I am graduating from CTS this semester. So, I received the following CTS email notification: “Commencement participation is required of all graduates. If you have a special circumstance, you must apply to graduate in absentia.” First, I was surprised that a function, which is nothing more than mere pageantry, would be mandatory. Then, I was intrigued by the term: in absentia. In absentia means “without being present.” I realized that requesting to graduate in absentia is a fitting decision for me to make, because I have felt in absentia to most people at CTS, for the last three years.
I served for a year on Student Senate, for a year on the Chapel Planning Committee, and for a year as a co-editor of the Kerux. Yet, I never felt like my presence was welcomed here, only tolerated. In talking to different minorities, that is a commonality we all share; in addition to the fact that it is not so “great” here. It is just “okay.” I was not seen as a co-laborer in Christ or a sojourner of the Gospel, alongside my classmates. Rather, it seems I was simply that black woman who took classes here. Way too frequently, classmates would speak to me, one time, to find out my name, where I was from, and why I was at CTS. After that, many of them would never address me, again. For three years, I walked the halls of CTS and tried to smile and make eye contact with students, some of whom I have had several classes with, only for them to avoid eye contact or look at the ground as they pass. That has worn me out to the point that I do not even try, anymore.
And, do not even get me started on the numerous, and I do mean numerous, students who only talked with me when they absolutely had to, such as if we were stuck on a committee together, or stuck in a group project together, or stuck sitting at a table with me for an event. Therefore, it was always strange to me to find out that, people who never spoke to me, before, actually knew my name.
I have also witnessed racism in the form of micro-inequities in the classroom, from professors, and from students. This is evident when I am ignored in a social setting or talked over in a group project when I have questions. This is evident when a professor says something culturally or racially insensitive during a classroom lecture and never has to answer for it.
I am not overreaching here. The title of a 2010 article in Psychology Today (https://goo.gl/9lT92g) asks this question: Are Black Women Invisible? Do Black women go unnoticed more often? The research noted in the article indicates that it is true: “Black women are more likely than other racial/gender groups to go unnoticed or unheard.” So, according to the studies presented in the Psychology Today article, in absentia is pretty common for African American women to experience.
Yet, I was not expecting such a cold atmosphere in a Christian community. This is not a business school, or a law school, of a secular graduate school, where competitiveness is the norm. This is a Christian seminary, where one would expect compassion and love to be the norm. Compassion and love even for people who do not look like them. The seminary pats itself on the back for being such a diverse community. Yet, that diversity is only that people of another race are actually in the same building, not that they are actively and deliberately engaging and interacting with them.
The students here are all future pastors, future church leaders, future ministers, and future pastoral counselors and this is how we practice being pastoral? Should not the integrity of following Jesus’ example of crossing racial, gender, and class barriers be practiced by us, now? If we do not have integrity to show grace to one another, now, when will we have it? When we are standing before a congregation, preaching a message on loving our neighbor? Do we know how to preach that same message when our neighbor does not look like us? What about when our neighbor is not one of those brown people we helped in the lower income areas of our city over the summer, or in another country that we visited for three or five weeks? What about when our neighbor is a person of another color or background who has the same educational level as us, has the same undergraduate degree and qualifications that granted him/her admission into CTS? How do we respond, then?
What I see evidence of is exoticism and paternalism.
Exoticism says this: I am only interested in you if your different race/culture is international or somehow exotic. That way, I might find something appealing about your culture that fascinates me. However, when you are just an American minority, I am not concerned with you.
Paternalism says this: I can show compassion and love to you, as long as I see you as being beneath me and needing my help because you and your race are incapable of helping yourselves. However, when you are sitting in the same classroom as me, taking the same curriculum as me, sitting at the same lunch table as me, now I am uncomfortable and would rather not engage you or even speak to you.
I would love to see some case studies conducted here at CTS, in which, for one day, no one spoke to or sat next to anyone with red hair. When anyone passes a redhead in the hallways, everyone looks away and avoids them. Then, on another day, we tried that same experiment, only this time it was with anyone with a beard. Still, on another day, the same exercise, but this time it was with anyone with blue eyes. Maybe then, some would know what we feel like, everyday at CTS. For three years, I have been suggesting this to CTS leadership, only to get polite smiles and nods in return, no implementation and no action.
People keep saying, let us have another forum, another panel discussion, another meeting. However, meetings will continue to be ineffective. As long as people can continue to get through CTS without once, ever, engaging or genuinely conversing with someone outside their own culture, they will. Well, they are, because I am witnessing it. In order for the students to see cultural awareness as a priority, the seminary has to demonstrate cultural awareness as a priority.
Therefore, how about, instead, we see some action? How about, instead, we present the student body with surveys that honestly gauge the temperature of race and culture at the seminary, rather than assessments that are shallow and self-serving? How about, instead, we make some racial reconciliation classes and training mandatory?
A poverty simulation is required of all students; yet, no cultural/racial sensitivity programs or curriculums are required? Us walking across a stage to receive a handshake and an embroidered hand-towel (diplomas are mailed out, later) is a requirement of graduation, but not anything that would prepare us for intermingling with people who do not look like us? And, please, stop riding the coattails of Calvin College, so that the public thinks we are making the same strides in race relations at the seminary. We need to do more. The same way Christians have to be deliberate about spiritual disciplines, we have to be proactive, not passive, about overcoming racism, even within our own CTS bubble.
By Robin Rhodes