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Carefully Taught?

By: Ardis E. Parshall - April 25, 2011

I listened to the soundtrack of the musical “South Pacific” the other day and heard Cable’s familiar song:

You’ve got to be taught to hate and fear,
You’ve got to be taught from year to year,
It’s got to be drummed in your dear little ear.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught to be afraid
Of people whose eyes are oddly made,
And people whose skin is a diff’rent shade.
You’ve got to be carefully taught.

You’ve got to be taught before it’s too late,
Before you are six or seven or eight,
To hate all the people your relatives hate.
You’ve got to be carefully taught!

My first few years were spent in suburbs of Salt Lake City. We seemed to be so homogenous that every single member of my first-grade class belonged to one or the other of the two LDS wards that met in our building; when we painted a huge Christmas mural in school, it was displayed on the wall behind the podium in our chapel.

We weren’t entirely alike, though. I don’t remember the family or the circumstances, but I asked my mother when I was seven about some names a few neighbor kids had yelled at some other neighbor kids. Mom explained to me that one neighbor family was Mexican (I didn’t know what Mexican meant and she didn’t explain); that some people didn’t like Mexicans and called them names, but that my brothers and I were never supposed to treat them any differently from any of the rest of our friends.

The first non-Mormon I was conscious of knowing was Kathleen, a Catholic, in my fourth-grade class. I didn’t know what Catholic meant, either, except that she didn’t go to Primary with us. I liked her. I wasn’t aware of any discrimination directed against her, but I suppose it would have been easy to be hurt when our Mormon-ness was such a casual and pervasive part of the school lives of the rest of us.

The summer before sixth grade, my family spent a few weeks living in military housing at Herlong Army Depot in northern California, where my father’s work had taken us. I remember my little brother and me playing on the swings in the small base park when three larger black kids came along and tried to push us off the swings. We refused to give them up. I started chanting in a sing-song voice “[n-word]! [n-word] from darkest Africa!” over and over and over. Honestly, I do not have the slightest idea where that came from. Neither racial epithets nor terms like “darkest Africa” were ever used in my family. I don’t think they would have been said on TV at that point (1969), and these three kids may literally have been the very first blacks I ever saw face to face in my entire life.

I don’t know who those kids complained to, but it caused some serious trouble for my father. Even though he was a civilian employee, race relations and racial harmony are taken very seriously by the U.S. military, and Dad was called on the carpet. I could have cost him his job, even his career – I’ll leave to your imagination the talking-to I got later that day. And I still don’t know how those words got into my head to come out of my mouth. I haven’t said them since except to write them here.

The first black child I can remember knowing at all was George, in my sixth-grade class. By then my family had moved to a suburb of Reno, Nevada. I didn’t know George well at all. I suppose it says something that I can remember his name, just as I remember Kathleen’s, when I couldn’t tell you the names of more than two or three other kids from either of those years at school.

That sixth grade year was also the year I learned that some people didn’t like Mormons any more than some didn’t like Mexicans or blacks. I don’t remember talking about being a Mormon, although I must have. Maybe I mentioned going to Primary. One of the questions kids asked each other to get acquainted in those days was “What religion are you?” and I probably answered. I may even have explained my longer, fuller skirts in those days of short, straight minis, as being due to my being a Mormon. But I don’t remember and can’t imagine any prolonged discussions or serious disagreement with any children about my being a Mormon.

There were three sixth grade classes in that school, taught by Mrs. Momerak (my main teacher), and Mr. and Mrs. Williams (a married couple; each was the main teacher for one of the other two classes). In that school, punishment for the usual childish infractions of being tardy, speaking out of turn, chewing gum, etc., was to “stand on the wall” – that meant that during recess, you had to stand outside facing the wall of the school, with your forehead pressed against the brick, and you had to stand there as long as your punishment was dictated. Most kids were released from the wall after one recess, or after all the recesses in a single day.

