Being Black at Seattle Pacific University: 3 Things I Learned

NOTE: This is the fourth part in our 8-part Black to School series which highlights African-American voices and experiences at Christian colleges. Please read Part 1 for context. Nikkita picToday's post comes from Nikkita Oliver who graduated from Seattle Pacific University in 2008. A former chaplain and service provider at the King County Youth Detention Center, she's currently working on a J.D. at the University of Washington Law School -- on a full scholarship, no less. (Way to go, Nikkita!)

I'm so encouraged that Nikkita's exploration into the depths of her experience at SPU has resulted in grace, hope and a greater commitment to reconciliation. 

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As a child I was acutely aware of the massive racial divide in the church. My father is Black American and my mother is White American. I would go to an all black Baptist church with my father one Sunday and to an all white Free Methodist church with my mother the next. There were so many differences between the two churches, but two things remained the same: we read the same scriptures and worshiped the same Lord and Savior.

When I arrived at Seattle Pacific University(SPU) in the fall of 2004, I did not realize that I would be the one black kid in all of my classes. I did not realize that racism existed among Jesus believers, despite being aware of the racial divide in the Church. I did not realize that I was angry with white people, and in particular, angry with white Christians. I also did not know that 5 years after graduating that I would be so thankful for every minute I spent at SPU.

Three Very Important Lessons I Learned at SPU

First, choose your battles. Not everything needs to be championed. Sometimes people say and do things that they do not mean or understand, but give it time and they will see.

My freshman year I lived on what was called “The Bridges Floor.” The goal of Bridges was to provide space on campus where students could engage in intentional conversations about race, class, gender, and radical racial reconciliation. I remember being in the cafeteria, wearing my Bridges t-shirt, and a female student saying to me, “Isn’t that where they put all the minority students? I think that’s racist.” Lucky for me the Peer Advisor for Bridges was standing directly behind me. She graciously said, “Would you like to sit with us at dinner? Maybe we can get to know each other?” The young woman sat and talked with us and we invited her to one of our floor discussions. In the end, she ended up attending our seminar on institutional racism and was visibly moved by it. Two months later she apologized to me for the manner in which she had asked her initial question. She said, “I didn’t understand. Thank you for welcoming me in and allowing me space to see.” It was in this moment that I realized sometimes people just need the space to see the truth.

 Second, some battles are worth fighting but there are effective and ineffective ways to fight.

My first year at SPU was the first official year of the John Perkins Center (JPC) for Reconciliation, Leadership Development and Community Development. It was a powerful time in SPU’s growth and movement towards radical racial reconciliation, but it was also a time of great push back from students who did not understand the value of reconciliation. My mentor, Tali Hairston, the Director of the JPC, will tell you that I was a pain in his side. I am a fighter. I always have been and always will be.

But at age 18, I did not know how to choose my battles well. More times than I can count, Tali sat me down in his office and said, “Nikkita, I respect what you are doing. It’s important work. It is challenging work. But the biggest challenge is learning how to engage people in a way that they can hear.” From Tali I learned that when discussing volatile matters like race and racism it is necessary to be tactful if you actually want to effectively share words that change hearts. Mentors like Tali helped me to uncover my own issues and to begin to address them so that I could effectively carry the message of racial reconciliation.

Third, there is a geography to God’s grace.

I reached my lowest point at SPU when I realized, in the middle of a discussion on race, poverty and resources in a sociology class, that I was angry with white people -- especially white Christians. I was a senior, sitting in the back of the class with my hood up when a white woman raised her hand. She told the class, “I am glad that I have not had to experience race, but have been able to only learn about it as a theory. I was wondering, since I don’t know many black people, do they eat baloney since it’s the poor people’s meat?” I nearly fell out of my seat. I wanted to jump down her throat. I wanted to wave her words in her face and tell her about herself, but before I could, another young white woman turned to her and said, “That is the dumbest question and if you want to know why it’s dumb we can talk after class.”

The young woman who spoke up reminded me that God appears when we cannot take it anymore. God’s grace pools at the lowest places. God certainly showed the young woman who asked the question grace by guarding her from my response. But God also showed me grace by showing me that there are white people who see and know what is right.

Life After SPU

I am now in law school at the University of Washington. On average there are 1-2 Black Americans in any given class. As many know, the law can be extremely racist; law school can be a dangerous mental and emotional space for students of color. If I had not attended SPU I would not know how to enter racially hostile spaces with grace, love and hope. My time at SPU taught me that we need racial reconciliation and only a gracious loving Christ-filled approach will do. SPU helped to prepare me to carry the message of radical racial reconciliation into hard places and to do so with God’s love and grace.

I am thankful for the challenges, love, grace, and education I received at SPU. SPU is not perfect and neither am I. There is still a lot of work to be done to challenge and change institutional racism at SPU and other Christian colleges. I hope that we can continue to make strides towards being radically reconciled with God and with each other.