Moving Forward Together
Nate Risdon, Alexander Jun, Allison Ash, and Pete Menjares
Editor’s note: This is the second of a two-part series on how white faculty, staff, and administrators can address issues of diversity and inclusion on their campuses. The first article, “A Call to Listen, Respond, and Connect“, focused primarily on recommendations for individuals.
It was unusual to get a call from his older sister this early in the morning, so Oscar knew it must be important. The news was devastating: Their mother had been picked up by U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents. Oscar and his family had immigrated to the U.S. illegally when Oscar was a child. Now, in his first year as a college student, Oscar faced a significant crisis that threatened not only his academic success but also his main emotional support system – his family. At the same time, university leaders were having conversations on whether the campus could continue to educate students like Oscar because of the changing political climate.
At another campus, the vice president for student life received an early morning call from Sheila, one of the leaders on the student assembly and an active member of the campus’s Black Student Union. She had returned from the library the night before to find a malicious note, which included slurs against her racial identity, taped to her door. Sheila was angered by the note and worried about her safety, and she wondered what actions the university would take.
On a third campus, Albert attended his first residence hall meeting. As the students went around the room introducing themselves to one another, Albert shared his name and where he grew up; the resident assistant stopped and asked Albert to clarify where he was “really from.” Confused, Albert – a fourth-generation Chinese-American – repeated that he was from San Francisco. The RA again repeated the question; this time, Albert replied, “China.” Albert would have similar conversations in his classes with professors and students for the next four years of his college career. These racial microaggressions – brief but commonplace behavioral or verbal slights directed toward people of color, intentionally or otherwise – were disturbing on their own, but as the comments added up over time, Albert felt marginalized and wondered if he could be part of the community.
These stories are hypothetical, but they resonate because they could easily happen on one of our Christian college campuses. Some create potential administrative or media crises; others are everyday occurrences that are nonetheless harmful to members of our communities. Is there anything we can do in advance to keep these situations from happening? How are we to speak or act in such situations, especially when remaining silent may place our students, our communities, and our institutions in harm’s way?
This article is the second of our two-part series on how white faculty, staff, and administrators can address issues of racial diversity and inclusion on their campuses. In the first article, we discussed our research on white leaders who engaged in anti-racism efforts at CCCU campuses; we identified the common and practical factors that propelled them to pursue that work, as well as how those factors could be useful for other leaders interested in learning more. In this article, we are examining what institutions as a whole ought to keep in mind as they engage this work. Whether they are facing an unexpected crisis from an act of racial violence on campus, or whether they are proactively educating the campus community about everyday things like microaggressions, we believe it is important for leaders at Christian institutions to act in solidarity with their sisters and brothers of color who find themselves targeted by damaging actions or words.
As we in Christian higher education engage in these important and difficult conversations, we must make sure we are on the same page about terms being used. Thus, our research team defines “solidarity” as part of the work to dismantle racism as it is manifested on college campuses. Leaders need not always agree on every aspect of what, where, when, or how this work of racial justice ought to be pursued, but they should all agree on why we ought to pursue it.
Further, our team defines solidarity as an act of love for neighbor based on the central commandment of the Gospel as described in Mark 12. In response to a question posed by a teacher of the law about the most important commandment, Jesus says:
The most important one is this: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one. Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and with all your strength.” The second is this: “Love your neighbor as yourself.”
Thus, our solidarity is based in our love for neighbor that goes beyond race, ethnicity, social standing, socio-economic status, or religious tradition. But how, exactly, can we begin to follow this command to love and support our sisters and brothers of color and stand against those who subvert this commandment through racist words, microaggressions, and threats?
Know Thyself: Understanding Our Strengths and Weaknesses
As we consider these words of Jesus, we cannot ignore the final injunction: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” If we are called to love our neighbor, it is critical that we understand who we are – flaws and all. Key to this is understanding our racial and ethnic identities.
