Race, Personal Narrative, and Mormonism

By March 12, 2008

Before I get into the meat of my first post, I would like to offer a few explanations for offering up a bit of personal and family history. First, I feel like it is essential for a historian to reveal his own positionality so that readers can understand the context for the rest of his work. Second, many of my motives for becoming a historian and much of my work involve a search to understand my own identity. And finally, I think that Mormon historicity has more connection to the self and family than other types of historical inquiry. I do not offer up these reflections as critiques; I actually think Mormon history?s either transparent or obscured connection to the self infuses it with a passion and vibrancy rarely found in other academic circles And now, the vignettes:.

Many years ago, I took my first paying job at a small convenience store on the outskirts of Idaho Falls, Idaho. Because the store was on the edge of the city, it catered to a variety of customers that ranged between suited businessmen to crusty farmers who lived out in the countryside. One solitary winter afternoon, I was working by myself when an elderly farmer walked in, proceeded to buy milk, and sat his purchase on the counter for me to ring up. I asked about his day, with my very best customer service skills, but in response he crassly stated, ?A Japanese soldier killed my brother during World War II.? I remember feeling uncomfortable, scared, and uncertain; I didn?t know how to respond to his forceful declaration. After watching me squirm for a moment, this rugged character smiled at me and shook my hand. He told me that his wife had taught him that unless he forgave the Japanese people, he could never be saved in the Celestial Kingdom. He then confessed that he had been watching me for the past several months and had concluded that I was one of the nicest young men he had ever met.

In the foggy reserves of my memory, this experience serves as one of the first times that I really felt the weight of my racial ?otherness? as one of the very few Asian Americans in Southeastern Idaho. As the son of a Japanese American father and white mother, my race was both non-issue and constant influence in our home. Very rarely did I understand that I was any different from other children. Yet in my interaction with the farmer, my unique racial identity presented itself in all of its confusing and complex implications. Although the elderly man accepted me as a completely assimilated ?other,? a ?model minority,? I realized that I would always be different in the eyes of many of the people that lived around me. In this one moment I became the representative for all persons of Japanese ancestry in the mind of this Mormon farmer?a role that I have played again and again. My presence, along with every other Mormon of another race, stands as a reminder that the history of Mormons must attempt to encompass a wide range of diversity.

The second story emerged from an oral interview that I conducted with my Grandmother about her World War II experiences in the Mormon communities near Rexburg. Although filtered through the lens of second-hand memory, the elements of the story demonstrate one of the ways that the war continues to affect her life more than fifty years later. She recounted:

There was a lot of people that got suspicious at everything the Japanese people did. My brother and them, they lived out in Burton [a small farming community near Rexburg]. And the people there used to be real good friends I think–neighbors and everything. There was some [people/neighbors] that every little thing they watched to see what they [her brother] did. And they had, I know that my brother had spotlight on his truck. He worked, we farmed, you know he farmed on the farm and then at night time he used to go haul coal, to supplement the income. And then, so he had a spotlight on his pickup and then sometime he put it out in the yard and turned the spotlight on. And a neighbor called into the sheriff and said, ?They?re signaling the Japanese.? I don?t know how they could think that they could signal the Japanese out in the country there to Japan.

Although the details might be a little sketchy, the overall story has been confirmed by her brother. I find it interesting that this would be one of the experiences about the war period that looms vividly in the memory of my eighty-seven year old grandmother, but it begins to make sense when you identify some of the core components of the story. First, the narrative emphasizes the harmlessness of these Japanese Americans by framing them as hard working farmers and coal-haulers. Second, it demonstrates her own befuddlement that these neighbors would suspect her family of any type of sedition. Finally, it stands as a witness that one of the things that she remembers most about the war is the profound sense of ?otherness? that she felt from those around her. This experience remains in her memory as a sign of wartime alienation and racial distrust.

Together, these narratives paint a very limited picture of one of the ways in which race has worked in Mormon communities in the twentieth century at a very personal level. They also demonstrate the stakes that I hold in doing this history, and the real life ripples it has created in me and my family.


  1. Joel, I don’t know if you’re aware of it, but Tautphus Park in Idaho Falls was used as an internment center for Japanese Americans during WWII.

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 12, 2008 @ 11:28 am

  2. Thanks for this, Joel. Was your grandmother a Mormon? If so, I find it interesting (though perhaps not surprising) that within the Mormon community that she resided, race trumped religion in establishing her identity.

    Comment by Christopher — March 12, 2008 @ 11:56 am

  3. I hadn’t heard about Tautphaus Park. Do you know what type of facility it was? FBI/Justice Department, War Relocation Authority, or War Department?

    Comment by Joel — March 12, 2008 @ 12:03 pm

  4. She wasn’t Mormon when World War II began. She was later baptized, and still goes to church. I think it is interesting that her memories of the war were not reconstructed with a more Mormon-friendly narrative. I still get a sense of profound bitterness about her wartime experiences when I talk with her.

    Comment by Joel — March 12, 2008 @ 12:09 pm

  5. I think it is interesting that her memories of the war were not reconstructed with a more Mormon-friendly narrative. I still get a sense of profound bitterness about her wartime experiences when I talk with her.

    That is interesting. I wonder if the treatment she received during WWII would have been less if she had been Mormon at the time–that is, if Mormons are less suspicious of/prejudiced against racial minorities if they have a common religious bond.

