Vicarious Performative Wokeness: The White Ex-Mormon’s Burden

Jane Manning James (1813–1908), a notable and courageous black Mormon pioneer.

[This post contains explicit language.]

Last week saw the unfolding of what my friend Tarik LaCour has called Streetergate. To summarize the incident, on Thursday, May 17, 2018, just as LDS Church leaders were meeting with leaders from the NAACP, an ex-Mormon blogger named Jonathan Streeter created a website parodying the Church’s official newsroom and crafted a fake apology from President Russell M. Nelson for the now-rescinded priesthood and temple ban against individuals of African descent.

While ex- and progressive Mormons lauded and defended Streeter for “starting a conversation” about racism in the Church, others were not so pleased. This includes, well, actual black Mormons, who were “traumatized” (to use their words) by Streeter’s deception.

Zandra Vranes, one of the Sistas in Zion, explained in an emotional video how Streeter’s actions were outright manipulative and deceitful to black Mormons who have very personal emotional and spiritual stakes in whether the Church offers a formal apology for the priesthood and temple ban.

Another black Latter-day Saint, Janan Graham-Russell, took to Twitter and issued a series of explicit and condemnatory tweets registering her disapproval of Streeter’s actions. She mentions in one tweet how she’d “spoken to black folks in tears because they thought it was real as well.”

My friend Kwaku El, a black convert to Mormonism, himself felt that Streeter’s little stunt was “meant to traumatize a large group of members,” namely, black Mormons. Streeter, he insisted with considerable justification, “spends his life lying, slandering, [and] attacking people of faith – especially when they are of color.” This is echoed by my friend Tarik, who is also a black Mormon convert. “The only words to describe [Streeter’s] act are evil and sadistic,” he wrote me in a personal message. “I don’t use those words often, but the fake apology along with the mocking of the Sistas of Zion warrant that pronouncement.”

(The mocking Tarik is referring to can be seen here, where Streeter reacted to Zandra’s video with three laugh/smile emojis.1)

Examples could be multiplied, but the above should suffice in giving the general thrust of how black Mormons have overwhelmingly responded to Streeter. They are, to put it mildly, not amused. My friend Walker Wright explained on Facebook how Streeter’s actions were problematic thus:

A deadbeat dad walks out on his wife and child. The child is traumatized by the abandonment. Then, one Christmas, Mom tells the kid, “Daddy’s coming home for Christmas!” The kid is super excited. Christmas morning comes around and no dad. Turns out Mom lied to her kid because she hates the dad and wants the kid to hate the dad as well.

The dad’s abandonment is terrible and without a doubt the larger context. But exploiting the suffering of the child by lying and retraumatizing them because you have an ax to grind is nowhere in the vicinity of decency.

“But which one is worse? The dad is the one who actually left!”

“Well, what’s the root of the trauma? If the dad hadn’t left, the lie wouldn’t have been a thing!”

If you would make the arguments above, you’re an asshole. And if you defend Streeter on this, you’re an asshole.

For their part, Streeter and his apologists have reacted to these criticisms with essentially “it’s just a prank, bro!” And besides, Streeter and his apologists have insisted, the real culprit here is the LDS Church, which, they maintain, is unrepentantly racist. (Many of them, unsurprisingly, even openly question why in any event black Mormons remain Church members.) By publishing a fake apology for racism on a deceptively fabricated LDS newsroom lookalike, Streeter was able to “start a discussion” that will hold the LDS Church responsible for its racial sins.

So it would seem that for Streeter and his apologists, the emotional manipulation of black folks is a small price to pay to allow white ex-Mormons the privilege to “start a discussion” about racism in Facebook echo chambers.

This entire spectacle has prompted me to reflect on what I have come to call Vicarious Performative Wokeness (VPW) among white ex- and progressive Mormons. In short, VPW is the phenomenon wherein self-anointed “woke” ex- and progressive Mormons who have thrown off the shackles of their racist religious upbringing assume a transcendent moral plane above their benighted former co-religionists by performing a woke routine that channels a vicarious outrage on behalf of black Latter-day Saints.

There’s a bit to unpack here, which I’ll try to do so succinctly.

Vicarious: white ex-Mormons who exhibit VPW do so by vicariously expending the feelings and spirituality of black Mormons. For instance, they might, as already mentioned, openly question how a black person could remain a member of the LDS Church given the history of the priesthood and temple ban. Or, in the case of Streeter, they might intimate that these black folks are the helpless victims of the Church’s mental conditioning. (“It’s very natural for them to lash out against me . . . because it’s not in their nature to criticize their church.”) Whatever the manifestation, the bottom line is these white ex-Mormons vicariously convey the outrage they think faithful black Mormons should have against their religion for them.

