Mia Love started to feel uncomfortable, and she couldn't figure out why. She normally feels completely at ease with her husband's family in his sister's home.
Then she realized a visitor was staring at her. Finally the man asked her, "How do you know everybody here? Did you meet one of them on their missions?"
"No," Love said, "this is my family."
Love is black. Her husband and his family are white. The underlying assumption that she didn't belong reminded her she is different, a daily part of life for the fewer than 3,000 African-Americans who live in Utah Valley among nearly 500,000 mostly white people. Strangely, many blacks find their minority status both an advantage and a disadvantage.
"Every day," Provo mom Tamu Smith said, "something happens here where I am reminded in a positive way or a negative way that I am a black woman."
Many valley residents interact with blacks so rarely that they find it awkward, and sometimes those moments become just plain weird.
"This lady came up to me and touched my face," Smith said. "I did not know her.
"She said, 'Your skin is so soft.'
"I said, 'What is your name?"'
Another woman asked Love what kind of shampoo she uses. Amused, Love, who laughed as she retold the story, said, "I use the same type as you, Suave, whatever's on sale."
Love lives in Saratoga Springs, where she is serving a second term as the first African-American woman elected to a city council in the history of Utah County. The 32-year-old is an aerobics instructor at the Lehi Legacy Center.
"The people in Utah have always been very welcoming and sweet and very kind to me," she said. "I haven't experienced anything negative about my race at all. Sometimes I get weird questions, but I think it's a lack of experience. I think it's funny. I think it's interesting. I'm young, so maybe I haven't experienced enough of it."
Smith and others, including whites who have studied black-white relations in Utah and within The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, said minorities still encounter racism here as of Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2008, though it is usually covert or the result of insensitivity or ignorance. Smith and some of her children have been subjected to worse.
She once was fired from a Utah County job for standing up to a co-worker and the business owner for using a racially insensitive comment they claimed should not offend her. The state disagreed and required the owner and employees to undergo sensitivity training. The owner was ordered to give Smith her job back. She declined because of the obvious awkwardness and because she already had another job.
Instead of such overt racism, many blacks in Utah County experience "racial battle fatigue," a term that describes how some minorities can feel worn down by those daily reminders that one's skin color is different and that they are members of a tiny minority. Smith said the problem isn't simply the frequent incidents but the constant vigilance she feels she must maintain when faced with such incidents.
"People will make the most idiotic, ignorant comments I've ever heard. In a different place in a different time in my life, we might be in a fight, but I have to handle it in a way that it doesn't reflect in a negative manner on every other black person in Utah County. When a white person speaks, they don't have to worry about representing all white people."
She is frustrated by some of the reactions she gets when she points out insensitivity.
"A lot of people would want me to say it's been a great experience living in Utah, and it has been because we've had so much help here, but when I say there is racism in Utah, they brush it off or get offended and take it personally instead of listening and dealing with it."
The feeling of being a distinct minority is never far away in a valley where 1 in 200 people is black and in a state where none of the 104 members of the Legislature is African-
American, none of the police officers in Provo, which has 93, and Orem, with 88, is black, and of the 138 members of city and town councils in Utah Valley, one is African-American.
At a Provo/Orem Chamber of Commerce meeting earlier this month, not a single black was among the 115 businesswomen and men who ate lunch together at the Provo Marriott and heard annual reports from the cities' mayors.
A door prize given out after the chamber luncheon took aim at the lack of diversity. The prize was former NBA star Charles Barkley's book, "Who's Afraid of a Large Black Man?" Bob Craghead of Intrinsic Motivators gave away the book to advertise a race and diversity workshop he is about to launch for business people.
"White people don't think about race here because they don't have to," Craghead said. "But when you deal with it daily, it beats you down and it's tough."
Craghead agreed with Brigham Young University professor Cardell Jacobson's statement that whites have to work on helping other whites stamp out racism or ignorance or insensitivity because when blacks complain, the messages sometimes are discounted by whites as coming from "an angry black man."
"I had a friend who came to me just furious," Craghead said. "He told me he'd just been pulled over by police for the sixth time that week. He said, 'Can you feel my pain?' I had to tell him no. We know racism means looking at people as inferior and we don't like to feel like we do that, but the problem is that as soon as you feel, 'I understand, I get it, I don't do that,' that's when you have to be careful. These are issues we'll deal with the rest of our lives, and we need to continue to question assumptions about race."
