At the end of last year, I wanted to enter the Eugene England Memorial Personal Essay contest. I had ideas for three different interesting pieces I could write...and then scrapped them all and wrote something more raw instead.
I don't publish this essay lightly now. I don't want to come across as being needlessly critical. In January, though, I shared part of this essay at a reading at Writ & Vision in Provo. People who were there have been reaching out to me periodically since: after the reveal of a new Church logo, after a recent press release announcing that 14 approved paintings depicting Jesus will replace all bulletin boards and other signs of community in meetinghouse foyers. Mine is just one perspective, of course, but I do think that in our rush to emphasize Jesus we may have missed some things.
Here's the essay:
Why I Hate White Jesus
I tried to pay attention during General Conference in October. I’d just switched jobs and I was thinking about my life’s path, wondering where I might fit into this great song of a world—and I could’ve used one of those experiences people talk about where a word or phrase jumps out to you and for an instant you feel as if a speaker were inspired specifically for your sake. I couldn’t do it, though. Barely heard half the words at all because of the way my body tensed and my concentration scattered almost every time they put a painting of Jesus up on the screen. I swear they’re doing that more and more lately. Swear they’re trying harder to hold our attention with image after image, all too often of a softly lit Jesus with white skin and light brown shampoo commercial hair and impossibly clean clothes.
I hate him. I hate white Jesus.
I didn’t always. I used to be able to look at those paintings more or less unmoved and shrug white Jesus away. But I couldn’t this October. Couldn’t separate medium from message, couldn’t intellectualize, couldn’t forgive people for depicting the divine without examining their assumptions. And so I sat in my hate, stewed in my hate, stayed stuck in my hate long after the weekend was done.
I have wallowed in my hate now, turning it over in my gut and in the back of my mind, and I am beginning to suspect that the only way out (if there is such a thing) is going to be through. I will not be offended if you turn back now. But if you’d like to wade with me, I plan to count and catalogue and measure my hate on the off chance there is something worth finding on the other side.
I have skin in this game.
I am an heir of my grandfathers’ Semitic and Sikh features: deep-set eyes, a signature nose, a cast of melanin in the cells that makes my complexion olive and my hair black. My grandmothers’ ancestry stretches back through ships like the Mayflower to the northwestern European peoples who called themselves white after reaching America, but four centuries later I still get compliments on how well I speak English.
I have skin in this game. And in America, the rules of the game are still so tied up with one’s skin. Not officially. Officially we are all to be treated equally. Officially this is a land of opportunity, where your contributions to the future matter more than whatever connotations of the past may be carved into your phenotype. But however strongly most Americans embrace that ideal, the reality remains that our perceptions frame our actions and those perceptions are deeply inflected by race.
Sorry. I’m slipping into theory. I’m using long Latin-based words to push my thoughts safely up out of my chest and into my brain. I’m just trying to explain what my life feels like.
Let me try again. Think of a movie. In a movie, you’re not watching every event that happens in the story. Like: if someone’s making breakfast, you don’t have to watch them cook in real time. Instead, at any given time, you’re only watching one shot. Maybe a tired face. Then hands breaking an egg into a pan. Then a person sitting down at the table with an omelet. Your mind fills in the rest.
In the process, your mind also adds meaning to each moment. Imagine a shot that is just an actor’s face, looking blank and expressionless. How is that possibly interesting? Film works, as some brilliant Soviet directors in the 1920s realized, because we see everything through the lens of our memories. Insert the shot of the actor’s blank face into a comedy and it can become a hilarious deadpan reaction. But put it in a drama, put a piece of tragic news right before that very same shot and the blank, expressionless face will feel stunned and overwhelmed. When you’re watching the movie, though—and this is the vital point—it doesn’t feel like you’re cobbling the pieces together detective-style to make meaning. It feels like the face itself is deadpan. Or like the face itself is stunned. Our minds at once do us the favor and play the trick of merging associations and experience together instantly.
We all live, every day, in the middle of other people’s movies. Living in America as a person not perceived as white is difficult because every shot of you is framed by the most emotionally powerful associations people have with bodies like yours. Strangers. Foreigners. Criminals. Rapists. Terrorists. They don’t typically think about that. You probably don’t think about it in the moment either. But it’s there, always, just like the great Soviet directors of the 1920s said it would be.
I don’t know how much people’s responses to me are based the color of my skin versus the content of my character. The content of my character is, admittedly, potentially a pain all by itself. I can be open, direct, and passionate in ways that may be discomfiting. I am strong-willed well past the point where that virtue veers off into fault. If I find, as I regularly do, that people perceive me as a threat it is entirely explicable if my brashness is to blame.
