Community discussion of race yields more questions than answers
Jenny Hudalla| Editor-In-Chief
Published in Issue 13 of The Clarion year 2014-2015
“We need more chairs.”
That’s what a Facilities Management worker said above the steady hum of conversation as hundreds of students piled into The Underground for Bethel’s #BlackLivesMatter event Tuesday night.
With more than 350 people in attendance, it was perhaps the most collaborative and intentional community discussion of race that Bethel has ever seen. Students, faculty and staff from seven departments and offices – including the Office of the President – contributed to the production of the event.
But what inspired such a far-reaching mobilization? According to UCB Director Zakiya Robinson, who spearheaded the event, the purpose of the #BlackLivesMatter discussion was fourfold: to contextualize historical incidents of police brutality; to discuss Christian engagement with social justice; to address the place of white students in the conversation; and to identify how Bethel can better pursue its core value of reconciliation.
“It was probably the biggest project I’ll be a part of at Bethel,” Robinson said. “I don’t think anything’s going to have that same kind of magnitude. People left feeling inspired.”
Throughout the night, those in the audience were invited to text in anonymous questions for the event’s four-person panel – which comprised two black students, one white student and one white professor – with the hopes of fostering a candid discussion about the racial turmoil occurring at both a national and local level.
According to reconciliation studies professor Christena Cleveland, who moderated the discussion, one of the most common questions texted in was: “Why are we talking about the importance of black lives? Shouldn’t #AllLivesMatter?”
Senior panelist Justin Giuliano did his best to answer that question during Tuesday night’s discussion, citing examples that ranged from Band-Aids to Barbies to book protagonists to illustrate the normalization of whiteness in mainstream society.
“Society is set up to affirm whiteness,” Giuliano said. “Look at our beauty standards. Look at Miss America . . . My black culture isn’t affirmed until it’s used or appropriated by white culture.”
According to panelist and theology professor Christian Collins Winn, questions like that indicated that a campus-wide discussion of race was long overdue.
“With all of the events going on nationally . . . it was high time that we as a community came together to talk about the various problems, injustices and challenges that we face in our country and on the Bethel campus,” he said.
The event itself was collectively deemed a success by those who organized it, running 10 minutes over its hour-and-a-half time slot and drawing more than 60 students to four ensuing processing sessions. It was the online backlash, Robinson said, that was troubling.
Though students were given the opportunity to engage in the panel’s discussion Tuesday night, some chose to express themselves on Yik Yak, an anonymous social media app. While several Yaks condemned the event as a devaluation of white lives or a form of reverse racism, one post in particular proved that racial tension is still a reality in the Bethel community.
“Someone dress up like a respectable guy in a white hood and robe,” the Yak read. “Show up to underground with cone under white hood. #CrossCulturalExperience.”
When Robinson saw it, she burst into tears.
“It’s a scary thing to know that people still think like that,” she said. “It makes me feel like my work is in vain.”
“You have to be a pretty broken person to make fun of an event like that,” Cleveland added. “It says a lot about what is and isn’t okay in this community.”
According to Collins Winn, it is especially important for students and faculty to identify racism as a theological issue, because our image of God informs the way we understand and acknowledge others.
“Racial division in the church and on our campus – among many other things – should be a clue that we have a rather radically distorted understanding of who God is and what it means to be God’s creature,” Collins Winn said.
One of the ongoing problems, Robinson said, is that white students don’t have a safe platform from which they can ask questions about race, culture and identity. Questions like “Am I racist?” “What is white culture?” and “How do I make friends of color?” can be overwhelming and even intimidating.
“Those are the questions we need to answer for white students,” Robinson said. “If we can’t engage that part of the community, the momentum will stop because the resources aren’t there.”
While Robinson said the #BlackLivesMatter event was a good way to initiate campus conversation about race, it wasn’t enough to fuel lasting change. That, she said, will happen when white students adopt a genuine interest in racial reconciliation and actively work to dismantle systemic oppression.
“Bethel as a community is still on the way,” Collins Winn said. “There are still many more miles to go, and we are not there by a long shot. But I do think the event was one more step in the right direction, one more attempt to untie the knot of one of America’s original sins.”
But until that knot is untied, said sophomore panelist Kiersti Phenow, God’s vision of reconciliation will remain unrealized on campus.
“I hate to break it to you, but the Kingdom does not look like Bethel University,” Phenow said to the captivated crowd on Tuesday night. “And I’m glad it doesn’t.”