Note – From the mid-1840s until 1978 people of African descent were generally not allowed to have the priesthood or attend the temple in the LDS Church. (Attending the temple is different from going to Church in the LDS faith.) This is in spite of prior practices and temple rules that said they could. Since the primary difference between people with African roots and people with northern European roots is skin color, what if the situation were reversed? This post tries to use humor to address this serious issue. This should not be taken as evidence that the author considers anything about the topic of racism or priesthood to be less than serious. This role reversal is designed to make us think about the issue in a different light.
I was born a redhead. Yes, I’ve “blonded” out a bit as I’ve aged, but both of my daughters were born with deep red hair. So, I know all about red heads. Sometimes we are also known as “gingers.”
While the red hair can attract attention, it isn’t the red hair that is the issue for me. It is the redheads’ skin color. Let me explain.
People with red hair have very fair skin coloring. We have almost no melanin in our skin. Melanin is the substance that makes skin darker. I joke with my kids that our skin is so transparent that we can see the blood rushing beneath it. I often look with jealously at my Hispanic or black friends who have such beautiful, uniform skin tones. My skin is reddish and blotchy with a few dots called freckles. In high school I was constantly asked, “Are you blushing?” “No, I just walked up a few stairs, thank you very much.”
A redhead’s skin is very sensitive to sunlight. You may notice if you go walking with a redhead, they sometimes seem to jump from shadow to shadow. We all avoid sunlight. When we read a Twilight novel, we understand how the vampires feel—the sun is not our friend! I often take out my SPF 50 sunscreen and slather it on before I will go out into the sun. It is supposed to allow me to stay in the sun 50 times longer than usual. For me – let’s see now — 50 times what I can usually stay in the sun for without getting a sunburn…that would be……ummm, doing the math here…carry the one…….Hmmm……about 7 and a half minutes before I start to burn.
“But, you are just ‘white’!” you may say. No, my wife is white. Her family comes from Norway and Sweden. She is white. Blindingly white. Her skin looks different than mine. She is white with white and yellow undertones. My ‘white’ is blotchy reddish-white, just like most other redheads. She can go out in the sun. She can lie on the beach. She can go swimming. If I go out in the sun, I will burn. If I lie on the beach, I will burn. If I go swimming, I will burn. I tell my students my goal in life is to walk from my office to my car without getting a sunburn.
That said, it isn’t all bad having redhead skin. My skin tone is GREAT for collecting vitamin D in a fogbank. And when I visit Scotland, I have to wear my coat anyway – so it’s not a liability.
My daughter teaches in first grade. She has very red hair. One of her students, whose family came from Africa, was having difficulties with one teacher. We will call this six-year-old student Jamal (not his real name). When asked about it, he said, “She just don’t like me. She’s white and white people don’t like black people like me.” My daughter responded, “That’s not true, Jamal. I’m white and I like you.” “No, Miss Gordon. You’re not white,” responded Jamal. “You’re PINK!” Even a six-year-old can see the difference.
The difference between people we label as “black” and people like me is how much melanin is in our skin. The more melanin, the darker the skin tone. I don’t have very much melanin, so that is why I am the color I am. Some of you may say, “But there are other differences besides skin color!” Yeah, that’s true – my hair is red and theirs is black. But again, that is simply caused by the amount of melanin. My hair is straight and theirs is curly. True. But, my wife’s hair is very curly, and she has family members whose hair would look right at home on someone of African descent (except that they are blond). As for other traits, you can find a wide variety of looks throughout both the white and black communities. In other words, there is as much diversity within each community as there is between the two communities.
So, here’s a thought exercise: What would happen if The Church announced that there was a ban on redheads having the priesthood?
What if it was melanin-deficient people who couldn’t get the priesthood, while melanin-rich people could? What if Gingers went thought a period of slavery because of our skin color? What if we were discriminated against during the 1950s and not allowed to eat in certain places, get certain jobs, use certain bathrooms, or ride in a taxi with someone who had more melanin then we do?
I can just image the conversations in the ward.
“Oh look, a red-haired girl just moved into the ward. Finally, someone you can date!”
“Can you help me with my Northern European History class? You know all that stuff, right?”
“Can I touch your hair? I’ve never seen red hair before. Does it feel different?”
