Amid all the reporting of campus unrest, this quote caught my attention: “I just want it to be the way it was.” That’s what a white University of Missouri student said when interviewed after the turmoil on his campus. The way it was??? How far back would he like to go? To the recent past when black students (and some faculty) felt exhausted because of assumptions based on their skin color? Or when threats to black students were posted anonymously on social media? Or how about when a leading presidential hopeful called the protestors’ demands crazy? Or when truck passengers hurled racial epithets at the black student government president? Maybe he would like to go back to the 1950s when members of my own family thought nothing of racist jokes and encouraged Mayor Orville Hubbard in his longstanding campaign to “Keep Dearborn Clean,” a widely understood veiled campaign to keep the city white?
From a November 11 New York Times article: At first, Briana Gray just chalked up the comments and questions from her new roommate at the University of Missouri to innocent ignorance: “How do you style your hair? What do you put in it?” But then her white roommate from rural Missouri started playing a rap song with a racial slur and singing the slur loudly, recalled Ms. Gray, a black senior from suburban Chicago. Another time, the roommate wondered whether black people had greasy skin because slaves were forced to sweat a lot. Then one day, Ms. Gray said, she found a picture tacked to her door of what appeared to be a black woman being lynched… her roommate said a friend had done it as a joke…
I do not condone rioting and lawlessness, and I am concerned that many students (and adults) want only their own brand of “free speech” as evidenced by this quote from Williams College president Adam Falk: I think that our students, probably more so than previous generations, come to college having been marinated in a media environment that does not foster productive conversations across disagreements. Perhaps it is time to reinstate compulsory (a fire-brand word, I know!) high school study of and participation in debate procedure, or—at the very least—analyzing the meaning of civil discourse. (Perhaps it wouldn’t be a bad idea to extend these opportunities to churches?)
I fear, however, that ignorance of what our black brothers and sisters feel and experience is a place where some white evangelical Christians don’t want to go. It makes us uncomfortable and perhaps even guilty. We assume stereotypes to be truth and don’t stop to examine our own complicity in the promotion of those stereotypes.
This past summer my heart was stirred and my mind challenged after hearing thinker, reconciler and truth-teller Dr. Christena Cleveland speak at the Cru15 (Campus Crusade for Christ) conference on her personal experiences and racial issues in general, and especially institutional racism. In one of Dr. Cleveland’s blogs she writes that for two year she was the only African-American faculty member at a Christian college, …the worst of my life… After oppressive interactions as the only woman and only person of color in committee meetings, I would grit my teeth, vowing to myself that I would never let them beat me, that I would never let them see how much they hurt me.
I don’t have answers. I don’t even know enough to ask the right questions. But of this I am sure: I don’t want to—and we dare not—go back to the way it was.