Performative: white ex-Mormons who exhibit VPW are essentially playacting. In order to safeguard and increase their social capital among likeminded online dramatis personae, these individuals must make it abundantly clear that not only are they not racist, but that everybody knows just how not-racist they are. This includes taking to blogs, podcasts, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and other media to enact elaborate “look at how not racist I am” pageants. Of course, since this is performative, the racism remains firmly fixed under an online facade of woke memes and hot takes about how Brigham Young was evil and posts about how many times the VPW performer has listened to Hamilton that day.

Wokeness: this component should be obvious. Wokeness is here defined as the state of being cognizant (“woke”; as in “awoken”) of the racial evils that beset Mormonism specifically and the human condition generally.

To be sure, not all ex- and progressive Mormons who express outrage over racial injustice in Mormonism are acting in bad faith. There are sincere ex- and progressive Mormon men and women who are honestly (and rightly) disturbed at the racism that is unfortunately encountered in the Church to this very day. But many ex- and progressive Mormons are, in fact, merely engaging in VPW. This has become abundantly clear over the past few days. Instead of responding to the very real hurt feelings of black folks with contrition, Streeter and his apologists instead refuse to apologize (especially ironic in this instance) and double down on their racism; thereby revealing that their “seemingly good feelings” which they have feigned to show black Mormons who struggle with lingering racism in the Church are “more pretended than real” (JS–History 1:6).

A poll at the Mormon Stories Facebook Community indicating a 2:1 ratio of white ex-Mormons not being bothered by the thing that deeply bothered black Mormons.

Now I realize that this all might come across as a bit overwrought or unfair towards ex- and progressive Mormons, and to Jonathan Streeter and his apologists specifically, and if it is, I beg the pardon of any such persons so offended.

After all, I’m just trying to start a discussion.

[May 23, 2018: Streeter has issued an apology for the fake apology here.]

  1. Streeter claims in his defense that “his fingers slipped” and he pressed the emoji button by accident. Since he refuses to give LDS Church leaders any benefit of the doubt, and assumes in them the worst motives, I have elected to hold him to the same standard.

10 thoughts on “Vicarious Performative Wokeness: The White Ex-Mormon’s Burden”

  1. …and by talking about and publishing articles about the jerk (I’m not even going to say his name) you’re just prolonging the issue and letting his deceitful, lying, mean ways live on. Delete your article, and NEVER bring the guy or his little vile group up again.

    • I’ll talk what I want to talk about on my blog and you’re free to either read or ignore such. Cheers!

  2. So it’s not okay for white ex-Mormons to express outrage on behalf of black Mormons, but white as the driven snow Stephen Smoot gets to be a spokesman for black Mormon outrage because he’s a member? It’s as if you believe “VPW” only applies to the outsiders.

    • “but white as the driven snow Stephen Smoot gets to be a spokesman for black Mormon outrage because he’s a member?”

      If by that you mean “white as the driven snow Stephen Smoot gets to quote the public statements of black Mormons as oppose to assume what those statements should be based on his own antipathy towards their church” then I suppose yes, I do.

      “It’s as if you believe “VPW” only applies to the outsiders.”

      I mean strictly speaking VPW as I define it is just the ex-Mormon version of “being righteous,” to borrow LDS terminology. So…yes, I guess it does only apply to outsiders.

  3. Thank you for your thoughtful article. The exmormon community has a hard time putting themselves in another person’s shoes (in this case, in the shoes of black LDS members).

    > Streeter and his apologists instead refuse to apologize

    Streeter should apologize to black members of the Church for re-traumitizing them. I expect that Streeter will eventually apologize, but I will do what I can here and now (even though I had nothing to do with the satire piece except for being fooled by it, also): I am a former Mormon, and I apologize to the black LDS community on behalf of the exmormon community. I am sorry. The means we use in bringing to light important truth-claim issues are at least as important as the points we are trying to make. Streeter wasn’t thoughtful enough about the pain this would inflict on the black Mormon community, and that should have weighed heavier in his mind (persuading him to use a far more benign mechanism to bring to light his legitimate grievances). I hope he apologizes. In the meantime, I am truly sorry for his actions and the pain this has caused you.

    > Whatever the manifestation, the bottom line is these white ex-Mormons vicariously convey the outrage they think faithful black Mormons should have against their religion for them.

