Racial Exclusion and Selective Inclusion: One Student’s Observations

Since I teach an undergraduate course on racial, gender and class inequality I am always on the lookout for new examples that are pertinent to students’ experiences. The biggest story in terms of race in higher education is the possible shift in affirmative action during college admissions based on a case by a white female student who did not gain entrance at the University of Texas at Austin. I’m still awaiting more news on how this will end so I will save this discussion for another time. It’s these larger systemic solutions of addressing systemic racial and gender inequality in the past that is more difficult for students to understand than the everyday racism that has a certain immediate feel. At the same campus where these deliberations are taking place, reports have emerged of minority students being “bleach-bombed”- this refers to the experience of being hit with a balloon filled with bleach. Incidences like these receive reasonable attention and they reflect new ways in which racial antipathy is projected today.

Baylor of course is no exception to this, and I unfortunately don’t pay enough attention to the student newspaper to realize how often issues of racism occur here. Most of it doesn’t make the news understandably. When you’ve been called ethnic slurs or experienced subtle (and not so subtle) discrimination from a prof or classmate, the immediate solution is to brush it off, soldier on, and don’t make a big deal of it. So for many minority students this is a learned response that traces back to earlier schooling and probably a talk or two with concerned adults who have struggled with these same issues themselves. What amazes me more is when I hear students like sophomore Asiah Phillips utter a phrase like, “I have had no issues with race until I came to Baylor.”

To give a little context, Baylor first-year students are required to attend chapel services twice a week, and in one of these sessions special speakers come in to share their reflections on a topic or issue that the organizers deem important. Given the requirement for first-years to attend this function, any talk here commands an audience of several thousand new students. So Ms. Phillips had an enormous opportunity to share her thoughts on a topic that is of interest to me, but was not of interest to her, until she came to Baylor.

If you’re in a hurry, move to the 20 minute marker where her talk begins.

Her first observations were about awareness of institutional exclusion and what we might call token institutional inclusion. (Caveat: Ms. Phillips doesn’t use these terms in her talk, I’m taking her narration to exemplify these concepts.) For Asiah Phillips and other Christian students who were raised in non-white-evangelical-influenced church contexts, chapel worship experiences are jarring. “Where’s my type of praise?” she asks. As of her third semester she recalls no African American faculty; moreover all 15 faculty she has had were white.

Her elation in participating in Homecoming festivities was tempered by the realization that she could not find another person who resembled her racially based on a casual glance of her social surroundings. Notably (and this is partially what I mean by token inclusion), the only black faces she saw at Homecoming were the victorious athletes parading through the main procession. “Where were the rest of us?” she asks. “What about people like me?” For many minority undergrads and their parents Ms. Phillips experiences and interior reflections resonate deeply:

“So after various parents asked my mom if her son played football here or if her daughter ran track, I got tired. Is the only way people can fathom me going to school is if I’m an athlete? Why can’t I be here on academic scholarship like you? It seemed like people here didn’t treat me just like I was any other person.”

The other example she provides of token racial inclusion is of the notable presence of non-student minorities working in campus service capacities. She says: “It’s hard being in an institution where it seems that the only people that look like you push brooms and make cafeteria food.”

And if that were not enough, we might also add the personal experiences she has with peers outside the classroom:

“I can still remember nights when I went out with my friends, and I would be dressed up to go to a party, and I would be stopped at the door because there were “no blacks allowed.” In 2012 that is crazy to me, that I am still judged and taken aback because of the color of my skin. Shortly after, she notes too that she’s been the recipient of epithets including the n-word, and even the word “slave.”

In sum, Asiah Phillips sees and hears no examples of her Christian religious heritage, she sees minorities in campus-wide events largely on display alongside other noted white students, she is presumed by others to be a student-athlete (rather than a conventional academic student); her main examples of same-race non-student adults on campus is that of the blue-collar workers in service, and none in the professorate. I might add also, none in the administration. This is a recipe for alienation, and it has consequences for the culture of a university, the kinds of mindsets that will represent that culture when they graduate. I would predict that minority students who experience the kind of alienation that Ms. Phillips shared in her talk will likely:

-be aware of racial power imbalances in their day-to-day encounters in multi-racial settings,

-lack confidence that white-dominated institutions and white actors within them will identify with her,

-believe that cultural practices and traditions begun by white Christians will go largely unchanged

-believe that the pathway to middle class standing is not obtained by getting a PhD and teaching at a university.

