Miscalculating Racism: Life on a Christian College Campus

NOTE: This is the fifth 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. Drew HartToday's post comes from Drew Hart who attended a Christian college in Pennsylvania. Drew is a Ph.D. student in the area of Theology and Ethics at Lutheran Theological Seminary. He is interested in the intersection between Black Theology/Prophetic Tradition and Anabaptism. Drew believes that together they can contribute immensely in decolonizing American theology, ethics, and ecclesiology while also promoting lives that are more just, peaceful, and oriented around the life and teachings of Christ.  

I'm grateful for Drew's thoughtful reflection on his recent experience at a Christian college.

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I grew up in a racially diverse yet primarily African-American urban neighborhood. Living there gave me the opportunity to befriend folks from various racial, cultural, and economic backgrounds in school, even while most people on my own block were black. However, my life was drastically uprooted when our house burned down when I was 14 and we ended up moving to the vanilla suburbs.

school jocks thefw.comThe idea of moving there terrified me. I had clearly seen too many stereotypical “suburban school” movies, so all I could imagine was a school filled with kids sporting green mohawks, kids on skateboards, and football jocks. Either way, I was convinced that they would not like me and that it was going to be a rough experience going forward.

To be fair, the only actual rejection came from me, because I did not want to be there. To my surprise, being black (& male) was “cool” there. It is not that there weren’t racial stereoptypes, because the place was dripping of them. However, the racial stereotypes tended to boost my popularity more than anything. They assumed I could play ball (which I could and loved), they assumed that I loved rap (which again was right), and I was constantly given instant cred, even though most kids knew nothing about me.

Towards the end of my time in high school, I began sensing a call to ministry (or better yet, I stopped ignoring the sense of calling that had become all too familiar to me).  So I decided to enroll at an in-state Christian college far enough away from where I lived to give me a sense of independence.  I was fully aware that this school was also mostly white (even less diversity than the mostly white public school I attended), but I wasn’t concerned. My logic was pretty simple: I had already experienced what it was like to be a minority at a mostly white school in the Philly burbs and now these were my brothers and sisters in Christ I would be getting to know.  I concluded that not only would I be able to handle it, I would thrive.

This proved to be a large miscalculation. My first two weeks in the dorm left me a little sick in the stomach and culturally isolated. I was the ONLY African American on my entire floor. And apparently, there is a whole other world that you experience when you live with people from other cultures. The music people listened to seemed strange and unfamiliar, the TV shows and movies people talked about were not on my radar, and while other first-year students were quickly building relationships, I found myself for the first time in my life feeling like I just didn’t belong.

But I was very friendly and outgoing, so I reached out and eventually built relationships with many people, especially in the dorm. Before I knew it, I was one of the most ‘popular’ folks on the floor. Everyone loved them some Drew. If there was a movie to be watched, it was in my room. It there was a prank to be pulled, I was orchestrating the procedure (my sophomore year, my nickname was the Godfather).

However, subtle race issues that I initially ignored, because they seemed so minor, began to overwhelm me with their continual and ongoing assault. I began to notice that the people who didn’t know me personally on campus tended to respond to me with discomfort or suspicion. On campus in general, people were very friendly and smiley. But when I walked down the main side walk through campus, I found people walking to the edge and looking down or away as they passed by. I don’t think I noticed this behavior at first, but when you have seen it for the hundredth and a thousandth time, it becomes clear as day.

And then there were the comments. People made comments about the black (male) students on campus, calling us thugs and troublemakers. And they insinuated that since many of them were on the basketball team, that that was the only reason many were accepted to the school in the first place.

Choir 2And then there were the cultural assaults on the gospel choir, suggesting that the genre wasn’t real music. And then finally, what pushed things over the top for me was when folks from within my own circles would make comments about other students of color (who they did not know personally), pulling out the old “you are different” paradigm.  The reality was that I was no different than them.  In fact, one of the students they stereotyped was one of my lifelong friends.

Each little cut on its own was unsubstantial, but by the end of my time there I found myself with a thousand paper cuts that hurt like hell. The ongoing racial prejudice on campus was more persistent and life draining than anything I had seen in my life.

At the same time, I had the privilege of majoring in Biblical Studies. My eyes were opened to how Jesus cared about women, those who were marginalized, and the poor. I studied how the prophets spoke about God’s concern for justice. I saw that central to understanding Paul’s letters was seeing his particular calling to form reconciled communities comprised of Jews and Gentiles. And probably more than anything, I was challenged to read scripture in a way that took Jesus seriously by actually studying what he said and believing that we are actually supposed to practice those things that he taught and modeled. And then I had theology professors that introduced me to books like Divided by Faith, Myths America Lives By, and Mere Discipleship. Basically, I was given a biblical and theological framework to handle the social scandals of our time.

By senior year, I was all business. If you wanted to be friends with me, you were going to hear about the racism on campus. I made sure that the white students I knew were aware of the issues and concerns that many black and brown students were experiencing on campus. And I made a point to check in with the other black students on campus.

I can still remember a conversation I had with an African-American female student, a couple weeks before her graduation. After casually asking her, “How ya doin?” she immediately broke down crying. She had experienced a racially insensitive incident personally in the weeks prior and was disheartened by how it all went down. She declared aloud that she never wanted to step foot on that campus again after graduation. She said that if she could, she would have her luggage packed and would drag it with her as she got her diploma, so that she could leave right for the car. I imagine that her feelings have softened over time, but the reality is that she had been deeply wounded during her time there, and couldn’t wait for it all to end.

What I was left with, as I reflected over my own experience, was that my time at this mostly white Christian college was harsher than my time at the mostly white suburban public school. But how could that be? How could my time among white Christians have been filled with more racial prejudice and hostility than among white non-Christians?

My time on that Christian college campus changed me dramatically. The wounds and experiences, of which I just touched on the tip of the iceberg here, have shaped my perspectives, my personality, and my vocation. Everything that I have become has been deeply provoked by my experiences and education on that campus. I often say that I both love and hate my alma mater. There seems to be no better way of communicating the tension from both the positive and negative experiences I went through.

And yet, no matter how hard the experience was at the time, I would not change a thing. To accept anything different is to reject all that God was doing in my life and the way that he was refocusing me on Jesus, and what it means to be a follower of him in an ugly world. But, when people ask me if I would recommend my alma mater to other people of color, well. .

Follow Drew on Twitter @druhart and visit his blog at www.drewgihart.com