Having grown up in The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, Sebastian Stewart-Johnson went to Brigham Young University believing the environment would help cultivate his spirituality. Instead, the isolation he felt as a Black student on campus pushed him in the opposite direction.
Attending a college with a Black population of less than 1 percent meant he felt constant pressure to educate his peers about his lived experience, taking on a burden he hadn’t signed up for when he enrolled at BYU’s campus in Provo, Utah. But even as he and other members of the Black Student Union pushed the school to be more inclusive, he said, their efforts remained fruitless.
So he and four other students have gravitated to TikTok. The Black Menaces — Stewart-Johnson, Nate Byrd, Kylee Shepherd, Kennethia Dorsey and Rachel Weaver — record themselves putting fellow students on the spot with questions about race, identity and politics.
“The Black Menaces aren’t affiliated with BYU, so they can’t hold our voice back,” said Stewart-Johnson, a sophomore. “We wanted to highlight everything that we go through in a way that millions could see it.”
The group’s videos have blown up nationwide, prompting parody videos and sparking discourse about the university’s culture and honor code. The account had more than 670,000 followers and nearly 23 million likes as of Thursday. The Menaces ask fellow students questions like whether gay couples should be allowed to openly date on campus, whether reverse racism exists and how many Black friends they have at BYU.
The school is affiliated with The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints — whose followers have until recently been known as Mormons — and its majority-white population reflects the composition of the church. As of 2018, 6 percent of the world’s 16 million Latter-day Saints were Black.
Byrd, a senior and the president of the Black Student Union, said the organization has met with a variety of administrators about the experiences of people of color at BYU. The university’s Committee on Race, Equity & Belonging, formed at the height of the George Floyd protests in June 2020, completed a study in February 2021 as a result of those talks.
The report recommended a variety of reforms, such as making curricular changes to better educate students about race, developing a plan to increase graduation rates for students of color and providing faculty members of color opportunities to serve in senior leadership positions. But Byrd said he hasn’t seen any actionable change since the report was published more than a year ago.
So far, BYU has created an Office for Belonging and hired a vice president to lead it. The university wrote in a statement to NBC News that this office will focus on helping the school achieve a “community of belonging” as described by its Statement on Belonging.
“These are significant steps requiring dedication and commitment by the university,” BYU said in the statement.
So, in the meantime, Byrd said, the Menaces enjoy asking uncomfortable questions because it gives BYU community members issues to think about that they may never have confronted before.
“There’s a lot of prejudice and discrimination that goes on here that people don’t know about,” Byrd said. “And so our goal is to let people know that, hey, that exists here, and this is something that needs to change.”
The group posted its first video in early February after a church leader, BYU professor Brad Wilcox, remarked that asking about the church’s ban on Black clergy — which wasn’t lifted until 1978 — posed the “wrong” question.
“Maybe instead of asking why the Blacks had to wait until 1978 to get the priesthood,” he said, “we should be asking why did the whites and other races have to wait until 1829.”
Wilcox has apologized. But for Black members of the church, the comment highlights a history of ostracization that complicates their relationship with their faith. Dorsey, a junior who works mostly behind the scenes for the Menaces, said she was shocked to hear those words from someone she respected.
“I was like, how in the world is this possible, honestly? How could this man that has so much power in our church be able to say stuff like this and say it confidently?” Dorsey said.
But since she started the Menaces’ TikTok account, Dorsey said, she has been pleasantly surprised by the support the group has received from students across the country, especially those who have faced similar experiences at predominantly white institutions.
Weaver, a senior who frequently appears on camera as an interviewer for the Menaces, said she is no longer surprised by comments like Wilcox’s. For her, they serve more as empirical evidence of what she had long known about the church and BYU.
Many within the community have the luxury of living lives not shaped by marginalized identities, Weaver said, which enables them to answer questions about race or sexuality by admitting they should “do more research.” The group enjoys seeing those moments of panic in front of the microphone — not to be malicious, she said, but to know that they are facilitating difficult conversations that can help their peers examine what they believe and why.
“Everyone needs to be uncomfortable at some point so they can have empathy to understand what other people experience,” Weaver said. “And I think people, especially at BYU, really need that, because they’ve never been uncomfortable in their entire life. They’ve never had to be in a position where they’ve had to think about people other than themselves and white suburbia.”
Shepherd, a junior, said she had believed BYU would be more diverse than she found it to be: Often, the only Black or biracial face on campus she saw was her own. A phenomenon she and a slew of commenters have noticed is the tendency for interviewees to express strong stances on issues they seem unable to explain — such as supporting or opposing critical race theory despite not knowing what critical race theory is.
She said she hopes the Menaces’ videos will help catalyze change at the university, although she’s doubtful much progress will occur within her lifetime. To Shepherd, persuading the older generations who lead the church to reconsider deep-rooted ideas that perpetuate bigotry is like trying to teach an old dog new tricks. But it’s worth trying, she said, even if it feels like pulling teeth.
“I think new ideas will come and things will eventually be forced to change,” Shepherd said. “Because you can only make people feel isolated so long before they just start to go somewhere else. And the reality of it is BYU is going to still want students, so if they want students, they’re going to change.”
CORRECTION (April 12, 2022, 12:30 a.m. ET): A previous version of this article misstated when Brigham Young University issued a report on race, equity and belonging. It issued the report in February 2021, not this February.