When you hear the phrase “white supremacy,” you might naturally associate it with violent, white hate groups that assaulted, harassed, and murdered people of color in the 1900s to create and preserve a white society.
In my view, this is a narrow understanding of white supremacy. Certainly, the above definition is an example of white supremacy. But white supremacy is fundamentally an ideology of hate that prioritizes whiteness, believes whiteness is superior, and that degrades non-whiteness. This version of white supremacy is educated, articulate, clothed in suits and ties, and skinny jeans. It is successfully working to overcome the images of violence, white sheets, and burning crosses of the 1900s.
If white supremacy is fundamentally an ideology of hate that prioritizes whiteness and degrades non-whiteness, then a white supremacist ideology is present whenever and wherever the stories of people of color are left untold, ignored, marginalized, or dismissed because they do not represent or cohere with the counter narratives of majority white culture.
In many cases, there are those at middle class and elite white colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries who will not recognize the need to push against a white supremacist ideology, because these institutions have benefited from the racism against people of color that still exists in both society and in the structures of the US, including many US institutions of higher learning (e.g. schools were founded by slave owners and financially sustained by money earned on the backs of exploited slaves).
Below, I offer 5 things Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries can intentionally do to avoid becoming or to stop being white supremacist hubs. These 5 suggestions are not listed by order of importance.
- Don’t Make Excuses for the Racism of Certain Heroes of the Christian Faith
Christians love their heroes, so much that they might even ignore their gross sins and faults. The sad reality is some of the heroes of the Christian faith were racists. From Martin Luther to Jonathan Edwards, the history of western Christianity is grossly stained with the dark spot of racism.
As much as I appreciate Luther’s 95 theses, he was still an anti-Semitic racist. As important as Jonathan Edwards was to “evangelical” Christianity in the new world, he was a racist who owned slaves. Many black and brown people have grown weary of listening to our white brothers and sisters constantly praise the virtues of our white heroes of the faith while making excuses for or ignoring their racism.
- Don’t Make Political Ideology A Mark of Christian or Institutional Identity
Some Christians express that Jesus prefers one political party over another, and associate political affiliation with Christian identity. This point became most clear to me during the 2016 presidential election when prominent Christians wrote articles and gave interviews suggesting that Christians should vote for the current President-Elect.
Even though the President-Elect offended many black and brown people and women because of his racist and misogynist remarks, many white (and a few black and brown) Christians still voted for him. Some of those who voted for him dismissed the fear and anxiety that many of their brothers and sisters in Christ were experiencing. This fear and anxiety stemmed from the uncertainty of what the next four years would be like for people of color.
- Don’t Be Color Blind
Colorblindness is impossible for black and brown people living in a racialized country. Leadership at white Christian institutions that naively thinks colorblindness is a possibility or should be the goal in a racialized society, where racist social constructs have already shaped and determined an institution’s ideas about certain groups of people (especially about people of color) because of the color of their skin, will continue to prioritize whiteness and to malign, ignore, or dismiss non-whiteness in either overt or covert ways.
White people generally don’t have to think about their racial identity in the US because they are the majority culture and this country did not begin by forcing whiteness to the fringes of society or to be socially oppressed as slaves. Whiteness is normalized and beautified virtually everywhere in American society—in commercials, in movies, in magazines, in churches (Surprisingly, I’ve even seen images of white Jesuses in black and brown churches), and in places of employment. But black and brown identities have a history of denigration and ostracism because their black and brown bodies are not white.
For at least these reasons, black and brown people must not only constantly think about our racial identities, but we often suffer because of them. Whether we’re called Nigger, Spic, half-breed, Uncle Tom, wetback, chink, whether we’ve been denied an opportunity because of our skin color, whether we’re viewed with suspicion, or whether our good work is ignored because of the color of our skin, people of color know firsthand what it’s like to live in a racialized society that, on the one hand, tells us to be color blind and to stop talking about race, but, on the other hand, to live in a society where people of color suffer racism from some of those same people who call for colorblindness.
When white Christian institutions call for colorblindness, people of color often hear this to mean that those institutions don’t care about the racialized narratives of the suffering of black and brown people, whose identity in the US cannot be separated from suffering because of the color of their skin.
So-called colorblindness often serves as a means by which racism and white supremacy are perpetuated in white institutions, because there will be those in majority white culture, in white institutions, who will be blind to and apathetic toward the racial injustice facing many people of color. This would happen both in a racialized society and in their very own racialized institutions because the experience of racism is often not part of the narrative of majority culture in majority white cultural contexts.
Apathy toward black and brown suffering at predominately white institutions will be even more likely if these white institutions have no black or brown people in positions of institutional power or privilege. In other words, colorblindness in a mono-ethnic white institution will prioritize the majority white culture, because if the majority white culture dismisses or is blind to the normal and everyday racialized experiences of black and brown people, they will likely import their normalized majority cultural narrative onto black and brown people at the institution and will attempt to normalize whiteness for them.
- Read and Require Black and Brown Authors
Many Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries advance a white supremacist ideology by virtue of their curriculum and syllabi. I’m amazed that certain students can graduate from certain white Christian institutions and never be required to read a non-white author. Shocking, but true!
I often receive emails from a diverse group of women and men throughout the country, who studied at theologically diverse colleges, universities, seminaries, or divinity schools, asking me for a reading list of black and brown authors because their institutions only required them to read white authors (and in many cases, they read “only” white male authors)! This is not only a problem at so-called theologically conservative institutions, but certain liberal and progressive Christian schools also ignore black and brown scholarship.
A fast way to advance a white supremacist ideology at a Christian institution of higher learning is to create a culture of belief that only white people have made contributions to the history of ideas. A culture of white superiority is created in part when white institutions require students to read “only” white authors. There are too many students (black, brown, and white) graduating from white Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries that believe white people are the only ones who have made or are making significant contributions to the church, to the academy, or to society.
White Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries that ignore black and brown scholarship are teaching their white students that whiteness is superior to non-whiteness. They are also teaching their black and brown students to self-hate and to despise non-white contributions to the church, the academy, and society. White institutions that only require black and brown authors as a foil against which to argue are no better in pushing against a white supremacist ideology than those institutions that fail to require black and brown authors at all.
- Intentionally Pursue Qualified Black and Brown People to fill Positions with “Real” Institutional Power and Privilege
Institutional racism doesn’t change from the bottom up, but from the top down. White Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries that want to avoid being white supremacist hubs must share real institutional privilege and power with qualified black and brown people.
By “real” institutional power and privilege, I mean the institution must not simply hire minorities to fill “ethnic” specific positions (e.g. professor of black church studies, Korean church studies, director of institutional diversity, etc). Instead, white institutions must intentionally pursue the best black and brown hire that the institution can afford and bestow upon that black or brown person “real” institutional power that would enable her or him to have a say in the structural direction of the institution, not simply a say in the “ethnic” progress of the institution.
It’s naïve for white institutions to think that mono-ethnic white institutional leadership can deconstruct a white supremacist reputation and heritage amongst people of color. In fact, white institutions who think that they’re able to avoid becoming a white supremacist institution without black or brown leadership are blinded by their own privilege.
Predominately white institutions are predominately white for historical and cultural reasons. These institutions need the help of people of color to lead them away from and to keep them away from all forms of white supremacy, especially intellectual white supremacy.
May God help Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries avoid becoming or to stop being white supremacist hubs. And may the leaders of these institutions be willing to learn from and submit under black and brown leadership in efforts to help their institutions reflect the beautiful ethnic diversity of the kingdom of God as we continue to live in the present evil age as members of the universal family of Abraham, with many ethnically diverse Christians throughout the world.