Craghead said when he started to look for instances of whites in Utah County treating people of color differently, he began to see frequently what many blacks and Latinos long have claimed is a problem. Store employees following them. The assumption that all young blacks are here to play sports at BYU, or to visit, or to attend school. Cart checkers at warehouse stores checking the receipts of minority shoppers in detail while brushing over those of whites.
"We have a tendency to stereotype people of color," Craghead said. "In his book, Barkley said the problem is that we don't associate with each other, have dinner together. Those people of color I've taken the time to get to know, not one has fit the stereotypes."
Smith, the Provo mom who was fired for standing up to racism at her Utah County workplace, called the incident ugly and hurtful. She said the business owner told her that if she tried to sue, which she never considered doing, she couldn't win with a Utah County jury.
"That left a really bitter taste in my mouth, but I don't believe it's true, either. I don't think they really know the people here. It's changing and people are more sensitive."
In fact, Smith said that despite continuing incidents where the most hurtful racial slurs have been hurled at her children, her family also enjoys privileges here because it is unusual.
"My kids have celebrity status at school," she said. One, Vanna, a starting guard on the Provo High girl's basketball team, is the student-body president. Her sister Vera is the vice president and another sister, Maykela, is the junior class president.
"That's unheard of," Smith said. "That's unrealistic. I keep telling them that in the real world, if they went to California, they'd just be another black kid in the school. So it's bittersweet."
Craghead hadn't heard of the Smiths when he described the phenomenon. "They're not celebrities," Craghead said, "but researchers call them 'the exotic others.'"
Love said whatever the reason, Utah Valley residents should be praised.
"There's something that has to be said for the people that live in Saratoga Springs and Utah County," she said. "I've never ever experienced anything negative. I think people here would welcome anyone willing to take a leadership role. Before I moved to Utah, my views about Utah was that it was a place with a whole bunch of polygamists who live together and have racial issues. Instead, my husband and I can walk down the street and hold hands and nobody says anything, but if I do that in New York I get comments from some groups."
Last month the Justice Policy Institute in Washington, D.C., provided evidence that by at least one measure, Utah County treats blacks equally. African-Americans in Salt Lake County are eight times more likely to do jail time for drugs, according to the study. Utah County was only one of five out of 198 counties studied where no racial disparity in drug imprisonment was found.
Leaders of local police agencies say they do not engage in racial profiling. -->
Smith is proud that the Provo School District has made the use of racial slurs a violation of the district's safe-schools policy.
Still more needs to be done, especially because blacks reported that they still hear the N-word in Utah Valley with disturbing frequency. That shouldn't be a surprise, author Darron T. Smith said, because the word is prevalent in pop culture.
"Black folks use it," he said. "So white folks think it's OK for them to use it, too."
Smith, no relation to Tamu Smith, edited the 2006 book "Black and Mormon" and has taught at BYU and Utah Valley State College. He is completing a study with BYU's Jacobson for his dissertation on trans-racial adoption. Parents who have adopted African-American children may participate in the study by taking a survey at www.racialadoptionstudy.com. The study has moderated Smith's views.
"In certain circumstances, white parents need to adopt black children," he said. -->
Smith said his experience in Utah County has been "boring" with no examples of covert racism.
"African-Americans will let smaller incidents slide," he said. "When people ask them if they've experienced racism, they think about grandiose things. I don't really experience grandiose examples of racism, though I have friends who say they have."
Love said African-Americans need to have a good attitude, not assuming that every slight is about race. And Smith said blacks need to build networks. She felt completely alone when she moved to Utah to go to school, going days at a time without seeing anyone of her race. Now she seeks out for her children the companionship, and mentoring, of members of the black student unions at BYU and UVSC. She also organizes summer picnics for local African-American families.
The majority population shouldn't be afraid to talk about race, Smith and Craghead said, though they acknowledged that many whites here have a sense of a reverse racial battle fatigue. Racial inexperience, whether it be lifelong or from many years living in Utah Valley, leaves some nervous to say anything to African-Americans for fear they may offend.21 comments on this story
"You and I can never know what it's like to be black or Latino," Craghead said. "As a white guy, you and I can move into any neighborhood in the valley. If we were black, Hispanic or Asian, we'd have to stop and think, will I be accepted here? Will parents tell their children not to talk to my kids? Will moving in bring more patrol cars to the neighborhood?"We shouldn't be offended when people of color say there is a harsh racial climate out there. Can we change it? I believe we can. I really believe in the goodness of people. But we need to start looking at our own social conventions and see where they come from because the stereotypes are all false."