I don’t remember what I did to have to “stand on the wall,” but I found myself sentenced to do that one day. I wasn’t released after one recess, or after one day. Day after day, without explanation, I had to stand with my forehead against the wall. Mrs. Williams was supervising us truants on the wall a week or so after my punishment began, and I asked her why I had to stand there for so long, and when it would end. She pushed my forehead back against the wall and hissed at me, “You Mormons are so wrapped up in your blasted religion that you can’t see the forest for the trees!” I didn’t have any idea what she meant – still don’t – but her words were so filled with venom, and a new cuss word, that I’ve never forgotten them.

I hadn’t said anything at home about “standing on the wall,” probably because I was embarrassed for having done whatever it was that got me sent to the wall in the first place. It didn’t occur to me for quite a while that my punishment was excessive – even today I have to fight the tendency to think it is my fault whenever someone treats me poorly, even when the poor treatment is out of all proportion to anything I might have done or said. But after several weeks, I finally told my mother what was going on. I told her everything I had done and said – including the fact that I was so angry at Mrs. Williams  one day as she passed behind me while I stood on the wall, that I kicked backward like a mule, caught her foot with mine, and made her stumble. (Somehow, there was no retribution from her for that.) My mother calmly went to the school the next day and met with the principal and the vice principal (the vice principal was Mr. Singh, the first man I ever knew who wore a turban). I don’t know what all she said, but I was immediately taken off the wall and never had to stand there again. I also understood that if I ever merited punishment again, I was to stay inside during recess and work on additional math problems, but never again to stand on the wall.

Since then I’ve been exposed to a great variety of people, just as all of you have. I’ve probably displayed bigotry, both conscious and unconscious, and been the target of similar kinds of bigotry for being a woman in the workplace, or an American in the world, or a Mormon for simply daring to breathe. I can’t remember all those times, of course, but I surprise myself for being able to remember so many “firsts.” I’m also surprised that so many of those firsts occurred shortly after I was “six or seven or eight,” and that I was on both the giving and receiving ends without, seemingly, needing “to be carefully taught.”

How about you? When do you remember first displaying prejudice, or being the object of it, especially when your Mormonism played a role?



18 Comments »

  1. Ardis,
    Fascinating story. I have been waiting for others to comment to see what the nauture of the responses would be. But, it is a slow Monday so here’s mine. I grew up in a part-Mormon family in what I have called a part-Mormon town–not in population but in character. My mother was not LDS and my father was an indifferent member. They were great parents and my mother, not wanting us to be left out, responded to the efforts of the local leaders to see that her children were baptized. I was past nine when I was dunked but I recall little of it.

    Mom had taught school for several years before she met dad and was president of the PTA during our grade school years. Dad was president of the Lions Club, so they were respected for their leadership talents. But one incident stands out in my mind. There was a store of a national chain in our town, one of the biggest businesses. The manager died and new man was sent to take his place. He was Mormon to the nth and very aggressive. Afer a year or so, when my mother met him at some function, she addressed him as “Joe”. His sharp response was: “Mr. Smith to you, lady!” Lucky for “Smith”, my mother was so stunned her 100% Viking ancestry was forgottten. But when I overheard her telling dad about it, I heard some words I had no idea she knew and probably heard when she was teaching school in the coal and railroad towns of Eastern Utah.

    Comment by CurtA — April 25, 2011 @ 11:46 am

  2. You’re a brave man, CurtA, thanks for broaching this one. Great story, thanks. I think you’re right that Mr. Smith was lucky that your mother was temporarily stunned!