    The outrage many black Latter-day Saints feel towards the LDS Church hardly needs to be expressed vicariously–merely watch the Zandra Vranes video (which you link to in the article) starting at 29 minutes (so, from 29:00 to 34:00). Hopefully, you will address the sadness black LDS members feel based on LDS Church actions (or failures to apologize), too.

    • “Hopefully, you will address the sadness black LDS members feel based on LDS Church actions (or failures to apologize), too.”

      I’m not sure what there is for me to address. Their feelings are real, understandable, and very unfortunate (in that it’s unfortunate that conditions still exist in which those feelings might still be felt). I personally would like to see a formal apology for the priesthood and temple ban, agree that it’s vital to work on shining a light on racism in the Church in order to eradicate such, and think that black Mormons should of course be given prominence in leading such efforts.

  4. One of the things that made the priesthood and temple restrictions puzzling for me was that the Church has actively recruited members from all the other non-white racial groups and nationalities since its earliest days. LDS missionaries began baptizing and ordaining Polynesians in 1844, and the Laie Hawaii Temple was built during the leadership of Joseph F. Smith, who had served as a misdionary to the Hawaiians as a young man. Many of those Polynesians have skin as dark as most African Americans.

    American Indians were objects of hatred for most Americans in the 19th Century, but the LDS Church invested in turning them into Mormon elders since 1830. The mission to Japan was started in 1901, led by future president Heber J. Grant. BYU Hawaii reflects the efforts of the Church to recruit from all the nations of the Pacific Rim.

    So the Mormons have never been very effective racists or white supremacists. The 1978 revelation aligned the status of our black Latter-day Ssants, the ones I had known all my life since growing up in Salt Lake in the 1950s, with that of Mormons from Tonga, Korea, and the Shoshone-Blackfoot Reservation.

  5. On behalf of me and all my fellow members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I most sincerely regret the pain that baptized members before 1978 of African ancestry felt at being excluded from the priesthood and the temple. I apologize for the exclusion. I also apologize for any racism that has occurred in church settings since 1978. All persons who are committed to following our Savior should feel welcome among us.

    I was not a member of the Church in 1978, am not aware of the reasons for the exclusion, and am not aware of personally causing or spreading racism since joining the Church, but I’m a member now, and I apologize for me and for my Church.

    For all those who have been pained, I hope my apology will suffice.

    I rejoice in the brotherhood among us!

  6. So many words and emotions over the ban seem misdirected in assuming it was not from God while simple reasoning indicates it was. Common contemporary attitudes would condemn God as an evil racist on what the scriptures have to say about Jews, Samaritans, Gentiles, Heathens, tribes and lineage…..but despite contemporary attitudes God is God, and He is good, not bad. Why do so many put blame on the church when they can have their questions directly answered by God?. All saints have the right to revelation on any issue, even if the answer is to wait on the Lord. The history of human discrimination, inhumanity and hurt should not be confused with the legitimate prerogatives of God.

  7. I totally agree with you Brad. Although it is clear that Brigham Young was the one who initiated the ban (although there was a “half-ban” during Joseph Smith’s time for those who were slaves and not free), his reasoning was prophetic. Yes, he followed the beliefs and arguments of the day that Blacks were descendants of Cain with Biblical proof texting. However, they certainly outwardly had all the signs of relatedness such as dark skin as some kind of differentiating marks, were slaves, wandered to escape death and punishment, and etc. He can also be interpreted, although not clearly, to have a subtle recognition of the difference between the seed of Cain and the blacks as modern equivalences. What brought on the ban, as explained often by Brigham Young, was the slavery issue. They couldn’t be examples of authority when belonging to a slave culture brought on by the whites who were guilty of putting them in that situation. The catalyst for the ban was misbehavior of a few blacks toward white women and the bigoted response of whites toward the blacks in response. The blacks had to be freed and the whites had to be reformed; all explained by Brigham Young.

    The marriage of whites and blacks was also a big issue with both Brigham Young and a large portion of white Mormons. As has been explained by those hostile to the ban, it effectively made certain that Temple blessings, and especially marriages, were not to be given during their lifetime. It was, among other things, a protection against mixed marriages sanctioned with authority of the LDS Church Priesthood. That said, the promises of the Temple allow for any future blessings to be accessible through proxy. There was no such thing, again as explained by Brigham Young and other Prophets after, as a permanent curse status. The ban would be lifted (as it has been) and all blessings and more would be given them. It stands to reason that since the Priesthood belongs to God and not man, that He would be the one who would approve whatever happens with it in mortality. The ban was His will considering how long it lasted despite even the concerns of prophets without change until the 1978 revelation.

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