Seeking Diversity without Dismantling White Supremacy is Dangerous

Most institutions want racial diversity, though perhaps not for the right reasons.  It’s good PR.  It’s a good way to signal that an institution is righteous.  It makes governments and accreditation agencies happy.  And if intuitions aren’t careful, it does nothing to undermine white supremacy.

Some folks hear “white supremacy” and think of KKK members, neo-Nazis, and tiki torch marches.  Those are revolting.  But to interpret the phrase along those lines is to reduce it to the conscious attitudes of individuals.  It’s also to signal that we’re among the good guys.  It’s to ignore America’s past and to pretend we can operate in an ahistorical vacuum.  White supremacy is in the air we breathe, in the culture we inhabit, and in the assumptions we inherit.  It’s baked into our institutions.

White supremacy is the way our culture and institutions normalize and elevate whiteness and white culture.  “White is right” isn’t something we say.  We don’t have to.  We get that message thousands of times daily.  In my field—theology—, there’s Latino theology, black theology, feminist theology, but what flies under the banner of just plain ‘theology’ is the work of white males.  Similarly with entertainment, schools, churches, and most every sphere of our lives.  Band-Aids by default match my kid’s skin color.  If my wife and I watch a romantic comedy the leads will almost certainly look and talk like us.  My church is just a church; my friend Warren’s church is an ‘ethnic church.’  White is normal; the rest isn’t.

White supremacy is part of our American heritage.  I see it in my neighbourhood, my church, my kid’s school, the university where I used to teach.  I’m on a journey to undo it both without and within.  But it’s stickier than we’d like to admit.  When we confront it head on, as I did at Grand Canyon University, it can strike us down (yes, even if we’re white).  It cost me my job as a professor of theology.

Talk of white supremacy makes people uncomfortable.  So our guard comes up.  “But my boss is black and we get along great!” is a defense mechanism against seeing it at work.  So are things like, “Hey, I grew up in a Latino neighborhood!”, “But I loved The Wire!”, and “My cousin married a black man!”  On a corporate level, “But we have people of color here, check out the cover of our brochure!” usually shows that diversity is being used to distract from unaddressed white supremacy in an institution.  People of color can be actors and/or pawns in systems of racial injustice.  Milwaukee County’s sheriff David Clarke is an obvious example.  Omarosa Manigault is another.  But it often happens in more subtle ways, even unwittingly so for those involved.

When we pursue diversity without first beginning to dismantle white supremacy, people of color get hurt.  Diversity initiatives can provide cover for the insidiousness of white supremacy.  The result is harmful situations where, for example, students of color at a large university have an all-white counselling department.  People of color are often underrepresented in leadership positions and those that are there must conform to white culture to stay there.  The natural hair of black folk is viewed as unprofessional.  Native Americans generally consider maintaining eye contact to be a sign of disrespect but white people tend to view a lack of eye contact as lacking attention, trustworthiness, and integrity.  People of color are told in a million small, subtle ways that they matter less, that they are ‘other’.  And most white folk don’t see it happening.  Most won’t see it happening because we are conditioned to consider it normal and because confronting white supremacy makes us uncomfortable.

I saw this happen at GCU.  When pressed as to why the college of theology hired 6 white males in one year, the response I got was a rationalizing, “we just don’t get many minorities who apply.”  But dismantling white supremacy means that institutions need to do things like actively invite candidates of color to submit an application.  When the list of faculty is mostly white males, scholars of color hear the message loud and clear.  Higher learning institutions need to cultivate relationships with people of color years before they are on the job market.  Schools need to invest in them and their educational training.  The fact that white people are given so many advantages along the way to becoming a PhDed professor is white supremacy at work.  White students are more likely to have a professor mentor them while in college, more likely to get accepted into strong postgraduate programs, and more likely to get job interviews.  Along the way I have benefited because my name is Shawn Bawulski and not DeShaun Jackson.  And that’s not OK.  White supremacy is not undone by hiring a few token people of color while letting everyone know that challenging the culture of white supremacy is out of bounds.

