A Different Kind of LDS Trailblazer: Sebastian Stewart-Johnson Confronts Ignorance through TikTok
Activism, Outreach and Education
Raised a member of the LDS church in Arlington, Texas, Sebastian Stewart-Johnson was urged by his church leaders to attend Brigham Young University. In the fall of 2020, he made his way to Provo, Utah for his freshman year.
“Very quickly, I grew tired of BYU,” Stewart-Johnson says. “After being on campus for a whole semester, that’s when I was like, ‘Wow, y’all are pretty bad at doing things.’” As a Black student on an overwhelmingly white campus, he saw and heard things that shocked him. “Our classmates are being called the N-word [and other] crazy things. We would complain about the Black experience and nobody would listen. There is just an overall apathy and ignorance that are multiplied together, which create silence. And BYU does a pretty good job of keeping people quiet,” says Stewart-Johnson.
“After being on campus for a whole semester, that’s when I was like, ‘Wow, y’all are pretty bad at doing things.’”
He wasn’t the only member of the Black Student Union becoming depressed. One night, after hearing LDS leader and BYU professor Bradley Wilcox deliver a racist speech about Black church members, they decided they needed to do something. Stewart-Johnson and his fellow students filmed a response video to Wilcox’s remarks and posted it on TikTok. They woke up to see the video had 5k views.
A new wave of activism at BYU had begun. Stewart-Johnson suggested the group call itself the “menaces,” a nickname he called his little brother growing up. As Blackness was integral to the creation of the group, the name “Black Menaces” was born.
“Within Mormonism, you’re taught not to speak out and go against what is taught by people. The whole Black Menaces page is pushing back against the status quos that exist.”
The Black Menaces continued filming videos on the BYU Provo campus, exposing the ignorance tied to the belief structure of the institution and LDS Church. “Our fifth video was the most iconic,” says Stewart-Johnson. “I was asking everybody what their favorite thing about BYU was. Basically, every Black person was like, ‘Nothing.’ It was satirical but depressing at the same time. And it hit a million views.” After just a week, the group had amassed 10k followers on TikTok. “It was easy to figure out questions to ask because it was based on lived experience and what we saw on a day-to-day basis,” he says.
In an early video, he approaches students on campus and asks if they can identify a photo of Rosa Parks. “Oh man, I’m going to fail, doggone it,” responds one faculty member after being unable to identify the woman. “I hope I don’t sound stupid if I get it wrong. It’s not Harriet Tubman, is it?” asks a student. Hundreds of users commented on the video in disbelief.
“It was easy to figure out questions to ask because it was based on lived experience and what we saw on a day-to-day basis.”
Stewart-Johnson and the Menaces kept asking questions and expanding their topics: dating as a person of color, the 2020 presidential election, feminism, sexuality, race and abortion. They organized a nationwide protest in which 40 colleges and high schools spoke out against religious universities’ ability to legally discriminate against individuals.
What started as an escape from an isolating culture evolved into a mission for change as the Menaces decided their goal would be to spread awareness and amplify voices for marginalized communities on campus. “Within Mormonism, you’re taught not to speak out and go against what is taught by people. The whole Black Menaces page is pushing back against the status quos that exist,” says Stewart-Johnson.
Today, the Black Menaces’ TikTok page has more than 700k followers and has accrued over 31.5 million likes. The core founders of the group have all left the LDS Church. Stewart-Johnson graduated early and has moved to Salt Lake to continue his advocacy and local leadership work. The 23-year-old is now a full-time content creator and travels across the country to different universities to continue his man-on-the-street style interviews. “There are so many stories and so many college students who are grossly ignorant to reality, either by will or lack of exposure,” he says.
Check out the Black Menaces’ content on TikTok or Instagram @blackmenaces.
Read more features on social justice taking action in Salt Lake City:
Paper Boats: Contemporary Voices From Gaza
Leadership, Education, And Equality: A Conversation with Community Leader Shawn Newell