White as the Salt Flats: Race in Utah

White as far as you can see…

“This baby is black. It’s a dark, ugly thing.”

Utah State Senator Chris Buttars was talkng about a pending bill when, in February, he uttered those words on the statehouse floor.

In the uproar that followed, he called the NAACP-led protest against his remarks a “hate lynch mob,” adding “How do I know what words I’m supposed to use in front of those people?”

So it states in this compelling Washington Post examination of white and non-white relations in the great state of Utah. Black people make up less than 1% of the population—indeed, some residents say there are still parts where white pepole have never seen a Black person.

Furthermore, in the ultra-powerful Mormon church, based in Salt Lake City, the capitol, Black people were deemed “cursed,” by religious decree, as recently as 1978.

Repeatedly, in the piece, those living there speak of Utahn “naivete” as something with the oft-sharp slap of racism, but arising out of, another word used often, “innocence”; a racial clumsiness not coming, perhaps, from hostility, but from a lack of familiarity about how to interact with Black people.

Like, for example, the experience of Tania Paxton, “a TV camerawoman who arrived from back East in 1992 and found in the clear mountain air contrasts of a brightness usually seen in cartoons.”

She recalls how, “‘My first week here, one of the camera operators who was training me was asking me to teach him how to talk jive.'”

There were also the trials of Tamu Smith, a hairdresser. She remembers being

in cosmetology class when she felt a hand on her head. A classmate was handling her hair.

“And I said, ‘Don’t ever touch my hair without asking me,’ ” Smith said. “And she was like, ‘Well, I can touch your hair.’ And I was like, ‘What?’ And she was like, ‘I can touch your hair because I’ve never touched black people’s hair before.’ ”

It was after a supervisor was summoned that, as Smith recalls, the classmate whined a question that, a decade later, still strikes at the poignant and suddenly timely essence of being black in Utah: “If I don’t get to touch Tamu’s hair, then what black person’s hair am I ever going to touch?”

Keep in mid, however, that according to the most recent 2005 census, Utah is a veritable Mississippi—the Blackest state—compared to some others; it’s only the 8th whitest state in the U.S. (White people dominate the populations of all U.S. states except Hawai’i.)

It is less white than, in ascending order of whiteness, Wyoming, Iowa, West Virginia, Idaho, New Hampshire, Maine, and Vermont. So go for yours.



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