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A Call to Listen, Respond and Connect

Learning from the stories of white Christians who support racial justice in the CCCU

Editor’s Note: This is the first of a two-part series on how white faculty, staff and administrators can address issues of diversity and inclusion on their campuses. This article focuses primarily on recommendations for individuals; the next article in Spring 2017 will discuss steps institutions as a whole can take.

It was a moment that should have been satisfying. 

Thanks to his relationships with students on campus, Brian* had become aware of the struggles some of them were facing that detracted from their studies and their participation in campus life. And thanks to his role as a student life administrator, Brian knew he had the ability to work with his fellow leaders to address those issues.

Brian and his team had put together a presentation outlining the concerns the students had raised. He thought that by the end of the presentation, his colleagues would be just as concerned about these issues as the student life team was, even if they hadn’t figured out a way to address all of the issues yet. Instead, the vast majority of the people in the room shut down and stopped listening.

The topic presented at the meeting? Concerns about issues of racism on campus against students of color.

For Brian, a white man,** the lack of interest from those in the room – mostly fellow white men – was disheartening, and he realized that some of his colleagues in the campus administration held deeply rooted suspicions of anti-racism efforts, while others who wanted to engage in that same work feared a perception that they were “somehow sacrificing our Christian identity by challenging our culture.” 

Brian’s experience points to bigger questions: How can we address the difficult realities related to race and diversity on Christian campuses? What role do white administrators currently play, and how can they be better prepared to respond appropriately and adequately when those issues do arise on their campuses?

Our Study 

In early 2013, our team of higher education scholars at Azusa Pacific University in Azusa, California, began researching racial justice in Christian higher education. The team is led by Alexander Jun, a professor of higher education at APU who has been conducting research on diversity related issues for the past 15 years. Jun is a TED speaker and a prolific writer on issues of postsecondary access for historically underrepresented students in underserved areas. Utilizing his expertise in this new project, we conducted our research under a guiding principle: Racism is not just a problem for students or leaders of color – it is everyone’s problem.

Though white Christian administrators (the majority of leadership in Christian higher education) are key players in addressing racism, little research had previously focused on those who are engaged in anti-racism efforts on their campuses and in their communities. Our team wanted to explore the experiences, awareness and engagement of these administrators in their work to see how and why some have come to see racism on campus as a critical topic to address.

Our driving question in this narrative study was, “What characterizes the experiences of white administrators from Christian institutions of higher education within the United States who chose to engage in anti-racism programs, activities and initiatives?” Our focus on these particular narratives was on the struggles of whites involved in anti-racism advocacy; however, this is not meant to distract from or compare their struggles with those of students and faculty of color who regularly experience racism and corresponding ambivalence on their campuses. By sharing stories like Brian's from our research, we hope to equip white higher education leaders in their own diversity and inclusion work, as well as create a point of relation we can all identify with. If nothing else, we all understand the frustration of sharing an issue we care about with an audience that does not hold the same concerns. 

What We Found

Documenting and learning from the journeys of these individuals revealed significant narrative patterns: a time of awakening to the issues; a time of growth in understanding the issues and experiences of others of color; and a time of burgeoning anti-racism activism. It also revealed the paradoxical role of faith in anti-racism efforts by white administrators: Faith compelled them to action, and faith was a perceived factor in the lack of support from their institutions.

“There’s this tension at [my institution], and I think it’s in evangelicalism as well, going back maybe 50 years to social gospel and this old debate that is outdated,” Brian said in his interview. That tension, he theorized, is what led to his colleagues’ suspicions of the anti-racism work his team and others were doing. Brian was not alone; this tension was an experience many participants shared.

For Brian, who sees his work as an ally as a strengthening of his Christian practice and faith, the aftermath of that failed meeting where his colleagues shut down disheartened him: “I was just a little more wary of speaking out [about] ideas that might seem to be threatening, even though I wouldn’t have thought them to be [threatening] to this faith tradition at all.”

Thanks to the common issues and recurring themes experienced by those interviewed in our research, we have developed some practical ideas to help administrators work as anti-racist allies on their campuses. These suggestions are geared toward white administrators who desire to become allies; however, they may also be helpful to others who want to encourage white allies on their campuses or know someone who might need a small nudge from awareness to activism.

Recognize and Address Privilege

We encourage Christian educators to begin by exploring the difference between identification as a white person and the social construct of whiteness, which 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 most of the time, white people – including white Christians at faith-based institutions – have not had to consider their racial identity, whereas people of color have constant reminders that they are not part of the dominant white majority, most often to their detriment.

