When Mica McGriggs was a young girl living in Arizona, she had a typical Mormon upbringing. Except for one thing: she was black. “Every summer the youth, 12 through 18 [year olds], would do a pioneer trek and dress up like pioneers and pull carts. And I already didn’t wanna dress up like a pioneer,” said McGriggs. “I knew that wasn’t right inside. I knew if I were in that time I would have been a slave. I would have been property.”
Now 25 and a doctoral student at Bringham Young University, McGriggs stands out as a vocal critic on the lack of diversity in the Mormon church.
On Tuesday, the Church of Latter Day Saints (LDS) announced that three of the religion’s top female officers would be appointed to high-level councils that take part in church governance. Those positions were previously only held by men. The Salt Lake City Tribune said leaders called the announcement “a moment to savor."
But the article raised questions about the dearth of black and brown women’s visibility in positions like these.
McGriggs, who was quoted in the article, doesn’t see the change as wholesale progress. “When things open up for women, that comes from a place of white privilege,” she said. “Of course these positions are open to all women. However, the women that are always going to fill those seats are going to be white women just because of the racial makeup of our leadership as it stands.”
The top positions in the church are all currently held by white men. The church, according to the LDS website, is led by 15 apostles. At the top is the president of the church who appoints two apostles and together, the three make up the “first presidency,” the church’s top officials.
“We are on the margins,” said McGriggs, referring to women of color. “We are an afterthought after white women and men of color,” she continued. “The last to be accounted for.”
But women of color, she said, are carrying a lot of the work of the church on their backs.
In the U.S., the religion’s birthplace, there are 6.4 million Mormons, and 85 percent are white, according to a Pew study. But today the majority of LDS membership exists outside of the United States: there are almost 1.4 million Mormons in Mexico, about 129,000 in Nigeria, and over 700,000 in the Philippines according to Mormon Newsroom, the religion’s official news resource.
And still, all policy, procedural, and doctrinal decisions are controlled by an all-white leadership in Utah.
It wasn’t until 1978 that President Spencer W. Kimball had the revelation that officially allowed black men to be ordained into the priesthood. By “extending priesthood and temple blessings to all worthy male members of the Church,” as the official LDS website explains, black men in good standing in the church were given the power and authority to be part of the process. Kimball’s revelation also gave women of color permission to enter the temple, a change that would allow them the opportunity to receive celestial marriages, which in the religion are essential for exaltation in heaven.
Joseph Smith, the religion’s founder, opposed slavery, and a few black men were ordained into priesthood in the church’s early days, says the LDS website. But in 1852, Smith’s successor, Brigham Young, said that black men could no longer be part of the priesthood.
“Even though policies have been changed we still have this racist history that we’re untangling,” said McGriggs. The number one indicator, she said, is the predominantly white leadership.
McGriggs grew up in “the Mormon corridor”—or as others playfully refer to it after their favorite food, “the Jell-o belt”—which includes Utah, Idaho, Montana and Arizona. She considers her childhood as typically Mormon: suburban and mostly white. Except that she wasn’t white.
Race didn’t become an issue for McGriggs until her pre-teen years, when kids tend to become more involved in the faith. “I got a lot of love in the church.” she said. “People really liked me.” But beneath the love, McGriggs felt different.
Growing up as a black Mormon, McGriggs said she didn’t have the language to express the discomfort she felt. Whether it was feeling like she was entertainment or being told she was “very articulate,” McGriggs knew something wasn’t right.
She has since found her voice and community. She recently wrote an op-ed in the Salt Lake City Tribune on white privilege and the Mormon church, considers herself an intersectional feminist, and spends time at Genesis, a Mormon group comprised of black members.
Women of color are, according to McGriggs, extremely involved at the local and regional level. But there’s much work to be done, she said. Fusion reached out to the LDS church and was referred to an article on the church’s official website called “Race and the Priesthood.”
"The racial, economic, and demographic composition of Mormon congregations generally mirrors that of the wider local community,” the article states. “The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints [is] a thoroughly integrated faith.”
McGriggs said changes like Tuesday’s help facilitate conversations about women of color’s place in the religion more openly. “There’s just an energy in the air all around in the church with these changes,” she said. “Women of color want to be included and it’s essential for members to see themselves reflected in leadership and to know your issues matter.”
Collier Meyerson is a reporter at Fusion with a focus on race and politics. She lives in Brooklyn.