Black to School: African-American Voices at Christian Colleges

photo credit: redsuspenders.tumblr.com
photo credit: redsuspenders.tumblr.com

Last summer, I read Anthony Bradley’s recent book Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions. In this book, Bradley and others shared their experiences and highlighted the complexities of being a faculty person of color at evangelical colleges. I found Bradley’s book to be clarifying and affirming as I continue to process my stint as the lone African-American faculty member at Westmont College from 2008-10. Oh how I wish such a resource had been available to me while I was teaching at Westmont. Now that I'm a professor of reconciliation studies at Bethel University, I'm all the more reminded of the need for black voices in the white-dominated spaces in Christian higher education.

While reading Bradley's book, it occurred to me that current and recent black students at predominantly-white Christian colleges would likely benefit from hearing the stories of students who had shared their experiences, much like I benefited from hearing the stories of faculty members who had shared my experiences. For this reason, the first goal of this series of blog posts is to affirm and give voice to the long-silenced stories of black studentsFor those who are unaware, the black student experience at predominantly-white Christian colleges is often rife with race-related challenges, loneliness and oppression. A recent study on diversity in Christian higher education found that students of color perceive the campus climate to be less positive than white students, have lower retention rates than white students, and are less satisfied with their college experience than white students. After much analysis, the researchers concluded that "issues related to whiteness, and more specifically, the White Evangelical Culture at these institutions continues to be a major impediment to progress and change" in the area of diversity and racial inclusion.

As such, the second goal of this series is to alert alums, faculty, current students, administrators, deans, provosts, presidents and others to the persistent problem of race on Christian college campuses. One part of reconciliation leadership involves offering practical tips that help people work towards unity. (Those looking for the many practical tips that have been published on blog can look here.) But an equally important part of reconciliation leadership involves sounding the alarm, raising awareness of the problem, describing it in detail, and inviting people to stand in solidarity. This series seeks to do that.

So folks who hope to understand and empathize with the black experience in white evangelical America should brush up on Listening Well as a Person of Privilege, pull up a chair, and listen to the voices of 7 brave African-American students who recently attended Christian colleges around the U.S. (all CCCU institutions).

In this diverse collection of stories, you’ll find humor, bewilderment, anger, wisdom, fear, grace, pain, prophecy and hope. While the experiences share a bit of common ground, each individual’s perspective and process varies greatly. Indeed, the diversity of the black student experience at Christian college is perhaps as vast as the diversity of the black experience in America.

The timing of this series is not coincidental. We want the issue of race to be at the forefront of people’s minds as they head back to school. So we invite you to share these stories with your classmates, faculty, staff, alums, parents, deans and college presidents -- both black and non-black. We must know each other’s stories in order to begin to address the problem of race.

And for all you problem-solvers -- at the conclusion of the series, race, religion and higher education expert Julie Park shares tips and insights on what regular people (like students, faculty and staff) can do to address this issue at the institutional level. But solidarity first.

So without further ado, I’d like to share the first perspective -- from a young black woman named M.

THE LONG-LASTING EFFECTS OF SILENCING

M attended a suburban Christian college in the Midwest from 2008-2010 after growing up in an urban setting. She is strong, winsome, articulate and intelligent, but she ended up leaving the school after being the target of both subtle and blatant racism (including written racial slurs). All but one or two faculty/staff ignored her when she spoke up about her concerns. She was silenced.

When I asked M if she would consider contributing to the Black to School series, she responded with these honest and brave words:

Hey Christena,

I have been on a seriously challenging journey since 2008; as I move forward I don't think I can handle sitting and writing down those memories, and to be honest, I have long since given up on even desiring to make [her Christian college] a better place. It's very possible that this attitude comes from a hint of resentment still, but for sure it comes from a real place in my heart. 

What I can say is that I truly needed a mentor like you during the height of my [Christian college] experience, I believe that could have changed the impact of those experiences for me and students like myself. As you write this series I do still hope you keep me in mind and I know that in some way my narrative as you know it will influence the beauty in your work.

May God continue to lead your path as you live out your faith in a very courageous way. May your writing be like a sword to the enemy and a warm embrace to those of us who need it most.

Much love,

M

I’m grateful to M for allowing me to publish her response. I think it’s important for all of us to be aware of the long-lasting effects of silencing black students while they're studying at Christian colleges. This is one of many reasons why it is important to address these issues now, with the students, faculty and staff among us right now.

We can’t wait; the risks are too high. The hearts and voices of God’s beloved are at stake.

Edited from the archives.

 CHECK OUT THE REST OF THE SERIES

A Plea for Listening Well at Christian Colleges

"We Will Accept Your Presence but You Will Accept Our Perspective"

Being Black at Seattle Pacific University: 3 Things I Learned

Miscalculating Racism: Life on a Christian College Campus

 #BlackGirlProblems at a Christian College

Be Ready to Blaze a Trail

Towards a Healthy Campus Climate for Diversity