Blacks find pluses, minuses

King holiday tests Utahns' commitment to diversity

Published: Monday, Jan. 21 2008 12:00 a.m. MST

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."

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