What follows is an informal research project of a group of seminary students. While it may not adhere to scientific research or survey standards in its precision, scope, or sample size, it is worthwhile for its anecdotal and particular insight into race and racism. The strength of this project lies in its desire to seek out the stories of African American faculty, students, and staff, offering an opportunity to share their experience and insight into race and racism in a particular Christian community. These small case studies were modeled after Michael Emerson and Christian Smith’s book, Divided by Faith.
All of the respondents were a part of a conservative multidenominational Protestant seminary, as faculty, students, or staff. They varied in age, gender, and marital status. The research was done using an interview format, using four key questions:
- Describe 2 or 3 instances when you experienced racism on campus?
- What do you think were the 2 or 3 attributing factors? What actions did you take (was it reported? was there reconciliation? etc.)
- If you haven’t experienced racism on campus, what do you think is the reason for that?
- If you had a platform in front of the entire student body and faculty, what would you like the seminary community to learn from your experience or your thoughts on racism?
We share the findings and major themes of the students’ interviews below. Consider the case study of these stories and this particular Christian community.
Subtle not overt racism
One of the major issues that we found was a common answer to question 1 that stated our respondents had not had any “blatant” racism directed towards them, but all had experiences of subtle, almost covert, experiences of racism. Based on the group we interviewed, it seems that racism is underneath the surface of our daily lives and conversations. There is no way to see it from afar, but it is experienced in the hearts of those who are dealing with it.
Curriculum lacks racial awareness and history
There were 2 respondents currently living in the residential apartments who had parents in the Civil Rights Movement, and for them, they have seen overt racism aimed directly at them. However, their children’s experiences tell a different story. It was out of this context that they brought us to our next major sub theme which is that this subtle racism seems to be in our literature (or lack there-of) and our curriculum. There tends to be very little that is included on black history and specifically black church history. Even when it comes to other races, there is very little about the church in other cultural contexts.
One respondent noted that there seems to be nothing on Dr. King in our church history classes. This person was quoted as saying “If they don’t know the truth, how will they be able to treat and help reconcile other people?” This truth that seems to be lacking is a truth about what has happened in the United States and the black race and its churches. Many times we are not seeing this information presented in extensive format, and it leaves many feeling that they are not appreciated or that they are not being taught the full scope of the Evangelical/Christian history.
Others noted that courses were vastly different on this campus and at the branch campus in a local city, which focuses on urban ministry. It seems that more church history and African American studies are being brought to the urban campus, but don’t quite make it to the main campus. This presents a sense of not only unfairness, but that this campus is not concerned with sharing this bit of history with its students. Although we cannot speculate as to the actual reason, the sense is that there is a lack of ownership being taken on what is taught to the students. This has become a huge draw back and has left distaste in the mouths of African Americans who are studying here.
Others responded to us saying that mandatory classes on reconciliation should be offered and there needs to be more of an effort in providing this to students. We are blessed to have one class on Racial and Ethnic Identities and Reconciliation, but this is hardly enough to serve the whole school. There is a desire for more diversity in the curriculum and the hope is that this might be rectified to bring about a better understanding of the racial issues that plague the campus.
One thought that was mentioned in these conversations was that there might be an idea that non-white professors who could teach such classes might not fit the mold of the seminary. A faculty member respondent echoed this; but it can be a two-sided coin. It might also stem from the hiring process. If hiring committees were more diverse, it could potentially fix some of the issues that are present in our current curriculum.
Now, some staffers on campus have mentioned that the selection committee tends to be all one race and gender, creating a one-sided approach to hiring for a specific office or position. Just looking at the current make up of our administration, we notice that only 3 members are African American. Clearly there is a lack of diversity present. But it could be from how the hiring process is played out, as our faculty member described. From this we noticed that two respondents said similar things: that as African Americans are hired into specific positions, there tends to be an attitude of “You want my color but not my kind” (the idea being that you want me for the diversity that I bring, but you don’t want what might come with that). This can deter people from wanting to work for the institution, leading us to having such unequal numbers of black faculty, staff, and students here on campus. We sensed that what our respondents were talking about was an institutional exclusivity that, though it may go undiscussed, seems to be a result of this. It can be noticed in the people that speak in our campus forums, or the people hired that are not from very diversified backgrounds. One respondent put it as ‘those that might make any waves in this institution are usually not considered, given the current make up of [this seminary]’. Clearly, what our respondent wants us to realize was that staff need to begin to discuss the real issues behind the lack of black recruitment and students. This isn’t an issue we can continue to go to black students and get answers. It might be time to check our own ignorance and understanding to help improve the overall diversity of the campus.