Research has shown that many white evangelical Christians do not take the necessary steps toward a deeper self-awareness in the area of race and ethnicity, which makes engaging with issues of racial diversity and inclusion challenging. Our research and experience argue that though such a journey is difficult, it is profoundly rewarding, because it builds a richer awareness and appreciation of how our society, education, family, religious community, and friends have shaped us. Over time, each of these influences has added layers of identity that we draw from (consciously or unconsciously) to make sense of our surroundings; of the people we meet; of the daily decisions we make. A lack of awareness – particularly a lack of awareness of racial identity – can cripple our development into the healthy, whole people God intends each of us to be.
In our last article, we discussed the idea of understanding the social construct of whiteness, which has created a system of power and privilege through social practices, systems, and norms that made white culture the standard by which other racial constructs were judged. This means that though people of color are continually reminded they are not part of the majority, most white people have not had to consider their racial identity. As a result, when white leaders face the challenge of considering racial identity, they tend to retreat from the difficult – if not distressing – work of understanding whiteness as a social construct.
In our experience, common responses from white leaders addressing these constructs include, “I just don’t want to say the wrong thing,” or “I can’t seem to say or do anything right, so I don’t want to become involved.” These statements reflect what scholar Robin DiAngelo, a white woman*, describes as “white fragility,” which is “a state in which even a minimum amount of racial stress becomes intolerable, triggering a range of defensive moves.”
Now, we want to acknowledge the tension in using the term “white fragility.” We know from our collective experiences that the use of certain words like “fragility” challenges comfort levels; indeed, the white writers on our team have been – and will continue to be – challenged by their own fragility. This is precisely why we are writing about it – not because we want to make people uncomfortable, but because we believe God has called us to engage these challenging ideas that damage the body of Christ, which is inherently both uncomfortable and important. We do not take word choices lightly; know that we struggle with how to speak truth to power, and we struggle with how to speak truth in love.
In the course of our research and experience, we have found that many white people who work in anti-racism advocacy have faced their own white fragility along the way. Since they rarely faced significant racial stress before, they had not had the opportunity, as DiAngelo describes, to “build the cognitive or affective skills or develop the stamina that would allow for constructive engagement” in difficult racial matters. Thus, when they face these moments of racial stress, they instinctively engage in attitudes and behaviors that attempt to reinstitute the equilibrium they are used to feeling. This can happen in situations that range from, for example, people of color speaking unguardedly about their experiences of racism to white people being told their words were racially hurtful, unintentionally or otherwise.
We know there are white Christians who have attempted to engage in racial justice or reconciliation but have given up because of conflict and pain they have felt along the way. But we encourage these leaders to consider the reality of white fragility – not as an indictment but rather as an explanation of why this conflict can become so difficult and painful so quickly. For those who have never been exposed to regular discussions about race or who have never explored their own racial identity, conversations on these topics can be jarring and disruptive. The process can become even more painful if one learns that an attempt to help actually caused more hurt. It’s easy for a white leader to throw up his hands and say, “I just can’t do anything right.” In their new book White Out, Alexander Jun (leader of our research team) and Chris Collins have dubbed this feeling as “White 22” – you are white if you do, and white if you don’t.
However, if we consider this reality of “white fragility,” white leaders can choose to stay engaged in the difficult racial realities that are present in everyday life for many in their communities and fight the temptation to retreat when feeling discouraged. Like most calls for change, leaders will face significant challenges and see both surprising successes and unexpected failures. Regardless, we must be bold and take courage, knowing that God is with us and will not forsake us. Both successes and failures are opportunities for growth as we listen to the wisdom of those around us and those who have gone before us in this work.
Healthy solidarity work begins first with knowing ourselves, but equally important is understanding how the social construction of whiteness has privileged and continues to privilege white society – often without white people fully realizing it.
