All Are Free to Breathe

As George Floyd died at the hands of law enforcement officers he cried out, “I can’t breathe.” Those desperate final words now echo in the mouths of the American people as protests erupt across the nation. 

His is yet another name added to a growing list of victims of police brutality against blacks, and with every name the outcry for change and justice grows louder. Lita Giddins, the College of Family, Home, and Social Sciences’ (FHSS) Diversity, Collaboration, and Inclusion Coordinator says, “The question on the minds of everyone…is ‘How long until we are free from this issue?’  Protestors against racism are no longer asking the question.  Their unified response is, ‘Now.’”

One of the voices speaking up belongs to Taylor Munlin, a FHSS student. Munlin is an executive director with BYUSA, a member of the Black Student Union, and a member of the FHSS Diversity, Collaboration, and Inclusion Committee. She says that the primary goal of this committee is to create a culture of Zion in the college and at BYU.

We are commanded in the scriptures to “keep my commandments and seek to bring forth and establish the cause of Zion” (Doctrine and Covenants 6:6). Zion is the place where all of God’s children are treated with an equal fullness of love and respect, where the arbitrary distinctions of social categories are stripped, and each can be appreciated for their unique identity as a son or daughter of God. The Book of Mormon promises “blessed are they who shall seek to bring forth my Zion at that day” (1 Nephi 13:37). 

But how? Repeating tired platitudes of unity and love on social media, while perhaps well-intended, does little by itself to solve issues at the fundamental level. 

Giddins comments, “The question I continue to ask myself is ‘What is preventing Zion, the ‘pure in heart,’ from being established?’  Purity or clarity of vision to increase self-awareness as we ask ourselves, ‘What lack I yet?’ is key (Matthew 19:20).” She goes on to say “Lowering our defenses to acknowledge the truth of what we see is greatly needed.  Accepting with courage the need to rethink historic mindsets in order to care and act differently to eradicate the deadly pandemic of specific community members being ‘acted upon’ is essential.”

Munlin says that Zion cannot be established until the injustices against the black community are addressed and remedied. Individual instances of injustice are simply manifestations of a larger societal illness. 

While most Americans have an understanding of racism from slavery through the civil rights movement, the story doesn’t just end there. The issue, Munlin explains, is that “we are taught that systemic discrimination ended with the successes of the civil rights movement in the sixties,” when in fact those systems were simply altered and replaced. She says that though laws do not specifically target individuals based on race, certain laws, institutions, and practices have a disproportionate effect on the black community. According to Munlin, these include, but are not limited to education, housing, healthcare, criminal sentencing, and incarceration.  

Even at BYU, where the administration seeks to create an environment of equality and tolerance, there are still obstacles to overcome. Munlin explained how the BYU rule requiring a full-time faculty sponsor for clubs makes it difficult for organizations like the Black Student Union to find that required sponsor support. This would be easier if the sponsorship rule could be extended to part time or ¾ time employees as well. 

Forms of racism are also present within strains of the campus culture. Even well-intentioned individuals are prone to make insensitive remarks or dismiss the lived experience of others. 

“What if I told you ‘you’re really smart for a blonde’,” Munlin asked. “Those are the kinds of comments that people make here that are meant to be compliments.” 

Munlin said one way that students can make a meaningful change is to, “Say things for what they are. Don’t say ‘the issue in society’, say ‘racism against blacks.” To Munlin, the use of euphemisms to avoid addressing uncomfortable topics only prevents the kind of honest discussions that lead to meaningful change. 

Munlin appreciated President Worthen’s willingness to address the issue directly in his June 2, 2020 message, “With the tragic deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and others over the years, and the confluence of recent events, important conversations are happening…BYU stands firmly against racism and violence in any form and is committed to promoting a culture of safety, kindness, respect and love.”

The question then shifts to what concrete steps must be taken to create real change. Munlin cites the official site of the NAACP, where specific pieces of legislation are posted and explained. She says that everyone should take the time to review these proposed laws and supplement that with an immersion in relevant literature.

At the end of the day, “allyship is about more than social media campaigns,” says Munlin. To her, it involves addressing issues directly, making donations, consuming black media, participating in community outreach, identifying and stopping micro-aggressions, taking relevant courses, giving a platform for black voices, and most of all, genuinely listening to those voices with the intent to understand and act. 

Giddins shares her hopes for a more loving inclusive society saying, “I now view the air we breathe as a heavenly gift.  I now view a Zion community as ‘the pure in heart.’ Christ and His people are one there, and all are free to breathe.”