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2011 @ 12:15 pm

  3. Great stories, Ardis. It’s my lunch break, so here’s mine for what it’s worth.

    I grew up outside of Utah, mostly in the suburbs of Seattle. My first notice that I was something different with regard to religion was that I had to walk to school and really wanted to ride a school bus. After school, all the Catholic kids got to ride a bus to go to Catechism. I was extremely jealous. My best friend at the time, Jim Darcy, (we have recently reconnected on facebook) was one of those lucky Catholic kids. I just had that long ride in a car to Primary every Tuesday afternoon. And once, while still in first grade, I was over at Jim’s house for lunch and told his mom I couldn’t drink iced tea. We were all confused about that, and I was extremely embarrassed, as was Jim’s mom, but it came out OK.

    My first direct contact with African-Americans (there was a lot of non-direct info from the TV news on civil rights and riots in the 60s) was that my dad worked with a Black man and invited him and his wife over for dinner once. At the dinner table, my sister, about two years old, so this was about 1968, was somehow seated in a high chair next to the man. With some determination of curiosity, she slowly reached out and touched his dark-skinned arm while all of us just froze and stared. Then the adults all sort of chuckled so we kids went along. Long before the Revelation on the Priesthood, my mom was quite proud that she had them singing with us at the piano from the LDS hymnal. We also went over to their house once for dinner and they had a boy around the age of my younger brother. They sent us all outside to play. There was a little hill, then a parking lot for a synagogue with a lot of little Jewish kids in yarmulkes staring at us (Jewish Catechism??). It was rather cross-cultural, but I didn’t understand it then. It was just very unusual.

    The tolerance my parents clearly worked on was unfortunately juxtaposed with an incident at about the same time (late 60s) when my dad was driving my brother and me through the University District in Seattle. We saw a young couple crossing the street, a Black man holding the hand of a white woman. My dad said, “That’s disgusting!” I didn’t really know why, and it was confusing. Yet, I also remember an LDS co-worker of my dad’s during the riots after the King assassination talking to him about how he was getting a gun so his wife would be protected (way out in the suburbs) when the Blacks came out there (violently? For what? Like those riots on TV? I was confused again and a little scared). My dad listened but sort of winced while changing the subject. I took that to mean that we didn’t need to have guns because of the Blacks.

    So, I am grateful for parents who tried with a few failings but certainly sincerely to teach me some tolerance and respect for others.

    I had a sixth grade incident a year or two before yours. Due to rapid, suburban, baby-booming, our sixth grade met in portables on a parking lot below Finn Hill Jr. High, in Kirkland, Washington (now, there’s a Stake Center just on the other side of the school!) So we had a playground (actually, the parking lot) to ourselves. One recess all the kids started in a mass or mob-like, angry chase around the playground after a certain girl, who, according to shouts from the crowd, had called our only Black sixth-grader the “N” word. I joined the crowd. I think recess ended about then, so the teachers were able to disband the mob fairly easily. I guess we were sort of a “progressive” mob if somewhat sheltered (and white) suburban kids.

    The first real conflict involving my faith didn’t come until High School. For a time, and probably against church policy, we held early-morning Seminary classes at the school. It abruptly ended when a Science Teacher complained strongly to the Administration, and supposedly, picked on a few students in class when our Seminary Teacher refused to debate him on Evolution. In high school, I also went once to a “Christian” after-school prayer group club. I wasn’t exactly welcome and didn’t go back. But I probably asked for that one. There were also a few rude anti-LDS taunts during those years, but they were usually from low-life “druggies.”

    I went to Brazil on a mission before the Revelation. We had an “unofficial” discussion to teach Blacks about why they couldn’t hold the Priesthood even if they insisted on joining the church. It was full of all the false doctrine we were told to disregard after 1978. I was a little uncomfortable about it and I only taught it once when I was a District Leader and wanted to make sure a Black family was aware of what they were getting into before baptism.

    At the beginning of my mission, I understood that the policy was that if you had any suspicion at all that a man had black ancestry, you could not have him ordained to the Priesthood – and you were supposed to ask a lot of questions to try and discover any such ancestry. About January of 1978, our Mission President, a native Brazilian, told us not to grill anybody and that if we weren’t sure about ancestry, to go ahead and ordain them explaining that we didn’t have to worry because the Lord would sort all that out. One Elder, also native Brazilian, harangued me once about how our President had fallen into apostasy. I trusted my President more than him. And the President was certainly vindicated in his inspired foresight by June of that very year.