Recognizing privilege does not mean white persons should abandon their white identity; nor does it mean that one intentionally sought to be privileged. However, part of developing a complete understanding of one’s white identity should include recognizing both the benefits gained from systemic privilege and the unbiblical nature of that privilege, as it comes at the expense of other people of color and is antithetical to God’s design of human value.  

Once an ally has acknowledged that this privilege exists, however, they must continue to both recognize its pervasiveness in society and in their own views of the world, and they must remain committed to combat it. As Melanie, another study participant, described, working as an anti-racist ally is a “deep commitment” to constant growth, learning and active participation. She recognized that certain systems have taken years to build and they cannot be undone quickly.

An important part of this is talking about it with others. One administrator, Brad, described a difficult, but necessary activity his supervisor required for all of his employees. “We would have monthly caucuses, [where] white people and people of color get together, and people have honest dialogue about internalized racial oppression and internalized racial superiority – how we see it in our lives.” The goal was for these sessions to provide a safe space for such dialogue. Equally important was the discussion follow-up; he described a system of accountability in which participants would keep each other accountable to what was said following these meetings, maintaining relationships with each other and engagement in the work. 

Foster Cross-Cultural Dialogue and Build Community

It is essential for allies to establish cross-cultural relationships and actively seek ways to support and recognize the value of all members of the community. Many times, these conversations will be difficult, but we believe that God can move mightily in such a setting. By anticipating challenging conversations, we can enter into them with openness, humility and a generous spirit.

If all participants remain committed to wrestling honestly through difficult dialogues, the bonds that form will build and strengthen a community of people dedicated to building diversity and addressing racism. This is vital, as one reality for both white allies and leaders of color is that this work can be very lonely at times. Building community and fostering dialogue with colleagues in this area will help. For Neil, that support came from his supervisor: “That definitely makes me feel safe to be an advocate because he, too, is an advocate, and he’s certainly going to support me in that.”

This kind of support is key. Those working toward anti-racism need fellow allies and support inside in their institutions in order to make things happen and to provide an immediate safe place to talk. There also needs to be a support system from those off campus. By connecting with others from other campuses doing similar work, everyone can see similar struggles at other institutions, share ideas, encourage each other, offer advice and keep each other accountable.

Keep the Right Approach

Anyone working as an anti-racist ally must approach this work by remembering that it is not charity. In this instance, operating out of charity is still a perspective framed by privilege based on a dominant/subordinate framework and can be fueled by guilt, which will not sustain this work.

For Christians, the foundation of this work is found in faith. As Brad described, his motivation for racial justice work was inseparable from his Christian theology: “If [racial justice] is what real faith looks like, then something had to be different in the way I was teaching, in the way I was leading, in the way I was living.” When Brad understood that his Christian faith was leading him to engage in matters of justice, he felt as though his entire way of life had to change. 

Pay Attention to Your Community

Pay attention to what is happening on campus. Is it safe? When do students of color face microagressions or explicit racism, and from whom? What is happening in the surrounding community? In the city? In the country? How are troubling events affecting students? 

Initially, Neil had a somewhat rosy picture of the climate on his campus for students, faculty and staff of color. Over time, some students of color he worked with began to trust him because of his active commitment to being an ally. He made it a priority to pay attention to them and made it clear he valued them, proving his commitment to them. Once trust was established, they began sharing experiences on the campus that were not positive. “People [would] say awful things, or there was a sense of people saying things behind their backs or … looking at [them] strange,” he said. Ultimately, these honest conversations allowed for Neil to better serve as an ally and affect change that benefited both the students and the institution. 

It is important for leaders to pay more attention, to listen better and to recognize their implicit biases which can undermine their ability to pay attention to racism or microaggressions on campus. This is an area where reading can be beneficial. There are books, blogs and scholarly articles with a wide and varying range of perspectives on racial justice; we’ve created a short introductory reading list to help you get started. All of this will equip you to be better informed about our society’s historic struggles with racial constructs, white hegemony, and current issues that have racial undertones.

Recommended Reading
These are books we and other leaders in diversity and inclusion have found most helpful in digging further into some of these topics. They are grouped by theme.

