Are We Mormon, or Are We Dancer?

rsz_800px-felicidade_a_very_happy_boyIn my previous job, I served as co-chair on the college diversity council. It was not a position I was qualified for, but one in which I learned a lot. While there, I noticed that “black” is a culturally acceptable word again.

I’m interested in the words we use to describe races, ethnicities, and cultures. When I was little, “black” was the only word I knew, but I remember being taught in middle school to use “African American” instead. As a black-and-white (no pun intended) conservative teenage thinker, I was bothered by this shift. It seemed like a pointless debate — why did anyone even care?

Then, a few years ago, I heard statements from church leaders encouraging us to use “latter-day saint” rather than “Mormon” to describe ourselves. Suddenly I became very aware of the words people used to describe me, and I was sensitive to my own response to the question, “What religion are you?”

Thinking back to my middle-school introduction to race and ethnicity, I was especially bothered that some people were offended by one term, while others were offended by the other. I felt that it put me in a no-win situation, and as a result, race became a very uncomfortable topic for me to talk about. I wanted one “right” term, a term that would allow me to comfortably refer to a group of people without offending anyone in that group.

The college diversity council caused me to reconsider that view. Is there value in feeling uncomfortable when trying to fit a diverse group of people into a single word? Yes. Sensitivity to the words we use forces us to engage with the humanity that those words represent. It reminds us that there is no conveniently delineated “them” that we can comfortably separate from ourselves with a single word. Perhaps one reason for the current bloggernacle backlash against the church correlation program is that correlation attempts to give us the “right” term for various complex issues without requiring us to earn the term by engaging with substance of those issues.

None of this should be interpreted to mean that we shouldn’t care what people call us (or what we call other people). I have an opinion in the “LDS” vs. “Mormon” (and the “black” vs. “African American”) debate. But now I look at the debate like a game of volleyball. The value in the game isn’t in getting the ball over to the other side of the net; it’s in the challenge of getting the ball there. The opposing team is what gives life to the game. If getting the ball to the other side was intrinsically rewarding, the game would be the most fun against a hopelessly weak opponent (or even no opponent at all!) Picture that: you and your friends set up the net, all stand on one side, hit the ball over, and then spend the rest of the congratulating yourselves on how awesome you are. The interplay between the teams is what enlivens all of the players. In matters of language then, perhaps the goal isn’t to find a universally acceptable term, but rather to keep the discussion alive.

10 comments for “Are We Mormon, or Are We Dancer?

  1. Thanks for this post. Some good thoughts. I think the metaphor holds as long as people don’t yell at each other from one side of the net to the other, or take offense at the fact that people aren’t all on the same side of the net. I appreciate the need to really stop and think, but then I also appreciate those who are patient if something “wrong” is said.

  2. Black vs. African American is a whole different thing from LDS vs. Mormon. The former terms have different meanings, and cannot always be interchanged.

    Many Blacks in the US are NOT African American. They are emigrants from Haiti, Trinidad, etc.

    Thus in the reports I write, we follow the convention in many government reports and use Black/African American indicating that both groups are included.

    I am sure that the only reason the church clings to the “Mormon” at all is because of the MoTab. They are not going to change that, and for many it is the most visible symbol. So the LDS thing can’t get much traction.

  3. Naismith, can LDS and Mormon always be interchanged?

    gst, I prefer “black” for the same reason I prefer “Mormon” — in my mind, they are the more inclusive terms. They don’t have the same sharp edges that “African American” and “LDS” have (for some of the reasons that Naismith listed above). I’ve never run into the “black” vs. “Black” discussion, so I don’t have anything useful to contribute there.

  4. “gst, I prefer “black” for the same reason I prefer “Mormon” — in my mind, they are the more inclusive terms.”

    Hmm. At least in my mind, this would be a reason prefer ‘LDS.’ I prefer ‘Mormon’ because its an organic term with history and because the attempt to make people say LDS smacked of political correctness, though not from the usual suspects or for the usual reasons.

  5. Adam, I like your description of “Mormon” as a more organic term. In fact, I think that’s really why I prefer it, though I couldn’t have articulated it that way until reading your comment.

  6. Random thoughts:
    Because “Mormon” began as a derisive moniker from our enemies, I’d been waiting for our re-branding efforts to include moving away from the similarly-originated term of “Christian.” I hoped to bask in the irony of an announcement that we were asking people not to call us “Christians.”
    “African-american” moved from accurate to euphemism for me when I watched a person in that gene pool speak on TV about the “African-americans” in Asia, and Europe without meaning people who had been in America.
    I accepted the not-as-recent reasoning for asking people to refer to us as “Latter-day Saints” instead of “Mormons” and dutifully said things like “Yes, I am but we prefer to be called Latter-day Saints.” I felt almost betrayed by the appearance of “Mormon Times.” Now, I’m not as exact in my phrasing.
    My wife informs me that she doesn’t like “African-american” or “black/Black.” Not “African-american” because her family has no records or artifacts that connect them to Africa and she heard that the Back-to-Africa movement foundered when the Africans said they didn’t want African-americans to immigrate. Not “black/Black” because when she tried to explain to her then-4-yo son that they were black, he said that he wasn’t black but brown. When pressed for an acceptable label, she suggested “multi-racial.”
    A friend of ours in the LA Stake also eschews “African-american” because, she says, there’s nothing African about her. She feels that “African-american” is similar to “semi-american” and as a political conservative, she claims full American-ness.

  7. I’m a Mormon, because people know what that is.

    And because ‘Mormon’ is not hard to translate into other languages. Saying you’re LDS is understandable to an English-speaking North American, but our audience is bigger than that.

  8. I always say ‘mormon’ because, like John David Payne, I feel that is what people can relate to (I’m sure more people have heard of ‘mormons’ than ‘LDS’ here in the UK). I’ve always felt that LDS was a rebranding of being a mormon, almost as though we were trying to reinvent ourselves – which to me me was needless, I am an unashamed mormon. Moreover I’d rather refer to myself as a mormon than a ‘Latter Day Saint’ which to the uninitiated can sound like you think you are on a par with the Catholic saints and have delusions. Although I will admit being unashamedly Mormon and playing down Latter Day Saint may seem slightly incongruous.

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