But I can’t close race out of the picture, because I’ve been treated as a threat in circumstances where my personality wasn’t involved at all. People didn’t call the police on me the time I was picking up discarded roof shingles from a family friend’s yard because I was brash. They did it because I’m brown. They did it because in their movie, men with my face are bad, scary guys. With that context, any unexplained scene with me is also potentially scary. That’s been true, in my not-so-limited experience with police, whether I was shooting hoops on my own at a park in the summer or walking down the street or, heaven forbid, dropping off a car at the elementary school where my mom worked and walking away.
I don’t mean any specific disrespect for the police who have stopped and questioned and waited around to watch me. As often as not, police have acted because someone called them. And I can guess why people have called them because I know what people have called me. It’s not just the middle school bully who passed out racial slurs like candy. Sometimes it’s the middle school friend’s sister, who told their mom I was a scary drug dealer and got me banned from a house I had never set foot in. Sometimes it’s the well-meaning members of wards where I’m new who ask me for what they assume will be a dramatic and exotic conversion story. One pulse-quickening time it was the missionaries walking back from the Provo temple toward the MTC who saw me passing by and shouted “Hey Osama!” from across the street while I hurried away.
It’s not just police. The same associations that have led to people calling me Osama are the associations that shape their attitudes about when the force of the state should be used. The same perceptions that motivated calls to the police have shaped parents’ attitude toward whether I should be allowed to come over and hang out with their son or how they felt about me hanging around their daughter.
We all live in other people’s movies. Images matter. Associations matter. People are wired by the raw montage of a culture to code assumed meaning onto bodies at a glance. To code certain human bodies as familiar, safe, trustworthy and other human bodies as foreign, dangerous, suspect. You don’t mean to do this, you may not want to do this, but it’s almost impossible not to. You can’t eat a diet of junk food and expect to stay thin. You can’t consume a culture full of racially charged images and expect not to become at least a little bit racist. You can’t expect to fill a nation with 24/7 fear of radical Islamic terrorists and not expect some people to murder American Sikhs.
I understand that. I understand why a person might drive by on September 15, 2001 and a shoot a turbaned gas station owner named Balbir Singh Sodhi. I understand why the soldiers in Salt Lake airport that Thanksgiving, presumably as pre-Olympic security, seemed to watch every step I took until I left the building. I know people make choices. People make choices and will be accountable for their sins. But people are also trapped in frames of reference and associations they do not control.
I understand that even as I resent it. I can observe it and intellectualize it even as I know that I will have to exist in a culture where black-haired, darker-skinned people are plotting against you and attacking your country and taking your jobs and ruining the intangible comfort of homogeneity in your neighborhoods. A world in which I never know whether a person feels like I want to take their job at work because people are naturally territorial or because that instinct is amplified when the perceived intruder codes as aggressively foreign.
When I was in high school, a team of researchers worked with a bunch of 1st century Galilean skulls in an attempt to reconstruct what the average man in Galilee from the time of Jesus looked like. They hired a forensic artistic to create a digital image of a living face, filling in details on things like hair length and skin tone from other evidence from the era and region. The Columbus Dispatch
, which we faithfully skimmed in my household, shared the project with some kind of proto-clickbait title about revealing what Jesus actually looked like. My dad loved the picture. He said it looked like me.
An editorial later that week criticized the image. The writer correctly pointed out that a composite of Galilean skulls mixed with an artist’s informed speculation doesn’t give us hard evidence of what Jesus as a historical individual looked like. The writer then asked what possible, probably anti-religious motives there might be in portraying such a revered figure as Jesus as such a brutish Neanderthal.
I can still remember the first time I wanted to punch Jesus.
It was in the spring of 2006. I had just moved to Utah. The previous fall, while I was visiting my sister in Provo, a woman in her 70s had approached me in the canned goods aisle of Day’s Market and effused about my striking profile. I was used to my appearance catching American eyes, of course, but not quite in that way. Carma De Jong Anderson was different. She refused to let me buy the black beans in my hand until I had agreed to let her drag me to the LDS Motion Picture Studio. Once I moved to Utah, Carma also shared my contact information with every painter she knew who had done Biblical work.
I felt like I had a certain moral obligation to do modeling work for painters who called me. I hoped that by getting my Semitic-Sikh face into religious art, I might subtly move the needle of white Latter-day Saints’ subconscious associations. Practically, my meager efforts to find my way from appointment to appointment sometimes felt like spitting in the wind but maybe, just maybe, if a missionary saw my face in a temple painting, “Osama” wouldn’t be the first word that sprang to his mind when he walked out and saw me on the street. Failing that, they at least got me a beard card while I waded through the six months of education I would be getting at BYU to finish my undergrad.
One day, I got a call from a painter named Jon McNaughton. At the time, he had a small shop in the mall where he mostly sold landscapes but he liked to do scenes from scripture as well. He wanted me to model as Simon of Cyrene on what happened to be the first day of spring term classes. He would be painting out in one of those bedroom communities on the far side of Utah Lake.