    My terrible confession is that as a missionary before the Revelation I sometimes would intentionally sit down on a bus next to a Black person, especially when I was exhausted, because I knew I didn’t have an “obligation” to try to share the gospel. I was only slightly redeemed because for the last month of my mission, June 1978, I spoke to every Black person I saw.

    Comment by Grant — April 25, 2011 @ 12:37 pm

  4. With regard to observing prejudice, you really have to go some to beat the sectarianism between Catholics and Protestants we witness on a daily basis in the West of Scotland. It is utterly chilling.

    Comment by Anne (UK) — April 25, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  5. Thanks, Grant. You make a good illustration of how tangled it can all be. Thanks for being willing to share that.

    I had a connection to a story about pre-1978 missionary days, a story that stretched into my 1982-83, where what started as a nasty joke turned into something beautiful: My mission’s brightest moment.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2011 @ 1:02 pm

  6. I’ve never really witnessed that except in the mildest possible forms, Anne. Doesn’t sound like anything I ever want to get caught in the middle of.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2011 @ 1:04 pm

  7. When I was in 4th grade, my parents moved into a new home, which meant new school, friends, etc. Our neighbors moved into the same home as ours but it was the “Model Home” so it had more upgrades than ours. I got to know their son and we played together often. The family was black but that was never an issue for me. We were just friends who had fun playing tag or whatever. However, that changed when we went to high school. All of a sudden, it was not cool to have me as a friend and I remember him punching me in front of his other friends who were black and him calling me a ‘Honky’. I felt bad for him that he was so afraid to be a friend with me. We never did re-connect. I wonder what happened to him, maybe in the eternities, who knows.

    Comment by Cliff — April 25, 2011 @ 1:40 pm

  8. The other time that race was an issue was when I was on my mission and the announcement was made about every worthy man could now hold the Priesthood. My companion was upset at me because I was not super excited about it, I just shrugged and said that it fits in with what I knew would happen as God is no respecter of persons. He felt way different as he had grown up in Ogden and had many friends who were black and he felt so bad for them that they could not have the same blessings as others.

    Comment by Cliff — April 25, 2011 @ 1:44 pm

  9. Thanks, Cliff. What part of the country did you grow up in?

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2011 @ 1:56 pm

  10. Born in the 1950′s in Ogden, Utah, my first exposure to anything like this was in the form of a neighbor child I was not to play with. I later figured out it must be because he was Mexican, but I wasn’t sure at the time what that meant. Ogden had a higher percentage of minorities than any other city in Utah at the time, so even though we were living in Utah, it’s not as if we never saw blacks and latinos, we just didn’t mix much with them. As a teenager in the late 60′s, I’m afraid my parents bought into a lot of the folklore regarding the priesthood ban, and I certainly learned some of that myself.

    However, in my junior year in high school, I was paired with an African American kid as a debate partner for most of the year. He was bright, hard working, and a serious student, and we became friends. The one sad and embarrassing incident with this friend came when several of us were sitting around and telling stories about the crazy family on one side of us. The father was publicly physically abusive to his sons, a bully as a scoutmaster, and generally was avoided by most of the neighborhood. As I was telling stories about this family, my debate partner said something about how hard it must be to live by neighbors like that. I laughed and responded, getting all the way to the end of this next statement before I realized what I was saying. I said, “Even the negro family on the other side are better neighbors…”, suddenly looking for a hole in the floor to sink in to.

    It hurt. He was quiet, but things were never quite the same, and even though we still debated together, we were never really friends after that. I knew I had done something awful, and that even my fumbled apology probably sounded hollow and meaningless. It was the beginning of a new awareness on my part that he was really not all that different from me, and I began to question some, if not all, that I had been taught.

