Confronting My Bigotry in Salt Lake City

I consider myself a tolerant person. More than tolerant, I embrace the differences between myself and others. I seek to better understand and celebrate what makes us separate and what makes us the same. I’ve marched for gay rights, written against discrimination, and teach my children that prejudice is bad.

And yet I found myself a hypocrite in Salt Lake City’s Temple Square.

My interest in visiting Temple Square, a 35-acre complex in the heart of the city owned by the Church of Latter Day Saints, was primarily due to the architecture. I wanted to see the stone temple that took 40 years to build and the domed building where the Mormon Tabernacle Choir practices and performs. I’m a bit of an architectural nut and am especially drawn to the grand and ornate (which is ironic since I’m a Frank Lloyd Wright fan.) At any rate, I was looking forward to seeing what this religion had built, but gave little thought to what it espoused as truth.

The Temple did not disappoint. The spires reached to the heavens from a massive foundation that suggested safe harbor could be found within. The high stone walls and iron fence surrounding the temple hinted that being granted such refuge might be a little difficult, but there was no doubt the building was beautiful. It succeeded at inspiring awe and reverence even from my vantage point well beyond the sacred, 9-foot thick walls.

Filling the rest of Temple Square are other elaborately constructed buildings: two visitors’ centers; the Tabernacle, where concerts are held; various museums and libraries, where impeccable genealogy records are kept; former residences of Brigham Young; and the Joseph Smith Memorial Building, where I came face to face with my own bigotry.

I was looking for lunch.

The Salt Lake City Visitor Passes we’d been given by the local tourism board include $10 towards a meal at the Lion House Pantry, a small cafeteria-style restaurant on the edge of Temple Square. After taking photos of the temple itself, we’d gone in search of our free meal, but got sidetracked when the kids spotted a sign for the Family Search Center, a library of sorts where the public can access the church’s genealogy records.

“Can we go look up Reints?” Emma asked.

“Probably not,” I told her. “That’s not exactly how it works.”

“Can we at least go look at it?” Devin asked.

I checked my watch and decided we had a few minutes before my stomach would revolt.

We pulled open a heavy, wooden door and stepped inside a white, stone building resembling an upscale hotel. A small concierge desk was manned by a woman with white hair and bifocals who asked how she could help us. She pointed us to the direction of the Family Search Center, patiently answered my question about the multitude of brides seen going in and out of the temple at once, and then politely asked us where we were from.

“Florida,” I answered quickly and assured her we didn’t need anything else. I thanked her, dismissed ourselves, and ushered my children protectively to the next room. I was, I realized, suddenly on alert.

In the next room, a partially sunken research library held couches and computer terminals. I kept my family at a safe distance on the elevated hallway, only permitting my children to look over the railing at the search center. I immediately declined when another smiling, bespectacled woman asked if we wanted to get a free family photo. I put a possessive arm around both kids and insisted we were just passing through briefly. Further down the hall, where we’d stopped to read a poster about a stewardess who had survived the Titanic sinking, I rejected the same offer from yet another retiree.

“I just saw your kids and thought, ‘Oh, they might like a family picture taken’,” the woman smiled at me.

“Thank you, but no,” I smiled back, all the while herding my own stewards around the corner. “Let’s get out of here,” I told Jared when we were out of ear shot.

Outside, I admitted to having felt uncomfortable.

“Yeah, I could see your skin crawl,” said Jared.

Shame washed over me. Shame and confusion, a little self doubt and frustration, at what may or may not be human nature.

It made my skin crawl?

If someone had used those words to describe their experience in an Islamic mosque or Jewish temple, I would struggle to choose between shaking my head in pity or railing against their closed minds.

What was going on with me?

I thought for a moment that maybe it was the presence of religious wealth and power that made me uncomfortable, but then I remembered that I’m Catholic; we own a country, not to mention some of the most valuable real estate in the United States. Furthermore, I’ve been to the Vatican and I didn’t once feel unnerved by the evidence of a sprawling and influential organization.

“Maybe you were suspicious of their real motives,” Jared suggested.

I recalled arguments I’ve had with people who have said that being around Muslims make them uncomfortable because, well, you know. I’d insisted that being afraid that a woman in hijab was a terrorist was ludicrous at best and prejudiced at worst, and yet here I was being suspicious of an elderly woman in a floral dress. Was I afraid that she’d tempt me with home-cooked carbs or kindly point me to the wrong bathroom and then laugh about her hijinks with her fellow volunteers?

Was I afraid she’d try to tell me more about what she believed?

If I’m honest with myself, yes.

