Nate posted recently about the “Gentile Boogie” — that is, things people do or say when they don’t think a Mormon is around. Nate’s post suggests a world of subtle exclusions and small slights. There is a much darker side to the Gentile Boogie, though — one that I caught a glimpse of, a decade ago.
I was a junior in college, attending Arizona State University. At ASU, I was in the honors program, and as a result taking a number of required courses from the Honors College. One of these was a seminar on race, class, and gender. It was a class that satisfied several core requirements, so I was happy to sign up for it. And it was an interesting subject, too. We read and discussed all sorts of material: Martin Luther King, Virginia Woolf, Eldridge Cleaver. The class was small — 20ish students — and the discussions were good. At various points throughout the semester, we talked in varying levels of depth about the difficulties faced by various underrepresented and minority groups; the need to avoid such oppression; and so on.
The discussions were very open and dynamic; the teacher did very little talking and mostly encouraged student discussion. I liked this a lot. I was typically an active class participant. As far as I could tell, I was generally well regarded in the class. And it had a great dynamic — there were lots of bright, articulate students, and the back-and-forth in the discussions was always fun and interesting. We were also each preparing student presentations, to be given at the end of the semester.
I wasn’t much involved in student social life. I was a relative newlywed, and starting a family. It was a busy time in my life — I was working full time while going to school full time. So I didn’t have a ton of interactions with other students outside of class; it wasn’t like anyone knew my religious affiliation or anything. One thing that I often did was show up a little early for that class. We were a group used to hashing out issues of philosophy and class and economics and politics. Often there would be a lively discussion on some topic or other, in the ten minutes or so prior to class.
One day, around the middle of the semester, I showed up early to class, as happened sometimes. The usual light chatter was going on. And then one of the students made a random remark about Mormons, and the tenor of the discussion changed.
Another student joined in, and started criticizing the church. He said that Mormon beliefs were strange; that Mormons were hypocritical; that they didn’t let anyone drink caffeine, but they owned Pepsi, and they owned Smith’s food stores, and Smitty’s food stores, and were buying more stuff. And others students made a few remarks about weird Mormon underwear. Another student said that people shouldn’t shop at Smith’s, because that just supports Mormons, and we don’t want to do that. Another student made a remark critical of the church’s views on gays, and then there was another joke about Mormon underwear.
And I sat there, silently, watching my classmates turn into a pack of wolves. I could feel my face turning red, but I didn’t say anything. We had been talking all semester about oppression of minority groups. And so I sat, waiting for someone, anyone, to stop the train and get off. Someone to jump in and say guys, let’s stop this. Someone to defend the church. Someone to defend me. This was the Honors College, for Heaven’s sake, and a class about diversity and tolerance!
And then one of the discussants said that the worst thing is, that Mormons are allowed to teach their weird beliefs to their kids. Mormons shouldn’t be allowed to have kids. Heads nodded. And what about kids they have now? Any kids Mormons have should be taken away from them, sent somewhere else, to be raised in more normal homes. It’s for the kids own protection. Kids should be protected from being raised Mormon. There were nods of assent. The state should take Mormon kids from them.
I sat and waited, waited for someone to object. Waited for someone to say guys, we can’t just take Mormons’ children away. It seemed like an eternity. And no one said a word. No one objected to the idea of forced removal of children from Mormon homes. No one objected to the proposed destruction of my nascent family.
And finally I gave up on my classmates, and interjected “um, guys, I’m Mormon.”
The conversation stopped; everyone looked at me.
“Yeah, but are you like, a real Mormon?”
I’m as real as they get, I replied. Active member, returned missionary, married in the temple.
Incredulous. “You wear that Mormon underwear?”
Yes, I got asked about my underwear. In retrospect, I wish I had fired off some snappy retort about the propriety of the question; as it is, I just gave a defiant “yes.”
One student — one of the main discussants in the whole Mormon-bashing thing, and the one who had asked about underwear — started to criticize me personally for the church’s position on gays, but the others stepped in, with remarks that said hey, let’s not go there. Everyone, it seemed, was willing to criticize Mormons in anonymity, but not to criticize a Mormon classmate. A few students made half-hearted attempts to defuse an obviously tense situation, saying “we were talking about some Mormons we know, but not you.” And everyone was pretty uncomfortable.
And then the teacher arrived, and class started.
I spoke with my teacher afterwards. I was disappointed; I was hurt. She was pretty disappointed herself. I asked her if I could change the topic of my presentation, and she agreed. So at semester’s end, I presented about the history of Mormon persecution in America. Afterwards, several students went out of their way to tell me that they liked my presentation, that they hadn’t known the history of Mormon persecution, and so on.
I had no problems with the class; there were no further incidents. I’m not a real grudge-holder, and I was fine. The class discussed a number of other things over the semester, and I never felt ostracized. Everyone knew what had happened, but we seemed to have an unspoken agreement to more or less pretend that nothing had happened.
It was a real eye-opener, though, for me. Previously, I had assumed that others might think I was a little weird, but that any such perception was relatively innocuous. What I saw that day was different. It wasn’t a slightly amused and condescending acceptance of a quirky outsider group. It was a smart and vicious mob, talking very seriously about how nice it would be if the state destroyed Mormon families, and no one objected. And that was the eye-opener. A lot of people — your classmates, your friends, your co-workers — think Mormons are really, really weird. Not just crazy-uncle, roll-your-eyes-at-him weird; they think that you’re mad-dog, take-your-kids-away-from-you weird. Even in diversity classes, at an Honors college, in 1997.
Be careful if you seek, as Nate’s post suggests, to play Eddie Murphy and to see the Gentile boogie. Be careful if you scratch that surface. Under the veneer of acceptance may lie a pack of wolves.