I didn’t have a car at the time, and buses didn’t go to the places where people fled when they thought Provo had a problem with population density. Jon offered me a ride. I worried just a little about being trapped, but he promised he would get me back in time for my religion class. On the drive, he told me he had always wanted to learn to paint like Rembrandt and admitted that he disliked universities like BYU for valuing abstract concept over craft, abstraction over reality. He told me about the great Jesus model he had and how excited he was for this painting.
A little after we got back to Jon’s house, his Jesus model arrived. He had a Norwegian shipbuilder sort of look. The strong build Mormons borrowed sometime after the late 19th century rise of what historians call “muscular Christianity.” He almost did a double take when he saw me. For some reason, he found me instantly amusing. “Hey Jon,” he said, throwing an arm over my shoulder. “You should just do a portrait of us and call it ‘Jesus and Osama.’”
I know he didn’t know what he was saying. I know he wasn’t haunted, like I am, by the image of red blood against the blue of Balbir Singh Sodhi’s turban. I didn’t hit him. I didn’t lash out verbally because I know I need to be so careful about how I speak and how I present myself because I will be perceived so quickly as not simply annoyed, but aggressive. Threatening at a visceral, reactive level. I weighed the risks of speaking at all: would I be able to help him see something or risk running into more thoughtlessly offensive comments until I got myself into trouble?
I bit my tongue. When Jon McNaughton took us to the room where he’d set up the scene, I knelt to take up the cross. Carrying white Jesus’ burden.
How do you forgive people for existing within history?
It is all happening like the prophets said. People look on the outward appearance. Their mouths speak great swelling words, having men’s persons in admiration because of advantage. They despise the stranger and they grind the faces of the poor.
They trust in their flesh. They make themselves images.
How can you let all that go and treat someone as if they are clean from the sins of the generation?
Let me pause. Let me be clear. I don’t hate the actual, historical Jesus who walked and talked and dreamed and sweated his way around Galilee and wrestled somehow with the cosmos just before being executed in Jerusalem. I don’t hate the Jesus of the gospels, that figure translated from a mosaic of memories into the powerful stories disciples told and wrote and passed down. I need Jesus. I look to Jesus. I cling to Jesus when I feel as if I will sink and drown in the currents of a broken and racist history or the culture left in its wake.
I’m not even a full-fledged iconoclast who believes that all images of the divine fall so short as to be incompatible with worship.
I don’t mind different depictions of Jesus. The early art that showed Christ in the image of a fish or an anchor. The later art that depicted him through human metaphors: a youthful shepherd tending his flock, a prophet buried in the belly of a whale. I don’t even mind the first paintings that portrayed Christ with long hair and beard that might have been borrowed from depictions of Zeus, or the 10th century paintings of a Chinese Jesus in temples along the Silk Road, or the emaciated Florentine and Flemish and Bavarian figures in those cultures’ paintings during times when European models were all most painters had and Europeans features the only ones they knew.
I wouldn’t mind an occasional white Jesus today if he appeared in my faith alongside images of a black Jesus, a Latin-looking Jesus, perhaps even an occasional Jesus who actually looks like he comes from first-century Galilee despite an discomfort people might feel with a man who looks like Osama bin Laden.
No, I don’t expect or need the Jesus of art to always be based on the patterns of contemporary Galilean skulls or modeled on the famous Fayum portraits. I can accept depictions of Jesus taking many forms. I respect the longing to make the divine familiar. But we cross a line when we imply that the familiar is the only form of the divine.
When did Florentine and Flemish and Bavarian become white? The answer, ironically, has something to do with Jesus.
In the early history of the Americas, landholders justified the practice of slavery by appeal to the heathen status of kidnapped Africans. They accepted, back then, that Christians could do better than holding each other in open bondage—but made an exception for infidels.
By the time missionaries began teaching enslaved African men and women, it was far too late economically for the practice of slavery to change. The notion of whiteness began appearing in law codes instead, a new and necessary distinction between enslaved converts and the men of various European backgrounds who called themselves both Christians and masters.
The Jesus I hate is a Jesus made white and kept white long after white stopped being a skin tone and started serving as a legal status.
Hate is a strong word. But think of Esau. First born, preferred by the patriarch, strong and athletic. And the Bible says God hated him.
Hate is a strong word. And I need strength. Please.
I need some strength against the whiteness of the world I was born into.
I told you I didn’t used to hate white Jesus. I learned to hate him when I realized how much we worship him. How much we honor the impossibly clean clothes, the shampoo commercial hair, the white skin.
I hate him when I watch people bend over backwards to accommodate respectable white men while they criticize every word, action, and decision a brown person makes in this country before he or she is crucified.
Forgive them, Father, Lauryn Hill sings from my phone on repeat, for they know not what they do.