Understanding the Biblical Call for Justice
Generous Justice: How God's Grace Makes Us Just (Timothy Keller)
Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption (Bryan Stevenson***)
The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness (Michelle Alexander)

Understanding Personal Biases and Blindspots
Blindspot: Hidden Biases of Good People (Mahzarin R. Banaji and Anthony G. Greenwald)
White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack (Peggy McIntosh)
What Does It Mean to Be White? Developing White Racial Literacy (Robin DiAngelo)
White Privilege: Essential Readings on the Other Side of Racism (ed. by Paula S. Rothenberg)

Moving Communities Toward Reconciliation
The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change (Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson)
Disunity in Christ: Uncovering the Hidden Forces that Keep Us Apart (Christena Cleveland)

Think Beyond Today

We encourage educators to think about what they want for the next generation, and the generation after that. Working toward change affects the present and the future. These systems that privilege whites to the detriment of others were fortified over centuries; they will not be dismantled overnight. This work is long term, and though we may not see dramatic results in a single lifetime, future generations will benefit from it.

The next generation of higher education leaders needs to understand its role in carrying the torch in the ongoing work of racial justice. For some, this must begin by developing racial awareness and healthy racial identities. White students and white junior colleagues need good modeling, guidance and intentional life examples from seasoned colleagues, sponsors and mentors, especially if racial justice is not practiced or applied in their homes or faith communities. As future leaders, they will stand on the shoulders of those who go before them but will face different challenges. We suggest forming a multi-ethnic, multi-generational group of men and women that meets regularly to discuss the challenges, issues and triumphs of this work so that all become better leaders.

Think Missionally: Not You or Me, but Us

Finally, we encourage white educators to understand that racism is everyone’s problem. White administrators in higher education can back out of this work when it gets tough and focus on other “pressing” issues, but people of color are often the targets of daily racial aggression on college campuses. Working toward anti-racism only when it is convenient is one form of the dominant majority’s privilege.

Many institutions are taking the important step to hire a chief diversity officer (CDO). However, it is important to recognize that the kind of changes that need to occur need the support of more than one person. In describing his institution’s strategic plan regarding diversity and racial justice, Brad admitted that he initially thought that carrying out this portion of the mission was only the concern of the CDO. He later realized that for racial justice work to have widespread effects on his campus, it must be “everyone’s job.” Though he did not carry the title of CDO, he realized that a CDO can be a change agent only if there are allies in every corner of the institution.

An Invitation to Respond

Issues of diversity are complex, with no simple or quick solutions. Our intent with this first article in our series is to begin a dialogue with leaders in higher education based on our research findings. We know that discussions on race and diversity are not easy, and we know we have not addressed everything. Our next article will offer more insight into how this research can be useful for institutional change, but we also want it to be an opportunity to respond to your insights and feedback. Please feel free to contact us using our email addresses below or at editor@cccu.org.

The stories presented here are a glimpse of the larger historical movement toward racial reconciliation and justice in higher education. As Pete Menjares, CCCU’s senior fellow for diversity, has noted, in order to do this work successfully on our campuses we have to “discern the times, seek to understand what God is doing in our world today and courageously follow him into that work.” We encourage you: Read through Scriptures and note how many times God desires justice. Consider the salvific act of the incarnation and death of Christ on the cross. We must challenge ourselves and our colleagues to embrace God’s mandate “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b, NIV).

Three Things You Can Do Next to Advance Racial Reconciliation on Campus
  1. Develop a personal measurable plan to learn more about privilege, white identity, systemic racism and racial reconciliation, like attending a reading group or workshop.
  2. Create an opportunity for those in your department to tell their personal racial/ethnic narrative. You may need the help of someone skilled in facilitating this delicate but transformative exercise. 
  3. Consider an extensive diversity review conducted by a team of people from inside and outside your campus community. Share the results and allow them to guide future initiatives.

* For privacy, all interviewee names have been changed.

** We recognize there is power and, for some, problems with using labels, including "white," but we use them here because they are nonetheless labels used frequently in racial discourse.

*** In the original print article, Bryan Stevenson's name was misspelled. We regret the error.

Nate Risdon is the program director for the Brehm Center at Fuller Theological Seminary (Pasadena, CA). His research and writing focuses on racial justice and equity in Christian higher education. Contact him at naterisdon@fuller.edu.

Alexander Jun is a professor of higher education at Azusa Pacific University (Azusa, CA). He is the author of numerous publications, including the forthcoming book White Out: Understanding White Privilege and Dominance in the Modern Age. Contact him at ajun@apu.edu.

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 allison.ash@wheaton.edu.

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