    A few years later in college at Weber State, I got a new look at public and institutionalized racism when two men and a college age girl were murdered and a third man brutally injured in the robbery of the Ogden Hi Fi Shop. I was working both for the college radio station at the time, and taking some journalism classes. A friend was a student intern and news stringer for KSL-TV, and involved me in helping to do some research and follow up on the investigation and later arrests. Any young black man driving in Ogden was likely to be stopped and interrogated by the police. One student acquaintance quit driving until the arrests were made to avoid being targeted for harassment by the police. Racial tensions became ugly and more public than I had ever experienced. Rumors of both angry groups of blacks and vigilante white mobs probably had more truth that we liked to admit at the time. The Ogden police chief and the city attorney engaged in some activities following the arrests that certainly violated the rights of the accused, and reflected an ugly racial view that made me feel that we weren’t really all that much better than some of the towns in the South.

    I’ve thought about that song every time I’ve heard it sung, and reflected on my parents, good folks who really tried to teach my brothers and I to choose the right. My father actually had been recognized in his work as a civilian for the Air Force for some of his work supervising a group of minority workers at one time. and I have no doubt that he treated them fairly. But the undercurrent of “different” and “cursed” was quietly taught by my good parents. It was not done with rancor. Outside of the Christmas nut bowl, we were never allowed to say the N word, but we were subtly made aware of those differences. To their credit, they both accepted the 1978 revelation without any reservations. But by then, they had moved from Ogden, and the waves of racism were no longer carrying them along with the current of the the 50′s and 60′s, ripe with fear and mistrust.

    Sorry for the length here, but it’s a hard subject to look back upon. Thanks for sharing, and giving us the chance to look back and remember, lest we forget.

    Comment by kevinf — April 25, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

  11. Sorry, grew up in the a few cities in the Bay Area of California… most near San Jose.

    Comment by Cliff — April 25, 2011 @ 2:08 pm

  12. Thanks, Cliff — your description of your companion’s reaction pointed out that geography/exposure/whatever we want to call it can play a role in expectations and reactions, so I wondered where you had lived.

    Thanks, kevinf, especially for the length and detail. With the emphasis on history around here, and some discussions about how to cast history, what to include and what to omit, I wondered what challenges would come from trying to be candid about history recent enough to include our own lives. It would be easy if all our experiences put us on the right side of history (and morality), but they don’t, do they? I’m still trying to figure out my taunting of the kids at the Army base playground: I *had* to have heard those words from somebody, and I also understood that they were hurtful even if I didn’t understand how or why they hurt — I certainly chanted them with the intention of putting down somebody and justifying my hanging on to the swings. But I don’t remember.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2011 @ 2:23 pm

  13. Thanks for the comments. I don’t have anything to contribute, but I appreciate others willingness to share.

    Comment by Clark — April 25, 2011 @ 4:09 pm

  14. I grew up to teenagerhood in a white-only suburb of a midwestern city that prided itself that it did not have race riots in the 60s (my pre-school years). I don’t remember the first time I saw a black person, but my Mom once told me that my toddler reaction was to exclaim “There’s a Chocolate Man!” There certainly were no black people at church at that time.

    My experience with the N-word was also with the Christmas mixed nut bowl, and the way I learned Eenie-Meenie-Miny-Moe. I think I was much older before I realized some folks used the word to describe people. It was a nonsense word with no meaning.

    At the YMCA camp where my widowed mother worked summers (so us kids could come along) was the first place I met and befriended black people, and my recollection was that they were just people.

    When my mom remarried, though, it was to a man from a very different and more inner-city background. I distinctly remember that he did not trust black people, and it may have been from him that I first learned that the N-word applied to people, because that is what he called black people. I also learned to call a particular kind of soup “Honky Soup.” We ate a lot of Honky Soup.

