Minority. You may think of it as a bubble to be filled in on a standardized test or that odd moment when you discover in your friend group that you are the only one who prefers white chocolate to semisweet. Minorities exist wherever you wish to see them: only one in ten people are left-handed. The Green Party receives the smallest minority vote in elections. At upscale restaurants, the forks crisply lined up on either side of your plate outnumber the spoons. In American society, we tend to think of minorities as being any ethnicity without European ancestry (although this ratio is rapidly changing). Race is a controversial divisor, though let’s not forget that culture dictates minority/majority splits as well and in fact can be more divisive. But what is it like to be in the racial majority but the cultural minority?
Welcome to Utah, a state with a reputation for fantastic outdoor recreation and Mormons. To set the record straight before I go on, “Mormon” is not a synonym for polygamist. While there still linger a smattering of radical groups who practice polygamy, as TLC depicts through a select few families, I have lived in Utah my entire life and have never met a polygamist.
In any event, Utah’s religious landscape is dominated by the Mormon church. It’s virtually impossible to escape the presence of it; Utah’s state history is entrenched in Mormon roots. After all, it was Mormon pioneers who settled the state. Peruse a handful of laws and you’ll see the shadow of LDS policy makers past (i.e. the alcohol content of Utah beer is limited to a watery 3.2%). Utah high schools have made appearances several times over the past few months for the ridiculous nature of their dress codes- codes that coincidentally happen to follow ideal LDS standards of dress. I could easily rattle off a laundry list of things out-of-staters find odd, but in a nutshell, these differences to mainstream America have led to Mormons being classified as their own ethnic group, similar to the distinction given to Jews.
I grew up in Salt Lake City, probably the most diverse city in the state (currently the Mormon/non-Mormon ratio is about 50/50). As a kid, I was pretty much oblivious to mainstream Utah culture. I attended a private Catholic school, and in my mind it made perfect sense that every other child out there wore uniforms and went to the same type of church that I did. Of course, as I got older, I discovered that this was not the case. I switched to the public school system for high school and wow- I experienced my first wave of culture shock.
What struck me most was the sense of conformity I got from my peers. It wasn’t necessarily a sense of exclusion; they were plenty friendly, but the fact that they were Mormon and I was not was always the elephant in the room. This was exacerbated by the fact that so much of their social lives were structured around church activities. Sports teams dissolved this divide to some extent but never completely managed to get rid of it. My high school years were filled with continual exasperation over the strictness of LDS standards, or “values.”
When I decided to attend Utah State University for college, I knew I was headed up to a small college town with a largely LDS population, so I thought I was prepared for the cultural environment. I have never been more wrong.
The sheer vanillaness of the student body threw me for a loop; even my predominantly white high school was more diverse. I’d always known Utah was a pretty Arian place with limited ethnic diversity, but I was still caught off guard by how intensely white USU was, for lack of a better term. Granted, this is coming from a dark blonde, green-eyed chick so I fit right in. I wasn’t used to the sameness, and quite frankly, I expected a university to be more of a melting pot.
The next thing that freaked me out was the abundance of Mormon meeting houses, called wards. A common sight everywhere throughout Utah, the ward density spikes around the university to accommodate thousands of students. My four roommates were all LDS, as were most of the other students in my dorm building. Typically, LDS students are much more conservative, sheltered, and religious than non-LDS students (this is a broad generalization and of course does not hold true for everyone, Mormon or not). Also for the first time, I had my mind blown by the pressure that LDS culture places on its young members to get married. It still shocks me that a very large number of undergraduate students are married…following an engagement period that is usually less than six months.
Adding to the onslaught of the pervasiveness of LDS culture I felt on campus was how it seamlessly spilled over into the city of Logan itself. Hardly anything but the canyon trails are open on Sundays and nightlife isn’t exactly alive and kicking. Still stuck in a metropolitan mindset, I often miss the variety of things to do offered by my hometown of Salt Lake. Instead, I make the most of ghost town Sundays, running and biking through streets with absolutely no traffic, relishing the lack of people out on the trails, and getting coffee at one of the few places open seven days a week.
It’s truly surreal to blend in with the student population based on general ancestry and yet operate on such different wavelengths concerning culture. After a year of being submersed in a whole other world, I now have a greater respect for the challenges faced by immigrants attempting to assimilate into a new culture. It’s much easier said than done when you are trying to make your way of life fit with a heavy-handed majority. I can now relate to the resistance seen in some immigrant groups; it’s natural to embrace your ideals when you feel stifled by another’s. Often times it feels like you’re butting heads with some invisible force and the frustration is very real. When you feel like the way of life you’re used to is being threatened in some way, the natural thing to do is become prideful in the little things you never used to think much of.
Experiencing both sides of the majority/minority equation has given me a new perspective on what it means to go with the flow and stand up for what you believe in. It’s also allowed me to indulge my inner empath with anyone else also struggling along in a wave of culture shock. But, hey- if there’s one thing that’s a constant in this crazy world it’s that everyone has a story to bring to the table. Next time you find yourself in the majority group, spare a moment to think about how your opinions may be viewed by those in the minority. Be mindful, and peace in.