“I was doing family history work last week and was horrified to find out that some red-haired genes got in there somehow. Old great-grandad or grandma must have been cavorting with the field help!”
Yeah, those would be terrible conversations. And yet, I have heard all of those comments from church members.
“But, it isn’t skin color. It’s lineage!” you cry. So let’s talk about lineage a bit. There are those who believe there is a tie between redheads and Neanderthals. Neanderthals are in the redhead’s linage. Apparently, Neanderthals had red hair, and some Neanderthal genes are found in northern Europeans. They know there was interbreeding between Homo Sapiens and Neanderthals. They just are not sure if the red hair trait came from the Neanderthal, or if it developed independently. If Neanderthal man had red hair along with the red-hair skin tones, it would explain one of the great scientific mysteries of why the Neanderthals died out: obviously, the sun came out!
More evidence of having a different lineage is studies that show “people with red hair need larger doses of anesthesia and are often resistant to local pain blockers.” My first response to this information is “Well, duh! We are used to pain because we walk around sunburned all the time.” But, it turns out it has more to do with our genes. Just ask any operating room nurse or OB nurse how comfortable they feel when a redhead comes in. I have been told by several nurses that if there is going to be a problem, it will probably be with the redhead. So, we are a bit different from other people. Whether this comes from our homegrown genes, or from Neanderthal genes, it certainly shows that our lineage might be different from others—we are demonstrably different than other people. If something is to be restricted based on lineage, it could just as easily be restricted against us redheads.
It’s important to think about what it would be like if the shoe were on the other foot. I often hear the refrain, “The Levites were the only ones who had the priesthood at the time of Jesus. So that was a priesthood restriction just like the blacks being restricted in modern times.”
That situation is totally different. With the Levites, only one group held the priesthood and nobody else did. With the modern priesthood restriction, everybody had the priesthood except for one group.
Think of it this way. Everyone understands that in sports there needs to be a team captain to communicate effectively. But, that is totally different than everyone being allowed to play the game except for one player who is forced to sit on the bench. Our brothers and sisters of African descent were forced to sit on the bench. How would that make you feel?
“But, the priesthood ban was a long time ago. What do you want me to do about it?”
I first recommend reading this short article on LDS.org on Race and the Priesthood. https://www.lds.org/topics/race-and-the-priesthood?lang=eng
Secondly, if someone asks if Mormon were racists, the correct answer – the only possible answer — is yes. There is no need to get defensive about it. Of course they were! By modern standards, everyone who came through that period would be considered racist today. It is, however, unfair to judge them harshly for their views. It was what they were taught. It was the norm. They did the best they could. Using modern standards, even Abraham Lincoln would be considered racist by many. Additionally, racism doesn’t only exist in the United States. It is a world-wide issue of us vs. them. Skin color has simply been used as an easy identifier of “them.”
Racism has always been with us. Our better selves understand that we need to move beyond that. If someone asks if there was racism in the church, simply say “Sure, and we are trying to repent!”
Third, if someone then asks, how could we have had a prophet if we had such a racist policy? Think about this: if you think that prophets don’t work in a world filled with prejudice and racism, you need to go back and reread the Bible and Book of Mormon. Think of the Samaritans, the Lamanites, the people of Nineveh, and the Philistines. God only gives us what we are willing to accept. It is up to us to try to become more like him.
Many members of the Church believe the ban came from God, or at least that God used the ban for a wise purpose. These positions are speculative. No written revelation has been found that explains the priesthood and temple ban. Some quote scriptures to justify the ban, but historically those scriptures were pulled in as explanations after the ban was already in effect.
Why was there the ban? We don’t know. I can make an educated guess, but my guess would be as valid as your guess—and just as speculative.
Instead of guessing and speculating, let’s simply reach out to each other and embrace one another as brothers and sisters—even redheads! Let’s acknowledge that racism exists and has existed even within the Church. Let’s not nit-pick over how much melanin we have in our skin. Does it really matter? Do you differentiate between your blond children your brown-haired children and your red-haired children? Is there a difference between them?
No, I don’t think so either.
Now please hand me my hat and sunscreen. I have to go outside again.
 Red hair a legacy of Neanderthal man http://www.dhamurian.org.au/anthropology/neanderthal1.html