but in a crowd with any kind of diversity, I generally pass as white. A lot of students think I'm Latino, but that's probably because I have a lot of Latino students, so they see the signs of non-white genes in me.

Growing up in Bountiful, I would say it was 50/50 whether someone thought of me as white or something else. I had very few experiences with racism. I had a teacher or two who referred to me as one of the "ethnics," or other things in that vein, and I had some trouble with the multicultural student office at the first college I went to, because while my family history let me qualify for their services, they kept questioning my racial identity because I didn't look diverse enough for them. 

As an adult in Bountiful, I've also had a couple of run-ins with racist comments. For instance, I wear a kukui nut lei a lot of the time, including at church. When I moved back to Bountiful, after a few weeks of doing this, a man I knew growing up said something like,"What's with the beads? I appreciate your culture, but there's something to be said for the fact that we're on the mainland." That's about the worst I've had directed at me, personally. It displays a an attitude of not wanting too many reminders of the presence of other types of people, but it's also extremely mild. In general, I have met very few people in Bountiful who have exhibited racist tendencies, and I stand by that, despite what I'm about to say.

Of course, I know about the investigation from a couple years ago about problems with severe, systemic racism in Davis County School District. I'm not dismissing that or saying it's not a problem, especially in the light of what happened yesterday. 

The problem is that people in Bountiful don't generally think it's a problem. A few years ago I taught an Elders Quorum lesson at church about combating racism. This was right after the General Conference where the president and prophet of my church specifically called on us to do what we could to root out racism in our midst. Later, I was criticized for this by some class members, and by our Elders Quorum President at the time. He told me to focus on things that were actually issues. "Do you really think people in our ward need to hear that?" he asked me. 

Well, now we can see that they do. Or at least, some people in our town do. I've been thinking all day about what could lead people in my community specifically to have this kind of attitude, and do this kind of terrible thing.

Reacting to the New and Different

One obvious thing is unfamiliarity. Take a look at this data from 2021, showing the racial breakdown of people in Bountiful.

A graph showing the lack of racial diversity in Bountiful

Those two tiny yellow boxes in the lower right corner? Those are Black people, whether Hispanic or of African descent. There are more people with my specific racial Pacific Islander mixture in Bountiful than there are Black people. I have to wonder if that would still be true should my family move away, which makes my point. Going to Bountiful High School, you have almost no opportunity to meet anyone who isn't white. 

That means that young people's attitudes about African Americans are mostly shaped by a few things: the attitudes of others (especially parents, teachers, religious leaders, and peers), what they learn in school and at church, and what they see online or in entertainment/news media. None of those things involve direct experience with people who aren't like you, but they all tend to have something to say about the topic.

Take into account that Bountiful dwellers are predominantly members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (estimates are usually about 70%, but I've heard as high at 90% in some neighborhoods), and you can see that youth in Bountiful have very little chance to practice coexisting with anyone who isn't like them in appearance, heritage, or belief. Sometimes all three.

Under these conditions, ignorance and intolerance grow like weeds, not because the people involved want to be racist or cruel, but because they rarely have to face the question, and so have little guidance on it. They don't know how to handle it when someone is different, and human nature too often defaults to prejudice, fear, or suspicion in that case. This, by the way, is part of the reason it's not enough to just not be racist, but that we must be actively antiracist. No child can be faulted for not having had a given opportunity, but proactive teaching against racism can prevent it from springing up through the cracks in our experience.

Speaking of Specific Teaching

Another factor worth questioning is whether the teens involved in this acted in a racist way because they didn't know how to act, or if they were actively taught racism by others. The dominant religion in Bountiful—my religion—has a troubled history with race relations. There are things in the scriptures that are easily interpreted in a racist way, and racism is a significant topic in the Book of Mormon. This has led to certain ideas being circulated in the church that promote racial intolerance. 

I do not believe the doctrines of the church are inherently racist, but it would be foolish and irresponsible to pretend these ideas don't exist and aren't part of the problem, especially in a homogeneous community like this one. For some reason, mainstream Christians and Latter-day Saints alike have historically not always been great at applying the inclusive aspects of Christ's teachings. This is something you see the saints struggling with from New Testament times onward, and it's still one of the biggest limiting factors in the church, as I see it. We are so ready to exclude people based on their race, their beliefs, their economic status, their sexuality, or any other factor that makes us uncomfortable, while at the same time preaching how much we love those people, and would accept them, if only they would change.

There's no excuse for this, especially because we in the church should collectively remember what it's like to be persecuted for your differences, and because our scriptures make the wickedness of this attitude so abundantly plain. In my opinion, the only ways to read the scriptures we have and a) not see the presence of racism, b) not recognize that it's being addressed as a major problem, and c) come away thinking God wants you to reject others out of hand for any reason are to read them halfheartedly, incompletely, or with an effort to twist them to support your existing worldview. That's not exclusively a Latter-day Saint problem, but it is a Latter-day Saint problem.

Of course, it's not just in church that racist teachings can happen. They can happen at home or in school as well. They can (and do) come from internet personalities and other sources. When things like this racist attack happen, I can't help but wonder what is being taught in my neighbors homes. I wonder how certain subjects are taught in schools. I wonder if we in Bountiful are doing enough to monitor our children's online experiences, and if we're trying to be involved in how our kids process those things. 