Given that Ms. Phillips grew up and attended schools that were more diverse and inclusive students, and given that (along with most other graduates) will likely work in a diverse environment, I would also predict that she will compartmentalize her experience at Baylor as a “white Christian” school. These predictions focus mainly on how I think a young person might react in the absence of other factors that Ms. Phillips also noted. Asiah Phillips views herself as a Christian, a person of a particular faith tradition that conveys a belief in universal love of others. It is this belief that fuels her pursuit of racial affirmation and greater inclusivity. Notably she sees this issue of love and racial inclusion as a matter of spiritual calling.

Second, Ms. Phillips has counterexamples which she must balance with the other realities that she’s faced. She says that

“I’ve been lucky enough to have white friends who don‘t treat me any different than anybody else because they love me and they don’t see a difference just like I don’t see a difference.”

While she has witnessed numerous examples of exclusion, selective inclusion, and downright discrimination, she has also experienced friendship with white peers. And while there’s no direct mention of this, the very fact that the chaplain’s office, also largely staffed by whites, included this talk in their program suggests that not all white institutional actors will sweep such stories off to the side.

One final observation. I think that Asiah Phillips’s talk reflects a strategy that many will find uncomfortable, even though her fundamental belief is shared by all. Several times she notes that race doesn’t matter to her, and it didn’t until she came to Baylor. If we ask most Americans today whether racial inequities are justifiable, most would also say no. But here’s the difference. For many Americans, the solution to the thorny matter of racial inequities is to not talk about it. For others, like Asiah Phillips, the solution to reducing racial inequities is to talk about it, and indeed she has bravely, and lovingly done so.

  • Mark

    Jerry,
    Loved the article. I feel Ms. Phillips pain as I have experienced a lot of the same things since moving here (Baylor/Waco). I’m often asked if I’m an athlete, former athlete or a coach but never a University Administrator/Staffer or Prof. I can’t believe we still have to deal with these types of things in 2012!! I mean, this is supposed to be the “Bible Belt” of the US. After moving to Central Texas it didn’t take long for me to realize that living here was very different from where I was raised. I often wonder if it will ever get any better.

    PS… Please let Ms Phillips know that the rude racially insentive behavior (on and off campus) isn’t limited just to the student population. I too have experinced a lot of the same things even as an Executive Level Staff member.

  • http://www.theupsidedownworld.com Rebecca Trotter

    I think that there’s deep denial among many white people of how race continues to shape life in America. So often I hear people talk about race as if it would just go away as a problem if minorities would just stop worrying about and talking about it. But I am married to an African American man who has more than once said to me, “I wish I could just get through a few days in a row without something that reminds me that I am a black man and that in America that makes me suspect.” I know that there are those who will react vitriolically to Ms. Phillips, but there are many others whose awareness will be nudged forward. Unfortunately, the loud minority has a way of feeling like the normal majority. My husband has said many times that the racism he has faced would be so much easier to take if more white people who don’t agree with racism would speak up. Too often, people stand by without saying anything. 7 years ago my husband lost a very good job due to obvious racism on the part of a new boss. For the next couple of weeks we got calls from numerous people saying that it was racism and wrong. But it was always couched with “I’d never admit to saying this, but this was racism pure and simple.” Everyone told themselves that my husband would be OK because he is smart and talented, but since then he’s experienced 3 more job losses and a failed business. He’s still not making as much money as he did 7 years ago, our credit is trashed and we struggle just to pay basic bills and keep our 5 kids clothed, fed and warm. The stress has effected our health and our marriage has barely survived. How different would things have been if all those people calling us to express their outrage (some very high up in the company) had gotten together, raised a stink and demanded that the company re-hire my husband? The burden of fighting racism can’t be carried solely on the backs of those who suffer it. Racism isn’t an abstraction and it has real world effects on people.

  • Elaine

    Your work shows the reality of the situation. I have heard these same kinds of sentiments from the students at Rice University where I teach. A different context but the same powerful issues are at work. Thank you for helping all of us reflect on what we can be doing differently as faculty.

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