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.”
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.