It is important to remember what is meant by “privilege” here. After all, some may feel that any privilege that existed for whites is long gone. However, what is meant by “privilege” here is not economic status (though that can be part of it). Rather, it refers to how most of our society still measures everyday interactions, relationships, and occurrences through the lens of white normativity – that is, the unconscious cultural concepts and practices that make whiteness, or white culture, appear “normal,” and thus cause us to judge things by this unstated and hidden set of norms.
For example, some may long for “the good ol’ days” and wonder why nostalgia has negative connotations for others. A third-generation Japanese-American Christian’s response can be helpful to consider: “Some of your ‘good ol’ days’ were the days that my grandparents were ‘relocated’ to internment camps and lost all of their possessions in the process.”
The history of the United States is full of moments where systemic oppression ensured the social construct of whiteness continued to be the norm by which everyone else was expected to conform. It is painful to study these dark aspects of our history, especially those where the church has been involved. But in order to successfully engage today’s issues, we must face these evils of our past while keeping in mind our trust in the providence, grace, and love of God to help us understand these realities.
Recognizing the Problem of ‘Civility’
For much of America’s history, people of color were expected to act respectfully and civilly to the white majority. Today, people of color are more emboldened to speak out when they observe attempts to oppress, marginalize, criminalize, or stereotype them. As a result, many leaders – most of whom are in the white majority – call for “more civil dialogue” in order to avoid labeling and hurt feelings. Though it is true that civility is crucial for meaningful discussion, our research and experience indicate that this critique disproportionately targets voices speaking out against racism. In the December 2016 issue of The Atlantic, writer Vann Newkirk argued that:
If calling out racism is largely counterproductive, using a systemic definition like white supremacy is also unacceptable, and stigmatizing or shaming those who espouse racist beliefs is self-defeating, what tools remain? The only form of productive debate that people of color can engage in, it seems, is the gentle persuasion of white people who may or may not hold retrograde views.
Some argue that this insistence on tone-policing is another sign of the white fragility that can make it difficult for us to engage in these topics. People of color who have legitimate grievances must express their deeply felt pain in a way that is more palatable to “fragile ears.”
Jun, our team leader, once heard from a white colleague who shared an honest reflection about his inability to listen to people who shout about victimization and admitted he would be willing to listen only if people were more civil in their tone. Unfortunately, he did not state that he would be willing to challenge himself to listen to others in spite of their tone. In other words, his default position was that other people needed to change the way they spoke, rather than that he needed to change the way he listened.
While there is certainly something to be said about civil discussion, the notion of civility also reveals a problematic ideology about the way discourse ought to occur. In many instances, “civility” is a coded message used by those in authority to signal that the real concerns, hurts, and pains of people of color will only be heard once they calm down. But even seemingly civil acts of protest, such as NFL quarterback Colin Kaepernick’s decision to kneel during the national anthem, have been met with critique and disdain. So it would stand to reason that “civility” may not be the issue some people have – rather, the idea of white fragility again is at the core of this resistance.
How to Move Forward
Colleges and universities in the CCCU are predominately staffed by white faculty, staff, and administrators, and the diversity of those employed by our institutions has not kept pace with the increase in student diversity over the last decade. As of 2014 (the most recent data available), the proportion of non-white students in the CCCU is at 28 percent, whereas the percentage of non-white faculty is just under 10 percent. Students increasingly express a desire for faculty who share their ethnic and/or racial characteristics and understand their socio-cultural contexts. They also expect faculty to be culturally literate, advocate for racial equity, and address microaggressions. If our institutions are to be equipped to engage in these issues, all campus leaders should have professional development around matters of diversity and inclusion, intercultural understanding, and culturally sensitive pedagogy.