    And while I remember that my mom was excited for the 1978 announcement, I also remember her remarking to someone that what was most worrisome to her and my step-dad was that now there wasn’t a good reason to give for why their daughters couldn’t marry a black man. It took me a long time to puzzle out what they meant by that, and why they cared.

    Whether it was an accident of timing or no, in retrospect I cannot help but notice that they chose to move to the white-only extreme backwoods of Appalachia just at the time that the federal courts mandated bussing between the inner city school district and the ring of suburban districts around our city. Ours was not the only family that made that move then… and the rapid influx of former city dwellers to the area (with their city learning and liberal thinking, believe it or not) ironically gave rise to the law suit Mozert v. Hawkins County Bd. of Education in which the court ordered that parents could not require school districts to their children from certain streams of thought at school. (Got lotsa experience from that place about being the “other” as a Mormon, but frankly anything that wasn’t Scotch-Irish white Baptist was “other” there.)

    We moved again my senior year to rural Iowa, and there too there were zero black people in the county, let alone at church.

    One of my marked memories was a pair of events 6 weeks apart as a young married person in Los Angeles: First the Rodney King Riot, followed by the Bear Lake Earthquake. During and after the riot, everyone cowered behind closed doors, afraid of their neighbors. It didn’t matter what race you were. But after the earthquake, everyone was quick to share what they had and see that each other was alright. It didn’t matter what race you were.

    Comment by Coffinberry — April 25, 2011 @ 4:48 pm

  15. I appreciate your support, Clark. I wasn’t sure how this would go, or even if it would get started.

    Thanks, Coffinberry. It sounds as though, like me, you have picked through your memory to remember as much as possible what experiences went into your own early awareness. It’s remarkable how sometimes such small memories are so clear and loom so large.

    Comment by Ardis E. Parshall — April 25, 2011 @ 5:03 pm

  16. I can’t remember what triggered it*, but I clearly remember my father gathering us all together in the early sixties -there would have been four or five of us at the time (I am the oldest of eight)- for a serious talk. It went something like this:
    “You will hear other people referring to negroes as niggers. But it is a hurtful word, a very bad word. Like I just said, you’ll hear it, but if I ever hear of MY children being so unkind…”
    I can’t remember exactly “what” he said here, but giving us a “serious talking to,” and “tanning our hides” and make him “hang his head in shame,” or words like that were all mentioned. Actually, I know he did not say the last thing exactly, but that WAS his meaning, and I cannot remember that being mentioned too many other times in my childhood.
    I did go to the most ethnically varied high school in the Salt Lake Valley. There were not too many blacks, a few Puerto Ricans, but lots of latinos and a very large greek contingent. I had lots of time to hear my dad’s voice in my head- and act accordingly.

    Comment by Diane Peel — April 26, 2011 @ 12:57 pm

  17. I don’t recall any experiences with people of other races or religions all during my grade school or high school years, with one exception. One of the most popular boys in high school, not in my grade, was Hispanic. I didn’t know him well, but was told that some girls were not able to date him. Instead, my experiences were seeing how some pious people in our LDS wards treated inactive Mormons. Because my mother was friends with everyone and treated them all the same, I am sure that IF we had encountered people who were different from us either in religion or race, she and dad would have taught us to accept and love them.

    Comment by Maurine Ward — April 26, 2011 @ 4:51 pm

  18. You know, occasionally i’m hapy to have done my growing up in a place that still had pretty strong Confederate sympathies over a century after the war ended—you had to make a decision early on where you stood with regard to racial differences (and family folklore of my great-grandfather helped steer me in the right direction on that score).

    And i wasn’t even eight when the priesthood ban was eliminated, so i don’t have any memories to share of that event—i don’t even remember it at all. Kind of weird to have technically not been a member of the church when something so momentous but relatively recent occurred, you know?

    Comment by David B — April 26, 2011 @ 11:50 pm

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