PROVO While attending Black History Month events at Brigham Young University this month, many black students have spoken out about their feelings on being a minority at the university and issues that arise from being black and Mormon.
Of the 30,426 students enrolled at BYU, 158 are black, according to BYU statistics.
Black students speaking to the Deseret Morning News at a recent Black History Month presentation emphasized they have been treated very well at BYU by faculty and students alike. But being a minority anywhere is difficult, they said.
Niiboi Amertev, 25, a junior from Ghana, said sometimes he feels white people in Utah don't feel comfortable around him, and he can tell by their body language. "Actions speak louder than words," Amertev said.
Barima Kwarteng, 20, a sophomore from Ghana, said most people at BYU simply don't have a lot of exposure to blacks, and they don't really understand black people.
"I get the impression they think I'm here to play sports," said Kwarteng, who is majoring in computer engineering.
Catherine Spruill, 27, of Steilacoom, Wash., a senior, said, "People make ignorant remarks. They're not worth remembering. We've been commanded to forgive. The easiest way to forgive something is to forget about it."
Some black students said they wish the school would recruit more blacks so they wouldn't be such a minority.
"There should be more outreach," said Noah Morris, 29, BYU's Black Student Union president and a junior born in Nigeria.
BYU does have a national multicultural student recruitment program called SOAR. It starts in eighth grade and steers students toward college preparation. It includes a weeklong summer session on campus, with classes including preparation for the SAT exam, said BYU spokeswoman Carri P. Jenkins.
During the past few weeks, BYU's Black Student Union hosted myriad events for Black History Month.
Ahmad Corbitt, a black member of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints who serves as director of the church's New York Office of Public and International Affairs, spoke to about 100 students on the struggle some members have with the priesthood limitation once practiced by the church. His talk referred to the church's decision in 1978 that black male members could hold the priesthood.
A dozen students and a few guests stayed almost an hour after the presentation to pepper Corbitt with questions and concerns regarding race and their religion.
The students didn't mention any specific problems at BYU but did say they don't appreciate the folklore that they said is sometimes spread by seminary teachers or church leaders regarding blacks in the church.
One example, the students said, is when people say blacks "sat on the fence," or weren't fully committed to Christ in the pre-mortal life, and therefore are punished by the color of their skin on earth.
"Speculation about inferiority in the pre-earth life" is not part of the church's doctrine nor part of the curriculum, Corbitt said.
He advised the students, when they hear people repeating these stories, to take the matter to a bishop and/or a stake president and make them aware of what is being said.
Such folklore is definitely not supposed to be taught in the seminary program, said Thomas R. Valletta, director of the Church Education System curriculum. "That (folklore) is certainly not true, and it's not in the curriculum," Valletta said.
Several students at Corbitt's presentation said they wished church leaders would speak directly to racial problems during a general conference session. Entire talks have been devoted to issues such as pornography, the students pointed out.
Corbitt said racial issues have been addressed during general conference talks.
LDS Church President Gordon B. Hinckley spoke on racial intolerance in a priesthood session during the April 2006 general conference:
"Racial strife still raises its ugly head, even among church members. There are reports of racial slurs and denigrating remarks among us. This is unacceptable. I remind you that no man who makes disparaging remarks concerning those of another race can consider himself a true disciple of Christ."
During the discussion with Corbitt, one black woman said she believes, just from her own personal experience, that 30 percent of the people she encounters in Utah make racially offensive remarks.
Black BYU student Hunter Stott, 28, a junior from Salt Lake City, said he believes the group that intends to be offensive is much smaller than those who just make offhand remarks.
"A lot of them are just ignorant," Stott said. "Most people don't try to be hurtful."
Corbitt says some people have said to him, "You're a nice colored fellow."
"All I say to that is 'Thank you very much. And I think you're nice too.' Period."
Some students argued with Corbitt and said they feel it's their responsibility to correct and educate those who make racially ignorant remarks.
Corbitt said correcting the person would sometimes lead to offense. He may, however, give a person advice on word choices if they are going to be dealing with more black people in future occasions and to help the person "deal more effectively in society."
He advised them not to "worry so much about people who are committing a faux pas just because they live in an area where there is 1 percent blacks."
Corbitt said he rarely gets offended because being offended is a choice. "I refuse to allow it to hurt me," he said. "That is my choice."
In another Black History Month event, students watched snippets of a film called "Nobody Knows: The Untold Story of Black Mormons," by Margaret Young and Darius Gray.
The film is scheduled to be shown in the Foursite Film Festival, March 8 at Peery's Egyptian Theater in Ogden.When asked if there are racial issues at BYU, Gray said, "It doesn't matter where you are. There are racial issues. Race is a reality."