Mormon = black = fat?

2 Nov

In October, The Atlantic ran a piece titled, “Just for the Record: Anti-Mormonism is Bigotry Too” (http://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2011/10/just-for-the-record-anti-mormonism-is-bigotry-too/241444/), in which journalist James Fallows argues:

“To be against Mitt Romney (or Jon Huntsman or Harry Reid or Orrin Hatch) because of his religion is just plain bigotry. Exactly as it would have been to oppose Barack Obama because of his race or Joe Lieberman because of his faith or Hillary Clinton or Michele Bachmann because of their gender or Mario Rubio or Nikki Haley because of their ethnicity.”

While it’s a seemingly straightforward argument that bigotry is bigotry, and we either stand up to all of it or admit that we’re hypocrites who protest discrimination selectively, I have to disagree with Fallows: it is not exactly like that. Not all bigotry is equal.

Fallow effectively equates being Mormon to being black (and for the billionth time, Barack Obama is biracial! but that’s another post), which fails to take into consideration how identities are different. Whereas being Mormon entails a personal commitment to a set of beliefs shared and practiced by other Mormons, being black does not. Being black is a matter of identifying or being identified with a group of people who share ancestry, phenotype (albeit within a broad range of appearance) and social experiences. And while shared history, experiences, genealogy and skin color may cultivate shared values, attitudes and worldviews, there is no Book of Black, no doctrine that believers must subscribe to in order to be truly and officially black.

Right now you might be thinking, but isn’t there?

Certainly, in many communities, there is a struggle over “authenticity.” This is where Oreos and bananas get invoked (the former referring to black people who are “really” white on the inside, and ditto for Asians with the latter term). The argument is that “real” [insert group name] share particular experiences, perspectives and values. Meanwhile, other members of the same group argue their own experiences and values as the “real” [insert group name] identity. Of course, this tug-of-identity happens even among groups that have an official doctrine: I’m sure there are Mormons who believe they are more Mormon than others, based on their interpretation of scripture or daily practice of faith. And so the various contests to define true [insert group name]-ism rage on.

But the critical distinction is whether doctrine qualifies you as a group member, or describes the kind of group member you are. The fact is that you don’t have to believe anything to be identified as black. But you do if you’re going to be Mormon. 

So when people oppose Romney because he’s Mormon, it’s quite different from opposing him because he’s white, male or heterosexual. While he certainly has views as a white heterosexual male, those views are not part of an oath he takes and upholds, upon threat of excommunication from heterosexuality, maleness or whiteness. (Note: I am not sure if Mormons excommunicate lapsed members of their community–I took advantage of “excommunication” as a vivid and handy metaphor here.) 

Of course, to deride or demean Romney for being a Mormon (which I think is Fallows’ real point of contention) is no more legitimate than attacking Obama for his skin color or mocking Hillary Clinton for being a woman. Although practically speaking, it may be. As Fallow writes, “The only two biases people aren’t embarrassed expressing publicly are anti-Southern (the ‘Bubba factor’) and anti-Mormon.”

To this I say, “Yes, and…” 

Yes, depending on context, the expression of some biases is somehow more socially acceptable than even the slightest admission of others. Yet while Fallows seems to think that people today “know better” than to make sexist remarks in public, I believe it was just 2008 when Fox News’ Your World did a segment on Hillary Clinton’s “nagging voice” (in which guest author Marc Rudov asserted, “[W]hen Hillary Clinton speaks, men hear, ‘Take out the garbage'”).  Fast forward to this year’s contest for the Republican presidential nomination. Chris Christie’s almost-run for his party’s nomination highlights another bias you can shout loud and proud from the rooftops: being anti-fat, as demonstrated by two MSNBC personalities who publicly slammed Christie for his weight (Ed Schultz called him a “fat slob” and Chris Matthews suggested that Christie start with cutbacks to his own supper before trying to make changes to the budget). Even among those who wouldn’t be so blatantly sizeist, the bigotry persists. In an online poll “How Much Weight Would Chris Christie Have To Lose To Get Your Vote?” while the largest percentage of respondents (17.91%) indicated “none,” almost as many (16.84%) indicated “50 pounds” (http://gothamist.com/2011/09/29/is_chris_christie_too_fat_to_squeez.php).

And we could go on, citing diverse examples of unembarrassed public displays of bigotry (targeting Republicans, welfare recipients, undocumented immigrants…) But that would be depressing. Suffice it to say: I regret that I can’t agree with Fallows that only a few outlying breeds of bigotry continue to roam free. It seems more that in a culture of mud-slinging, personal shots are de rigeur; and identity, whether we come to it by birth, indoctrination or choice, is an easy target, enabling us to take someone down by the sheer force of stereotype.

So where’s the silver lining in this post on anti-Mormon bigotry? The only way you can put a dent in prejudice is by first acknowledging that it exists. And then, if we don’t get distracted by the Oppression Olympics (where we rank our bigotries by vehemence, popularity and brazenness to see who gets the gold!), we can become more mindful–of a group of people we hadn’t considered before, and of our own blindspots: as we strive for social justice, whom do we include in our vision–and who’s fallen to the periphery?

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