    Comment by Christopher — March 12, 2008 @ 12:24 pm

  6. Joel, thanks for this. This is great stuff.

    Comment by David G. — March 12, 2008 @ 12:25 pm

  7. A good study along these lines might follow how Latin members of the Church are perceived in the United States now. Currently, it seems that attitudes are especially sensitive to race with immigration reform talks and ad nauseum talk of the possibility of the first black president.

    In my observations, it’s not unknown that a Latin individual, whether a member or not, whether documented or not, is immediately percieved as an undocumented immigrant (and therefore, viewed negatively) simply because they are Latin. In that case, race would trump religion in establishing identity here.

    As a part of my job, I make calls to incoming missionaries and test their Spanish ability. One incoming missionary refused to even submit to the Spanish evaluation because “this is my country, and here I should be able to speak English” I was shocked as cliche after racially charged cliche came out. After about 5 minutes of struggling with him (and getting close to giving him a piece of my mind), he finally allowed me to do a remarkably abreviated evaluation. A really interesting project would be to see how (if) that elder got along in South America and how living in a Latin country for 2 years would affect his values and views.

    Comment by Jared — March 12, 2008 @ 12:48 pm

  8. Christopher,

    I will address your questions about the influence of Mormon identity on Japanese Americans in a later post. I have some great stuff on that.

    Comment by Joel — March 12, 2008 @ 12:49 pm

  9. Excellent, I’ll look forward to it.

    Comment by Christopher — March 12, 2008 @ 12:52 pm

  10. I served my mission in Japan and observed the way that the Japanese saw and treated Koreans.

    Excellent, Joel – and very insightful.

    Comment by Ray — March 12, 2008 @ 1:31 pm

  11. Man, Jared, what kind of pills are you on that let you keep calm in that kind of circumstance?

    I had a VT companion from Mexico. She tried so hard to learn English, but just couldn’t do it. Her husband, a Gringo, refused to make even the slightest effort to learn Spanish. When I suggested that we do a double date to the temple, Spanish session, and have him wear earphones so he could understand, he was adament that his wife needed to learn English and he had no obligation whatsoever to learn Spanish.

    The marriage lasted two years.

    Comment by Margaret Young — March 12, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

  12. Margaret, you know, standard issue to BYU employees…haha.

    Thanks Joel, for raising this issue. I look forward to further analysis.

    Comment by Jared — March 12, 2008 @ 2:29 pm

  13. My wife’s father, just about as good hearted a guy as you could ever meet, flew B25 bombers over Europe during WWII. We’ve talked with him a few times about the Japanese internment situation, and he always responds with a statement along the lines of “You don’t understand how scared we all were!”.

    Like your Idaho farmer, Joel, he would have nothing but good things to say now, but it underlines the issue of otherness. BTW, he graduated from high school in Burley, Idaho, in 1941, and went into the service in 1942.

    My recollection is that the Japanese on the west coast were all relocated, but not so much elsewhere, and it appears that they weren’t relocated from Southern Idaho from your comments.

    One final note, is that my last name is Germanic in origin, and my dad’s middle name was Vaughn, which led my mother’s parents to originally object to their marriage in 1945 if he was German. Turns out that the family had been in Denmark since the 17th century, so he passed muster.

    What is most interesting to me is that we now as Mormon’s are getting a new dose of our “otherness” that has surprised most of us, not intimately acquainted with the polygamy years, and mostly familiar with the much friendlier world of the 60’s through the 90’s.

    Comment by kevinf — March 12, 2008 @ 4:56 pm

  14. Ummm, lest someone point out the obvious, the plural of Mormon is Mormons, not Mormon’s. See Eats, Shoots, and Leaves. I have trouble with apostrophes from time to time.

    Comment by kevinf — March 12, 2008 @ 5:34 pm

  15. kevinf,

    I understand the realities of fear that your father-in-law expresses. I think that fear is a natural response to a tragedy like Pearl Harbor and the potential invasion of the United States. The interesting and tragic thing is that the idea of race allowed all of those good0hearted farmers to project that fear onto anyone with darker skin and slanted eyes. Propaganda pushed good people to demonize their neighbors. I also think its important to mention that there were people in the same situation that just didn’t buy the propaganda. There was a bus driver in the Rexburg area that stood up for the Japanese kids during the war. He is remembered quite fondly to this day by the Japanese American population there.

    Another interesting point in the story is that although that nice farmer in Idaho Falls holds no bad feelings any more. I still represented something foreign and different to him–an otherness that he still associates with Japanese Americans although his animosity is gone.

    Comment by Joel — March 12, 2008 @ 7:09 pm

  16. Fascinating post Joel. Thanks for joining us here.

    Comment by stan — March 12, 2008 @ 7:24 pm

  17. Joel,

    Certainly 9/11 has impacted us as well. There is a latent fear and suspicion of middle easterners that also seems to be one of the “justifications” for the verbal attacks and new legislation aimed at Latino immigrants, legal or otherwise that we are seeing. Our failure to find Osama Bin Laden, one might claim, has transferred our fears to the more visible Hispanic segment of our population.

    Comment by kevinf — March 13, 2008 @ 1:54 pm

  18. kevinf,

    I completely agree!

    Comment by Joel — March 13, 2008 @ 2:52 pm


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