By Nate Risdon, RJHE Research Associate
Christian higher education institutions are not immune to manifestations of racism and injustice on their campuses. We need only look at recent nationally broadcast stories about a number of well-known Christian higher education institutions to illustrate that these campuses are not impervious to racially charged incidents, injustice, and hostility toward people of color. One could argue that any institution that identifies as a Christian institution should feel compelled by the Gospel message, if not obligated, to address injustice and anti-racism on their campuses. Further, there is a growing consensus among leaders within these institutions that Christians should be leading the efforts to address injustice and anti-racism in the higher education context.
The consistent presence of racism, both overt and hidden, the plague of social injustice, and shifting demographics in the United States demand that these issues be addressed in a thoughtful, thorough way. Our hope and prayer is that White Christian faculty, administrators, and students will no longer wait or merely passively support the movement as their colleagues of color continue to press on, but would heed this kingdom call to get involved as they see it as a Biblical mandate. It is our hope that leaders within Christian higher education will make a commitment to understanding the complex history of race and Christianity and take practical steps toward encouraging anti-racism efforts on their campuses. The following are suggestions for those within Christian higher education to consider regarding anti-racism advocacy. It should be noted that some are directed at White administrators who are on their journey toward racial justice.
1. Recognize the construct of Whiteness. Whiteness is a social construct that works to produce and maintain a “hegemonic Whiteness” that is a position of domination. Historically, Whites maintained a position of power and privilege through social practices, systems, and norms that allowed Whiteness to be the standard by which other racial constructs were judged. For many years, Whites in the general population did not have to consider their racial identity, while other races are constantly reminded that they are not White and never will be. In our society, the normative of Whiteness has afforded Whites economic and social privileges to the detriment of people of color. Frankly, Whiteness is so normal that for many Whites it is very difficult to recognize that it exists. In order to serve as an anti-racist ally, a White person must move beyond recognition of White privilege to develop a healthier White identity.
2. Develop a healthy White Identity. You cannot and should not attempt to abandon your White identity, but a healthy White identity actively works to recognize that you have benefited from systemic privilege throughout your life at the expense of people of color. Further, that this privilege is unbiblical if we consider that all are made in the image of God (Imago Dei). Systemic privilege and White hegemony directly and sinfully challenges God’s desire that we love on another based on the intrinsic value bestowed upon us all by this core identity. You become more human, as God intended you to be, as you work to break down human-made systems that artificially place one human in domination over another. Foster healthy, authentic relationships with people of color professionally and in your faith community. Find ways to support and recognize the value of all around you.
3. Embrace this as your problem. Again, for White administrators in higher education interested in working as an anti-racist ally, know that as a White person, it is relatively easy for you to back out of this work when it may get tough. That is a mark of privilege – as a White person, you don’t have to do this work and can find some other meaningful work that your colleagues will admire and applaud you for doing. Avoid the notion that this is someone else’s problem. It isn’t, it is everyone’s problem.
4. Remember that allyship is not charity. You don’t necessarily have to be out on the front lines of a rally or march, you can be extremely effective in combatting racism by working to deconstruct it in your institutional systems. Being motivated by charity is problematic in that it still is a perspective framed by privilege that is based on dominate/subordinate framework. Charity is also usually fueled by guilt, which is a feeling that will not sustain you in this work. Guilt is just a poor long-term motivator. The true work of allyship is difficult work and must be developed and fostered. It is work that should always be founded in your faith. As another participant in our study described it, his motivation for justice work was inseparable from his Christian theology. “…if that’s [justice] what true religion looks like, that’s 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 he understood that his faith was leading him to engage in matters of justice, he felt as though his entire way of life had to change. His faith gave him strength outside of himself to carry through times when he felt marginalized and discouraged.
5. Begin thinking generationally. You probably already do since you are in higher education, so always consider what you want for your students, for your own children, nieces and nephews, grandchildren, etc. Work toward change that affects the here and now as well as the not yet. These systems that privilege Whites to the detriment of others were built up and fortified over centuries. They will not be dismantled over night. This is long-term work and you may not see dramatic results in your own lifetime, but future generations will benefit from it. Focus on investing in and developing the young people around you. They are the next generation of leaders and they need healthy racial identities. Help them all to recognize their intrinsic value in the eyes of God and the intrinsic value of all those around them. This value is inclusive of the complexity of our identity.
6. Build a community. Find fellow allies and support each other. It can be lonely and you will feel unappreciated at times. If you know of someone who is already doing this work, encourage them, join them, and keep the accountable. This should ideally be people both within your institution and outside. You need fellow allies and support inside in your institution in order to make things happen and to provide an immediate safe place to talk. Note that it may take time for a good sense of mutual trust to build up. You will need allies and support outside your institution to avoid myopia. It helps you see that it isn’t just your institution that is struggling with this. With an outsider’s perspective, you can hear how other institutions have succeeded in fighting injustice and racism. By connecting outside your institution you make it possible to widen your circle of support ten-fold.
7. Read Scripture through the lens of justice. Consider the scriptural canon and use it design a theological and spiritual framework for your social justice anti-racism advocacy. Read through the Bible and note how many times God desires justice. Consider the salvific act of the Incarnation and Jesus’ death on the cross. How do we give balance to our desire for the Good News of the Gospel message with other and working to live out the Christian call to lead our lives on this earth with love and compassion? It is good to acknowledge that this is a paradox in our faith journey, but not one that should stop us from doing what the Lord requires of us, “to act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8b, NIV). Pray for God’s wisdom and leading always.
8. Read, read, read. Books, blogs, and scholarly articles with a wide and varying range of perspectives on racism and social justice different than your own. All of this will help you be better informed about our society’s historic struggles with racial constructs, White hegemony, and current issues that have racial undertones. Here are some suggestions to get you started: White Privilege: essential readings on the other side of racism, edited by Paula S. Rothenberg, Diversity’s Promise for Higher Education: Making It Work by Daryl G. Smith, What Does It Mean to Be White?: Developing White Racial Literacy by Robin DiAngelo, Generous Justice: How God’s Grace Makes Us Just by Timothy Keller, The Heart of Racial Justice: How Soul Change Leads to Social Change by Brenda Salter McNeil and Rick Richardson.
8.5 Our research team has established a great blog that focuses on social justice and anti-racism in Christian Higher Education – Race and Justice in Higher Education.