As an African-American student at a predominately-White institution (PWI) and specifically a CCCU (Council for Christian College & Universities) school, I was intrigued by the lack of diversity I found not only in the student-body, but also in the administration and faculty. Early in my undergraduate experience I reflected and mourned the reality that I would not take a class from an African-American professor and that there was a high possibility that I would not take classes from any non-White individual. I wondered, “What is the experience of the few professors of color who are at my institution? What barriers are preventing others from being here? What type of culture does this Christian institution project? Do these professors feel the same loneliness I feel?
These questions led me to interview professors about their experiences. From these many conversations in offices, coffee shops, and student unions, several salient experiences and implications emerged.
Appreciation for Diversity
Although everyone had a strong emphasis on their distinctiveness via their racial/ethnic heritage, participants were adamant that “different doesn’t mean deficit” and were quick to acknowledge the importance of ethnic diversity. Participants balanced being advocates for diversity at-large as well as strongly rooted in their ethnic-identity. One participant expressed that his ethnic identity was vital to his life and that it was a part of his broader self,
“I want you to see my color, I want you to see my color because that’s the way I live: I live embodied, I am embodied in flesh. I am embodied in this color of skin.”
The value of ethnic-identity transcended a view of them selves and served as a lens from which they engaged the uniqueness of many cultures.
“Otherness”, Tokenism, & and a Frustrated Hope
It was clear that while professors could navigate within the predominately-White culture, their desire for a multicultural environment led participants to feel marginalized, disconnected, and/or invalidated when their institution operated from a limited cultural perspective. One participant passionately elaborated on this feeling of cultural invalidation,
“I’ve almost felt like at some points in the past that am I not American . . . [it is in] certain discussions about culture, when it comes up, or [when] they are talking about non-American culture where African-American culture comes up.”
Participants also expressed the burdens of representing their race and/or ethnicity as something placed on them by the culture yet inevitable because of the lack of ethnic diversity in the faculty/staff ranks. This feeling of representation caused a concern that they were the “token” person of their specific background and that when the rubber meets the road, little impact regarding multiculturalism is institutionally occurring.
An Immature Culture
Although the participants acknowledged steps taken by their institution to become more multicultural, every participant was expressive about several of the institutions’ shortcomings. One professor expressed the cultural immaturity in its ignorance of the Black Christian tradition,
“I’m not even sure, honestly, if my colleagues realize that Black [Christianity] is not the same. You know doctrinally [there are] maybe some similarities, a lot of similarities to it, but there’s a whole different approach to how you live that comes from the Black community; based on history, based on our past.”
Participants felt a White, colorblind approach from administrators and faculty that minimized finding true value in difference. This was further evidenced in the superficiality participants experienced from their institution’s efforts,
“ . . . you see stacks and stacks of commitments and expectations that the university wants to do and they just sits on the table.”
A Vision of Hope
Though frustrated with the overall culture of their institutions, several participants mentioned specific faculty and staff members who had been supportive of their work and diversity efforts. Moreover, all of the professors expressed their commitment to the mission of the institution, the idea of integrating faith and learning, and the “Christ-centeredness” of their institution. Their frustration with their institution emerged from their sense of commitment, as one professor stated,
“the reason why I get upset with this place and the things that happen at this place [is] because I’m loyal and I love it.”
Thoughts on The Need for Transformative Multiculturalism
The conversations I had will professors was enlightening. Their wisdom and experienced provided me a more holistic view of The participants expressed marginality in a way that echoed W.E.B. DuBois’s concept of “double-consciousness.” The professors viewed themselves simultaneously through their own eyes and their perception of eyes of the institution. As Ed Gilbreath explored in his 2006 book Reconciliation Blues, these professors deeply experienced marginalization in the sense of “otherness” in their culturally White Evangelical institutions. However, the solution to this marginality is not in individual relationships. Many participants valued personal relationships with understanding colleagues; what they desired was a change in culture.
According to Triandis there are two strands of multiculturalism.
Additive multiculturalism: the majority culture is enhanced by minority cultures.
Subtractive multiculturalism: minority groups give up identity to become like the majority culture.
Many predominately-White institutions operate and perceive multiculturalism from subtractive position. In those institutions that embrace additive multiculturalism, professors of color often feel a sense of appreciation and acceptance; however, the culture of their institutions is unchanged. Within my study, it seemed that the institutions represented were not purely additive or subtractive, but that they displayed elements of both depending on the situation. Participants experienced additive multiculturalism through events programs such as Martin Luther King Day and Ethnic Heritage Months, but subtractive multiculturalism in regards to the broader worldview and Christian perspective. The responses from the participants suggested that they desired something radically different from Triandis’ two examples of multiculturalism.
Participants continually expressed the desire for something I call transformative multiculturalism. This transformative multiculturalism is one in which the institution is self-examining and confronting its own cultural norms, while also embracing various ethnic and cultural perspectives. This perspective would maintain the core of the institution, while re-conceptualizing many of the established norms.
Equality with the Cultural & Organizational “Other”
Considering the comments of “otherness” and the expressions of transformation, Gordon Allport’s contact hypothesis is useful way to consider institutional approaches to cultivating equitable culture at the institutions studied. Contact hypothesis states that prejudice is reduced when differing ethnic/cultural groups interact in mutual contexts in which there is:
- equal status
- common goals
- intergroup cooperation
- and support of authorities, law, or customs
For CCCU institutions, it could prove advantageous to interact with institutions historically attached to an Ethnic-minority culture, thus emerging from a different cultural perspective. Institutionally, most CCCU institutions have been rooted within an American Evangelical culture that has not had significant interaction with communities of color (particularly in the recent past) and that does not see itself as having an ethnic expression. By expanding contact hypothesis beyond the individual basis to institutional contact hypothesis, PWIs’ lack of significant and mutual interaction with non-White cultures and organizations creates barrier in their acceptance of other cultures. This does not mean there is not a tolerance within CCCU institutions, but tolerance and acceptance are different approaches. For CCCU institution to accept and interweave the traditions of a different tradition (i.e. HBCUs, Historically Black denominations, Traditionally Asian-American churches) they must find places in which the playing field is equal and all groups can participate.
The modern CCCU is not new to practices of contact with difference, over the past decades many CCCU institutions such as Seattle Pacific University, Westmont College, Calvin College, and Wheaton College have become increasingly more involved with the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, Association of American Colleges and Universities, Student Affairs Administrators in Higher Education, etc. These relationships with or non-faith based organizations have changed the perspectives on education and the national conversation on the liberal arts.
In like manner, greater relationship with non-predominately-White organizations has the potential to change an institution’s perspective of racial/ethnic norms and culture both within and outside of Evangelical Christianity.