Fortunately, there are numerous opportunities and approaches available to equip faculty and administrators with the skills needed to do this well, in addition to growing in their personal racial and ethnic awareness and developing intercultural proficiency. Pete Menjares, CCCU senior fellow for diversity, has utilized a number of proven strategies to develop white leaders who are intentional about growing personally and professionally in these areas:
- Join a professional learning community. These communities focus on increasing intercultural awareness and competence in racial justice through participation in a cohort with campus peers. When strategically balanced across gender and ethnic/racial characteristics, the cohort can provide white faculty and staff with intentional opportunities for holistic development. With the help of a skillful facilitator, these groups support individual growth needs in a way that is collegial and Christ-centered, and they create safe, non-judgmental places for members to be honest in exploring these difficult concepts.
- Engage with diverse cultures near your campus. Virtually every institution in the CCCU has opportunities to explore diverse cultures, people groups, and communities around their campuses. Building relationships with these communities; participating in excursions to cultural centers or exhibits; walking through diverse neighborhoods to take in their rich sights, sounds, and smells; and attending an ethnic church can all be powerful learning experiences. However, it is important to make sure to move beyond mere appreciation of cultural differences by learning about the unique challenges experienced by these communities.
- Engage with peers from other CCCU schools. Professional development events like the CCCU Diversity Conference or the upcoming 2018 CCCU International Forum (which will feature specific sessions devoted to this work) offer opportunities to engage with colleagues in a setting focused on serving the intercultural needs of those in Christian higher education. Additionally, regional colloquia and conferences are expanding their professional development offerings to meet the needs of white faculty and staff interested in engaging in this work.
- Continue reading. There is a growing number of excellent books and materials on diversity written by Christians from diverse racial and ethnic backgrounds. One can either read alone or join a reading group to process what is being read and test ideas together. The point is to read broadly, think critically, develop self-awareness, and be challenged personally, as well as to grow in your understanding of others’ perspectives and experiences unlike your own.
- Seek out a mentor or cultural guide. There are few things more important to the growth and development of white leaders than having a trusted mentor or “cultural guide” in navigating this journey. Whether a mentor of color or a white colleague who is further along in the process, we benefit from being in relationship with someone who is more knowledgeable, experienced, and wise in racial matters and the work of anti-racism.
- Remain spiritually engaged. The multicultural journey must be taken with prayer, the reading of Scripture, personal worship, journaling, and an occasional spiritual retreat. This work is difficult; it’s even more difficult if we forget to focus on God, who has called us to it. We must remember that it is God who is reconciling all things to himself (Colossians 1:20) and that the work of reconciliation is something in which we are invited to participate (II Corinthians 5:17-20).
This article is a call to move forward in both rhetoric and action. We ask you to join in solidarity with those who seek justice for people of color on our campuses. Scripture reminds us that God expects his people to care for the oppressed. As we consider how to do this work, we find both encouragement and challenge in the words of Jesus from the gospel of Matthew:
Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?” The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”
Nate Risdon is the program director for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA). His research and writing focus on racial justice and equity in Christian higher education. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Alexander Jun is a professor of higher education at Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA). He is the author of numerous publications, including the book White Out: Understanding White Privilege and Dominance in the Modern Age. Contact him at email@example.com.
Allison Ash is dean of student care and graduate student life at Wheaton College (Wheaton, IL). She also researches and writes in the areas of race and diversity in Christian higher education. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Pete Menjares is the senior director of the Institute for Faculty Development at Vanguard University (Costa Mesa, CA) and the CCCU Senior Fellow for Diversity. Contact him at email@example.com or via the web at www.petemenjares.com.
*We debated whether to mention DiAngelo’s ethnicity–not to hide that she is white, but rather to affirm that her words are powerful and insightful regardless of the race, ethnicity, and gender of the speaker. We wondered: Will knowing that a white person stated these words lend just a little more credibility to them? Should that even make a difference–is this not the very thinking we are trying to combat? The fact that we spent significant time discussing this suggested it would be worthwhile to mention her ethnicity (in the spirit of encouraging white brothers and sisters to speak up), as well as mention both this discussion and our debate over the use of the term “white fragility” (to highlight that nothing about these topics is “easy”).