In Malice Be Ye Children, But in Understanding Be Men

Which leads my to my final thought about how this can happen in Bountiful, where people should know better, which is really more a restatement of my first thought. When I was a missionary, one of my companions accused me of having lived in a "Bountiful bubble," so that I was innocently ignorant of important facts about the world. Well, he didn't seem to think it was so innocent, but never mind that. At the time I obviously rejected the idea, but it stuck with me all the same. 

Now, more than two decades later, I think he was right in part. I was not as innocent or as ignorant as he thought I was. But there were things I had never had to deal with, and as a result had never thought seriously about. Bountiful is a community where people try very hard to create an environment of safety for themselves and their children. A lot is kept out, for better or worse (it's both). On one hand, few of the people I knew growing up ever had to contend with some of life's harshest circumstances. They had loving families, safe homes, and at least enough worldly resources to survive without too much worry. They focused on having fun, making good memories, and building towards a good life for themselves in the future. This is what most parents want for their children. 

But because we were so protected, we missed some key lessons. We knew there was evil in the world, but we didn't really know what it looked like or how to prevent it, except for a few specific evils that we were constantly warned of. Racism was not usually among them, except in its most obvious and historically removed form: slavery. We all knew that was wrong, but we didn't really feel how seriously wrong it was, and why. We were taught to treat all people well and equally, but didn't have much chance to practice it, so it was largely academic. Or else, we thought we were already doing it with our friends who lived on the other side of the tracks, or those who wore different clothes or had unusual hairstyles, but were otherwise just like us. There's quite a bit of economic inequality around Bountiful, but a large segment of the BHS population is rarely exposed to it (which creates other problems, and worsens this one). We congratulated ourselves on our broad-mindedness for being friends with that one kid who was Greek Orthodox instead of LDS, but we were still friends, so it was okay! We must have been insufferable to some people. 

This kind of bubble is only possible because of the homogeneity of the community. For the people who don't fit the mold, their experiences will vary, depending on how drastically they depart from the formula, and how much they care. For some, Bountiful is working its way toward being a bit of Zion, where most, if not all, is well. For others, it's purgatory, or maybe limbo. For yet others, it feels like eternal torment. I couldn't see that then, because all you had to do to enjoy it was to be like the rest of us. But it's not so simple. 

I'm not blaming our parents for working to create a safe, sheltered environment for us to grow up in. What parent wouldn't want that? They did us a lot of good, and I honor them for that. But the definition of "safety" needed some fine-tuning. We needed experience outside of our bubble, and we needed to wrestle with the realities of that larger world. We needed to see that the kind of safety provided by innocence only serves you while you're a child. As you grow, you also need to mature. That means taking risks and encountering new things, still with guidance, but also without training wheels, and with accountability.

Children need to grow up free to make mistakes without having those mistakes determine their identities. The victims of this attack deserve apology. They deserve safety. They deserve every form of reparation that can be made to them. But the perpetrators also deserve healing, and to grow beyond this: to do and be better. They won't have a good chance to do that if they're shielded from accountability, but neither will they if they are cast out. If that happens, what is probably the most shameful act of their lives (one hopes) will come to define them in their own eyes and the eyes of others.  This will lead to more festering racism, which they will probably pass on to the next generation.

You can't heal a poisoned wound without removing the poison, and the poison here is racism, not people. The ones poisoned are the perpetrators as well as the victims. The thing about a bubble is that it keeps things out, but it also keeps them in. 

It's Not Just Bountiful

Let me finish up by saying that this troubling event is not confined just to Bountiful or Davis County. I teach at a school in Ogden, a city that is often seen as more liberal, worldly, or even corrupt than many in Utah (it's a whole thing... don't get me started). Even there, at a place known for being more inclusive and welcoming than many Utah schools, I've seen an alarming increase in this kind of thing. 

It seems like every other day a student tells me about someone calling someone the n-word. We've had kids cosplay Nazi officers at school (we put a stop to that). I've heard other racial slurs thrown around, and it's not just the white kids. For some reason, a lot of the slurs tend to be from the Latino/Latina kids towards the Black kids, or the kids who have mixed ancestry. I'm dealing with this constantly in class. Our school used to be a haven for bullied and disliked children, but now it's becoming infected, and every new year brings worse problems. The kids aren't learning how bad this is at home. They may be taught about it, but they aren't learning it. They're growing up with enmity towards other racial, social, and political groups. In our increasingly polarized world, is it a surprise? How to combat it is a constant question for us on the faculty.

I've also noticed that whenever I, as a teacher, speak passionately about values and the need to respect others, the students listen. If I express my distress at the state of things, or if I seem overwhelmed by it, they notice. They get quiet and pay attention. They want to be taught about the real world and how to navigate it. They're hungry for guidance, not just information. In the absence of that, and with only a vague understanding of the world but growing alarm at what they see happening in it, they often choose to act in extreme ways. It's childish, but by itself it's not evil. The evil comes in when they follow the bad examples around them.

Here's to being better examples.


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