On Being Mormon, Black, and Female: LeShawn Williams-Shultz

LeShawn Williams-Shultz is a Mormon black woman. She is a mental health therapist and as a professor. She studies identity development, and she experiences it. It’s something we all go through, regardless of our race, religion, or color. It’s an important process, one she spoke openly about at BYU’s fifth annual Women’s Studies Conference, in November 2015.

LeShawn was one of sixteen speakers presenting at the conference on the theme of “pioneering women in fields of knowledge.” “As an educator,” she said, “I bring you my perspective that context matters. As a therapist, I bring you the perspective that [the process of] making meaning matters.”

The Conference

The Women’s Studies program at BYU is operated jointly by both the College of Humanities and the College of Family, Home and Social Sciences. Students in this program study women’s past and present position in global society. This year, their conference took place on November 5th and 6th.

The Presentation: James Marcia’s Identity Development Theory

Mrs. Williams-Shultz discussed what it was like to be at the intersection between being black, mormon, and female in the context of an identity development theory like James Marcia’s. Her church, the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints (i.e., “Mormons”), as a whole, has undergone a process of identifying itself in relation to the race of its members. LeShawn encouraged her audience to think about that ongoing process as she elaborated on the stages of identity development for people of color within the church.


Stages of Identity Development

The first stage deals with conformity and contact, Shultz explained. You idealize everything about your dominant culture. There is generally a strong desire to assimilate into the dominant culture, even if there is not much recognition that you are different. But then there comes a moment of realization of one’s differences, whatever they are, which leads to the next stage.

Introspection is characteristic of the second phase. This is a time of beginning to accept your identity and tell your own stories. You redirect your energy towards making sure that you create safe spaces and attempt to become independent of racism and white supremacy, or the attitudes of others.

The next stage is the difficult process of learning how to balance the different worlds in which you exist. This stage is different for everyone who experiences it. But the result is the final stage, which is a state of an increased awareness.

Church and Identity

Within the LDS church, there is identity development, Shultz said. She spoke about gender identity in the church as both a biological and a social construct. “The LDS impact on gender, I call it the philosophies of men mingled with biology,” she said. Within the church, many people believe that womanhood is completed by motherhood. Women in the church that experience infertility or do not have a desire or opportunity to bear children may experience an identity crisis.

Near the end of her lecture, Shultz shared a verse (2 Nephi 2:11) from the Book of Mormon. “There must needs be that there is opposition in all things … Wherefore, all things must need be a compound in one.” She summed this up to mean that we need blackness as much as we need whiteness. We need differences.

Though our unique situations may leave each of us feeling alone at times, understanding that a journey of self discovery is a commonality among human beings can help us stay connected to one another. Discussing problems and questions that come up throughout this process provides crucial learning opportunities for each of us to understand minority and majority positions within identifiers, such as race, faith and gender.

The full video of her presentation is available below.

Photo courtesy of Pixabay

What things have you found helpful to overcome identity crises?

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