Diversity without dismantling white supremacy is dangerous for white folks, too.  A system that treats some as less than human poisons all of our souls.  Lack of diversity is the symptom, the branch.  The root of the problem works at the level of institutional culture.  It’s hard to uproot.  Doing so is dangerous, too—it might even cost you your job.  But if white people aren’t willing to spend their privilege, to use their advantages afforded them by white supremacy to dismantle white supremacy, then meaningful change won’t come.  Injustice will continue.  Diversity task forces and multiethnic brochure covers alone will do nothing but make white people continue to feel comfortable.

Some fragmented thoughts on "All Lives Matter"

“All lives matter.”  

It’s wielded to vindicate and justify the one who utters it.  It’s used to stomp out the beauty and importance of particularity.  It’s invoked to perpetuate American myth.  It invalidates and dismisses cries for help and justice.  I’ve seen the phrase wound more souls than I can count.  I've seen the mindset wound more bodies than I can count.

Of course, “Black Lives Matter” means “Black Lives Matter, Too”.  Anyone who’s genuinely listening will catch the implied adverb.  Many people aren’t genuinely listening.

“All lives matter” is not true until Black Lives Matter, too.

To My Fellow Evangelicals: They Will Remember What We Do Right Now

Dr. Shawn Bawulski

I’ve seen a few encouraging signs among my fellow white evangelicals on social media and in private conversations regarding racial justice.  I think the events of the past week might be serving as a splash of cold water to the face for some.  Good.  Better late than never.

We need to acknowledge that this isn’t new.  Remember these police shooting victims?  Philando Castile.  Alton Sterling.  Sandra Bland.  Eric Garner.  Tamir Rice.  Walter Scott.  Ezell Ford.  Michael Brown.  Trayvon Martin.  That’s just in the last few years.  And that’s not even to begin to talk about discrimination and oppression in economics, culture, employment, housing, medical care... ...white supremacy is a contemporary caste reality with a long history.  And it runs deep.

Your silence speaks volumes.

I’ve repeatedly heard, “I just don’t know what to do.”  I’d like to suggest that you do some things that make you uncomfortable.  Sharing articles on social media is not bad.  Prayer is always necessary.  Being upset should be a natural reaction.  Do those things.  But also, do these things:

1. Educate yourself.  For evangelicals, especially those new to all this, here’s a good place to start: Jim Wallis’ book, “America’s Original Sin.” 

2. Call your friends of color and just listen (if you don’t have any friends of color, well, that might tell you something important…).  Say that you’re sorry.  Apologize for anything you’ve done or said that might have hurt them.  Apologize for your silence on racial justice.  Apologize that things are this way.  AND THEN JUST LISTEN TO THEM.  DON’T TALK.  JUST LISTEN.

3. Protest peacefully.  Show up and stand arm-in-arm with people of color.  FOLLOW.  DO NOT TRY TO LEAD.  You’re going to hear things shouted you disagree with.  That’s OK.  You’ll read some signs that might offend you.  It’s OK.  It’s not about you.  It’s about putting your voice and your body between the oppressed and those who would do them harm.  You’re going to feel awkward.  It will be uncomfortable.  Get over it.  Get out there.

4. Call your elected officials.  Don’t email, call.  Broaden your political and moral vision beyond the issues you’ve been groomed to think are the ones that really matter.  Get informed, especially about what’s going on at the local level.  Google “How to call your elected official”.  Call.  Do it.  Rinse, repeat as necessary (a lot).

5. Talk to your pastorRepeatedly.  Doggedly.  Persistently.  Lovingly but forcefully.  Question any silence from the pulpit done in the name of “peace” or “unity.”  Challenge any reduction of this corporate sin to the individual level.  Request a sermon or sermon series on racial justice and the gospel.  Ask how your church can connect with and support congregations of color.

No one is going to take our gospel proclamation seriously if our gospel only gives lip service to justice.  Isaiah 1:17 reads, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”

Everyone will remember what we do right now.  Jesus included.

Where to start reading?

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