Avoidance vs. Engagement with racial issues
Another major sub theme we found amongst our respondents was that many tend to find avoidance as a part of their reaction to racial issues, while others found that they try to engage and would love the opportunity to avoid a situation. This was in conjunction with the 3rd question we asked to our interviewees with regard to their racial experience and why or why not it happened.
One respondent told us that many times it is so he can protect himself, thus he withdraws. He was quoted as saying “When I go work out or go anywhere, I make sure I am not walking behind a white woman”. This shows that there is a sense that is inherent of avoiding confrontation at all costs. Some will stay home on weekends, avoid certain areas of the campus or of South Hamilton, and others will just not put themselves in questionable scenarios.
As we began discussing this commonality, we began to ask if this was just a male and female thing or if gender had any part to play at all. Interestingly enough, gender was a major aspect, and it seems that the women we interviewed had more experiences of engagement in their conversations about racism. Males tended to regress while women were seen to try and engage this conversation. Our women respondents noted they tended to not get the engagement from the other end, or from other races. This was evident in their interactions with those on campus and thus, we found that our gender can play into our overall experience but more importantly how we react to that experience. Yet, within the black culture, there tends to already be these discussions going on, but when it comes to stepping outside of this, there is a sense that some want to avoid, while others try and engage but get no reaction at all.
There also was a sense of the issue of stereotypes that plays into this avoidance and non-avoidance that we saw. African Americans across our panel were always looking at how they are perceived by other races and other people and those stereotypes tend to reflect on us as individuals. They revolve around the everyday lives of those we talked to and it seems that this plays into the ability to engage with others and sometimes the reason why there is avoidance. Black women noted that they do not want to be labeled as being loud, but many were not trying to come off as this way. In part, they were only being true to who they were, yet others have perceived them as loud without ever knowing them initially. Yet, our African respondent put it to us like this “Black males are seen as more like Malcolm and less like Dr. King”. He responds to this by trying to wear slacks and a nice shirt in his classes, so that his perception is not misconstrued. This is not an uncommon reality for many black students and the difficulty is in breaking these stereotypes that are already present despite anything African Americans have done. The idea of one’s “Blackness” seems to be what fuels this and how that blackness can be in question when compared to others who are different, or how other people perceive the blackness of another individual. One respondent actually had a staff member and superior who looked over him and did not notice the color of his skin when discussing African American recruitment practices in the workplace. It was difficult to get over, but the only reaction that seemed appropriate was to avoid confrontation and let the issue fizzle out. In doing this, the respondent’s blackness was trampled on at the cost of one’s identity, and this story is not uncommon. To many times this same issue happens and the identity of the African American male and female gets belittled and degraded.
We saw this in some of the stories we heard by one respondent who had specific things said to them. At one point, a student on campus came up and said that black folks were “scary and intimidating”. This type of rhetoric can be infuriating to African Americans but what we realized is that specific to this seminary, this type of discussion takes place in areas as small and insignificant as the lunch tables. Too many times we hear of the lunch tables as being populated based on race and color and origin, but what we heard was astounding with regard to some of the comments made. Lunch tables, thus, are a microcosm of the racial hate that gets spewed about but that creates such animosity amongst one another. We had some of the following stated by staff members to students:
“This is the black table”
“Hey, there are black people coming to campus, get ready for them”
One faculty member speaking to a student: “I don’t know how to talk to black people”
“Black preachers are ignorant”
It seems that what people are doing is more of a subtle type of racism, which relates to our major theme (that no blatant racism has occurred, but off hand comments have been the norm at the seminary). This led us to realize that many people do not pay attention to what they say or care how they might offend people. These types of comments, present on a Christian campus, point to an issue of racism that we do not see but tend to let slip by to avoid what may come from correcting individuals.
What we also noticed from question #3 that several respondents seemed not to notice racism before coming to campus because of the community they were in. At times, depending on our previous context, we may not be exposed to such issues, and thus our community can protect us from some hate and slander that is on the surface. Depending on the connections we make with people, we may never interact with racism in any form. This can be good and bad but tends to lead those who have not experienced it to react both with apprehension and confusion. Thus, when asked if they have experienced racism, respondents may not call it racism, but they have experienced a form of it that is all too common for others. In all, there seems to be an underlying issue that racism stems not from direct hate, but from an even more potent problem: the ignorance of decent individuals.