I put my guard up against attempted conversion, guarding my children as fiercely as I would my wallet from door-to-door meat salesmen. I took pictures of their holy place, walked into their buildings asking questions, and was afraid that they be so bold as to try to share their faith with me. (After all, what other reason could they have for asking me where I was from?)

This puzzles and saddens me.

I’m confused because, as I’ve said, I am not usually afraid of different perspectives. I don’t protect my views but rather enjoy rolling them around with others and seeing what new creation comes out in the baking. I’m also not wholly unfamiliar with Mormonism or Mormons, thanks to the Internet. Some of my best friends are Mormons (or, OK, some women I really, really like.) I think the principal of the “magic underwear” is pretty cool and I know that polygamy has been forbidden by the church for decades (and don’t really care how many people someone else marries, actually.)

Surely, I am not fundamentally opposed to or afraid of Mormons.

Except, he saw it made my skin crawl.

As a liberal, I find myself wondering if it’s socially acceptable for me to make judgments about this traditionally conservative faith and its followers. It’s ignorant to wonder aloud if the man in the turban is going to blow up your plane, but it’s understandable to want to defend yourself from a smiling old lady offering free photos.

Maybe it’s because they weren’t asking for my tolerance or acceptance; they held the position of host and perhaps I prefer to give my compassion to those who beg for it from the position of minority. Perhaps it’s easier than I thought to be suspicious of those who smile benevolently from a place of power.

Maybe it’s just human nature to guard against that which is different.

Maybe none of us, not even liberals, are immune to that instinct.

I hope I can learn to do better.

Opt In Image
Need happiness for the real world?

You want to be happy. You want to be grateful. You want to be authentic and courageous. But you also have stuff to do.

Take the Happiness Challenge, a 31-day email guide that helps busy people like you make room for happiness.

  1. Miriam says:

    What a great post, Britt, and well-written. I try to be open and tolerant, but there are still things that make me uncomfortable that make me ashamed at the same time, and then I get angry at myself because of it. May we all learn to do better!

  2. Megan says:

    Sometimes not knowing what to expect from people you are unfamiliar with can give you the willies.

    And perhaps, because you’ve lived in Florida for a bit, you’re not used to people who are very nice? I know it puts me off sometimes (although people are ruder here in the south than up where you were) because I’m so used to the opposite.
    Megan’s most recent post: iMoments

    • Miss Britt says:

      HA! I am definitely naturally suspicious of overly nice people, which is funny since I’m from the Midwest (or fitting.)

  3. martymankins says:

    As someone who grew up Mormon (and left over 16 years ago afterany questions and conflicts) I can tell you that even my most recent visit to Temple Square (Dec 2010 with my sister who is still very much Mormon) made my skin crawl. Mostly because I know the main motive behind that smile is recruiting another member.

    So fr my opinion, don’t feel like a hypocrite. It’s a natural guard to put up. Enjoy the buildings but keep your beliefs and thoughts your own. It’s all ok in my book.
    martymankins’s most recent post: Browser A-Z

    • Miss Britt says:

      How did I not know you were Mormon? I can’t believe that didn’t come up last night?!

      I feel like we need another dinner to discuss this now.

      • martymankins says:

        Not sure, since religion was talked about. We covered a lot of topics that night. Feel free to ask any questions you want about my time in Mormonism. I’m pretty objective.
        martymankins’s most recent post: Browser A-Z

  4. Whit says:

    I’m the same way in theory, but I’ve learned to justify it. I figure that religion is a choice people make, and other aspects of identity are not. It’s okay to have issue with choices. I don’t have to like it, but the fact I would fight for their right to do so lets me sleep at night.
    Whit’s most recent post: The Day that LEGO Built

    • Miss Britt says:

      I get what you’re saying, but I can’t even say that it was my issue with someone else’s choice that triggered my reaction. I can understand the LDS choice as easily I can any other religious choice.

  5. Lately, I’ve spent a lot of time pondering the concept of gut reaction or intuition in regards to prejudices. Much of it is in response to some comments made by family members in which they used instinct or gut-reaction as a validation for a racist response or position. So what is a gut reaction? You describe a physiological response. That is actually different from a conscious decision to react. I think some of our prejudices are buried so deep that they manifest themselves physically even before they can be articulated in a conscious thought. The important thing is not that you had a physiological reaction, it’s that it made you stop and think. Its the stopping and thinking that helps us evaluate and move past these prejudices, not the absence of any reaction at all. I think we should all do what you just did: stop and ask why. :)

    • That’s not to say all gut reactions are bad – just that it’s good to ask why it happened.
      Judy Schwartz Haley’s most recent post: Three

    • Momma says:

      I totally agree with Judy! Your feelings aren’t wrong or bad. Your reaction to your feelings was very honorable. So, nothing to be ashamed of!