Racism fueled by ignorance
One of the last major themes we noted was the large amount of ignorance based on many of our respondents’ experiences. People here, as one respondent discussed, “want to appear as Christian until there are heated conversations and then we see true colors come out”. What causes much of this ignorance is not understanding the cultural context and historical background of another race. This isn’t just with African Americans and white people, but many we interviewed would mention that Asian American groups on campus had issues with blacks and thus there was a fear of engaging with the culture. There was an assumption that all blacks were from the city, or urban, or ghetto, or a host of other ignorant type of conjectures. It is from this level of ignorance that we found many of our stories seemed to overlap. If those people who interacted with our respondents had been more aware and culturally sensitive, issues might not have surfaced. Ignorance seemed to be the largest divider, and thus the way to find unity in our diversity was to eliminate the ignorance that seemed to crop up in each and every story we heard.
Conclusions and Suggestions
From all that we heard and observed we were amazed, and at times, bewildered. We realized that racism is still a really big problem on this campus. Yet, we couldn’t walk away without hearing, what we found to be some really great insight into how we might fix this problem. Although we can’t fix things overnight, one respondent did give us some great quotes that we want to share here. He states:
“Race and Christianity are like 2 strands of hair braided together.”
“Union with Christ has ethical consequences. Private religion will get no one anywhere.”
“Reconciliation is the ministry of the church to the world. It won’t come politically but will come theologically.”
In part, he is spot on with the assessment of where we currently stand and what needs to be done. Race and Christianity are bound together and we can’t un-break that bond. If we do, clearly we will not be able to get to the reconciliation that is necessary in the church. Race is interwoven into the gospel, and the reality is that Jesus (being of mixed identity) came for not just one group of people, but for all: for any race, and any diverse background. Thus, we cannot see Christianity as not having something to do with race in today’s racialized world.
Secondly, when we are in Christ, we should realize that He came and upended many of the ethical ideas common in the 1st century. Why wouldn’t it be any different today? Continuing to stay in our cocoon of privacy on the issue of race, with just a few being outspoken, we will never reach the king of solution that we desire. Thus, it is up to the church to reach the world, and not through political jargon and laws, but through a constructed and solid theology rooted in the gospel.
With just a few quotes, we can see some solutions to our racial problem. Yet, as another respondent mentioned, the resilience of the African American church has been amazing, and it should be noted that through two awakenings, slavery, and years of oppression; black culture and the African American church continue to thrive like never before. Thus, we should not consider this racism in our midst a defeat, but an opportunity for change to begin.
Finally, we feel (as with any change), there will be some who are opposed to a new way of thinking about race. Many times we have been so used to our familiar ways of looking at race through our own lenses that we forget about the bigger picture; God is looking to bring the gospel to every nation, and that means for us to do His work, we must step across the line of our own culture and into another. Hearing these respondents bring their stories to life, we clearly have some work to do. One respondent sums up how our hearts need to be attuned to the change. He stated to us, “If we have trouble getting away from our homogenous people groups, then we will miss the train of what God is doing in the world.” Sadly, there are some who don’t even want a ticket for that train, but God is moving in a direction. We either say ‘yes’ to Him, or ‘no’ and walk away. With or without us, God will move and bring about His plan, but if we want to be part of it, we need to realize how we can better be joined together in unity to be vessels that can be used by God. From what we have heard and witnessed, even our own seminary is far from perfect. But God can use bad for good. Although we need work in our racial makeup and systemic discrimination, if we begin to step out of our own comfort zones, God can work with and on us to bring about the change necessary to make our communities better places and more unified through diversity.
Questions for Reflection and Discussion
- What are your initial reactions to the stories and insights shared here? Is there anything that surprised, saddened, or angered you? Was there anything you particularly resonated with?
- How do the stories shared either encourage or challenge you?
- Why do you think racial divides and racism persist, even within a Christian community? How can these factors be counteracted?
- Think of your own context. How does racism play out there? What can you do to be a voice for unity and reconciliation?
- It is through these simple but empowering conversations, such as the ones captured by these students, that we are able to look toward some solutions of how we can work out racial undertones, and work at bringing more unity despite (and with) our diversity. One of the best ways to find unity is through the telling of stories.
- In order to improve the racial climate, we must seek and create opportunities for conversations. By honestly discussing the good and the bad, we can reach an understanding. By being honest and learning to listen we found common ground. Establishing small groups, forums, meeting places, and ways of just having times of discussion is an important step to make this possible This cannot be done by just one individual but needs to be a collective effort.
- There seems to be an underlying issue that racism in this Christian context stems not from direct hate, but from an even more potent problem: the ignorance of decent individuals. This can be counteracted through intentional efforts to learn and to teach and through efforts to build relationships across racial divides.
Dustin Ward, Jefferey (Adam) Jones, and Denicia Ratley, Spring 2016© 2018 CYS