    • Miss Britt says:

      This was SUCH a smart comment! You’re right – there is a physiological response and then there is a decision to react and, yes, those physiological responses can point us to deep prejudices or emotions.

  6. carrie says:

    I love this post & your honesty, you make me feel better about being the imperfect human I am. xoxo
    carrie’s most recent post: Hare of the day

  7. Leslie Turner says:

    I appreciate your sentiment that even “liberals” (whatever that label really means) are not immune to intolerance for obvious or even assumed differences. So often I find that the people that claim to be the open-minded and all accepting part of the human race are the most ingnorant and down right mean towards what I hold dear–sacred. Would you ever call hijab a “magical scarf”? No, because you are educated about its significance and importance to your friend. The “magical underwear” you mentioned is very sacred to me. Different? Yes! But still not deserving of that label in your post.
    So, your realization is important, and such a great example. If all could take this important step happiness wouldn’t be so hard to find in this world.
    And…..people (especially, older ladies in SLC) can be nice just simply because they are happy, not (as stated above) to add another into their religion.

    • Miss Britt says:

      Leslie -

      I hope you know I meant no disrespect in that term and that’s why I put it in quotations. I’ve actually read a bit (long before today) about the sacred undergarments and I meant what I said about thinking the concept (as I understand it anyway) is pretty cool.

  8. Carly says:

    Thank you for going out on this limb. I sadden and shame myself a LOT with my reflexive reactions to certain situations. I think the fact that we recognize those moments and then seek to untangle them is honorable, though.

  9. Cristina says:

    Sometimes, we are just nice. Sometimes people will ask questions of the missionaries at Temple Square or the genealogy library. However, this doesn’t mean their whole aim is to “recruit new members”.

    It is a good reminder to always question ourselves, especially if we want to model for our own children what it means to be good and honorable. I find myself realizing that this can be easier said than done sometimes! Though I think what matters most is that we keep learning and growing, always willing to embrace new experiences. Good for you! I hope you enjoyed your trip regardless; the architecture is amazing.
    Cristina’s most recent post: naturally

    • Miss Britt says:

      “I think what matters most is that we keep learning and growing, always willing to embrace new experiences.”

      Amen.

      And I did enjoy my trip immensely. The entire city was a joy to discover.

  10. Nyt says:

    Insightful. I love the part of “growth” where in our own minds we believe that we have it all worked out, that we’re on the right path, that our “evolved” selves will just shine day after day and then…”POW!” something we never even considered lets us know that there’s more work to be done. There’s nothing to be ashamed of, just more things to learn.

    • Miss Britt says:

      Ah, yes, the folly of thinking we ever have it all worked out. I always say I know I don’t have it all figured out, but then stuff like this comes up and I am simultaneously made aware of my own smug pride and ignorance. Isn’t humanity fun? ;-)

  11. Heather says:

    I am not religious or spiritual at all and I hold a great deal of mistrust for all organized religions, much as I hold a great deal of distrust in special interest groups in the government. To many agendas and plans, too much interference.

    I try to take people on the whole as individuals. People first rather than what they might believe or where they are from. I don’t always succeed. It is hard, especially in certain situations when stereotypes and cultural biases that we don’t even know we have rear up in our brains. Sure they probably wanted to convert you because that’s what religions do, but as individuals they probably were just being friendly.

    That being said, the honesty of your post and the precise way you examine your thoughts and feelings, makes it clear that it was a knee-jerk reaction. We can’t control those feelings but the fact that you recognize them and are aware of them makes it easier to not give in to them later.
    Heather’s most recent post: March Photo A Day – Animal

    • Miss Britt says:

      This reminds me of something my therapist always said to me. I would say “what am I supposed to do with these feelings?” and she would remind me that the only thing that can be ‘done’ is to feel them. It’s the actions/reactions that can get you into trouble!

  12. Caro says:

    I first started learning about this unfamiliar religion a few years ago out of curiosity, and I have to say it is fascinating. Having grown up Catholic, I had never met a Mormon and didn’t realize how different their doctrine is. That said, I treat it as a religion that I respect but do not follow (along with Judaism, Hinduism, Islam, etc.) I truly enjoy reading about Mormon culture through blogs, visiting Utah (my brother moved to SLC for a job) and even checking out PBS documentaries.

    But when I visited Temple Square, I was uneasy that someone would try to share their gospel with me. I avoided eye contact and walked quickly. I realized through your post that if I am confident in my own beliefs and faith, then I can at least show respect to them and likely learn a lot more about this fascinating religion. Learning doesn’t automatically mean converting, I’m discovering.

    And I don’t limit these thoughts to the LDS religion. I feel this way when other outlying Christian religions try to talk to me–I think part of this might be related to the fact that their beliefs are so close to mine, but just different enough to be a threat. I’m committing to open-mindedness thanks to you.

    (PS…the old ladies in the Family Search Center were AWESOME! They were sweet, helpful, very computer savvy and never once tried to ask us about our religion or share their own. They helped us find long-forgotten relatives and interesting information. You should look for a family search center in your next town–satellite centers are everywhere)

    • Miss Britt says:

      I expected to be more open to the learning – I LOVE learning about other religions. I think that’s partly why I was so surprised when my defenses went up and the curious part of my brain slammed shut.

  13. Krista says:

    I really like what Judy Schwartz Haley wrote. I admire you for stopping and thinking about your reaction. Reflection brings growth and understanding. ~Krista

  14. Ah! I’m still mad that nobody tried to recruit me when I visited the Mormon church grounds a few years back. I had heard all about it and prepared myself, and then nobody approached me. I can see how it would be uncomfortable to anyone who is not crazy like me and specifically goes there to hear the conversion propaganda.
    Scott – Quirky Travel Guy’s most recent post: Photo Teaser #27: Street cafe

  15. Faiqa says:

    I used the word “redneck” the other day. I was called on it. I fought tooth and nail to prove that I wasn’t being prejudiced. Later, I realized that I was wrong and felt bad.

    Look, it’s impossible to be innately tolerant. It is, however, possible to be self aware and try to make corrections. I think your being too hard on yourself. I think your reaction was natural.

    This belief has served me well in my own situation. I realize the way I look can make people uncomfortable… in fact, I’d be lying if I said that part of the reason I do it is because it makes people confront their discomfort with my identity right away. I don’t have to wait until they’ve said something terrible to confront the bigotry.

    That said, I don’t mind if I make someone uncomfortable. What bothers me is when someone insists on remaining in that uncomfortable place because they’re too lazy/afraid/plain unwilling to move to a place of understanding.

    I don’t ask that people like me. I just ask for respect to be who I am. I know you well enough to know that no matter how your skin crawled when you were in that space, that you never once felt disrespect for those individuals. I can also see that this post is a resolve not to occupy that place of discomfort permanently. That’s something you should be proud of.

    Many would have and do choose differently.

  16. Robin says:

    What Faiqa said. 100%.
    Robin’s most recent post: Spring Cleaning 101

  17. Peter Cetera has a song One Clear Voice – it sounded to me like you choose to listen to your One Clear Voice – sometimes that is exactly what keeps us safe.

    Self doubt is what can be used against you and convoluted by others whose intention is not as pure as we want them to be or trustworthy.

    Keep listening to that One Clear Voice.
    Eileen Ludwig’s most recent post: Legoland Girls Build prepares future Engineers

  18. Mandy says:

    I am LDS and active in the church and have followed your travels as my family travels quite a bit so I enjoy reading your tip’s and such and when I saw this post come up I was instantly disappointed in the “here we go again” as I have heard more and more anti-Mormon comments in my lifetime and even more so lately due to Romney running for president….I’m glad you recognize it for what it is, prejudice against a group of ppl. Sorry to hear it “made your skin crawl”. I have traveled worldwide and I’ve only been to a few places where it made “my skin crawl” and it was usually a place where i could feel hatred, ppl preaching hate or chanting it, etc…. Anyhow, thanks for not “going there” with your post and just recognizing your discomfort for what it is.

  19. [...] my brief interlude with personal prejudices, my visit to Salt Lake City was a success. I loved the cool vibe of the city, a place that seems to [...]

  20. i have to admit, i was quite shocked reading this. probably because i assumed your comfort and love of catholicism / christianity was naturally part of your curiosity / tolerance of other religions and beliefs. your bravery in posting how you felt and how you are dealing with such feeling is admirable.

    personally i have talked to enough mormons to feel that they are nice people even if i don’t want to convert, but i must admit, this piece makes my desire go to salt lake city a little stronger…i’m wicked curious to see if i would feel the same way.

    speaking of curious…how did jared feel? he noticed your skin crawling, but did he also have a powerful reaction?
    hello haha narf’s most recent post: Life Changing

  21. the muskrat says:

    Liberals aren’t open-minded, and conservatives aren’t closed-minded. They’re just open or closed about different types of people and ideologies from one another. And, oh yeah…liberal PROFESS to be open minded.
    the muskrat’s most recent post: milestones and molars

« « Salt Lake City Through the iPhone Lens | Happiness Highlights: Lots to Love in Salt Lake City » »