Can Faith Contribute to Dialogue on Race


The following article by Dr. Julie J. Park, appeared in the January 2010 newsletter issue of Spirituality in Higher Education.  Even though the context of this article and the case study is higher education, in my opinion the findings are easily applicable to other settings as well. I am grateful to Dr. Park for her work and sharing it with a broad-based audience.

Race, Religion, and Campus:
A Case Study of Using Faith to Dialogue on Race

By Julie J. Park

In her article, Park explores how religious faith traditions and practices can serve as a foundation to spur dialogue around race and diversity issues. Drawing on findings from an ethnographic case study, Park discusses how the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship at “West Coast University” used their faith as a springboard to take on issues of race. Her findings show that religion can also play an important role in unraveling and challenging prejudice.

“There is something about religion that makes for prejudice and something about it that unmakes prejudice” (1966, p. 447) – Gordon Allport

As someone who studies race relations in higher education, I always knew Gordon Allport’s work on prejudice reduction and contact theory. When I started research for my dissertation on how students dealt with issues of race and faith within a multiethnic campus religious fellowship, I was delighted to find that Allport was also fascinated by the relationship between religion and prejudice. In this quotation, he neatly summarizes the paradox that befuddles many who seek to untangle the influence of religion and spirituality on people’s lives.

On one hand, religion has been at the root of a number of history’s most disturbing displays of intolerance, from the Crusades to the Rev. Fred Phelps screaming that “God hates fags.” On the other hand, religion has also provided a powerful foundation for people to challenge injustice, such as Dr. Martin Luther King and Mother Teresa. The same Bible was used by defenders of slavery and abolition alike to fuel their causes.

I cannot pretend to be able to fully explain this dissonance. What I can do is share findings from my own research on how a group of evangelical Christian college students, a group generally not associated with exceptional progressiveness in the area of race relations, decided to tackle the issues of race, racial reconciliation, and racial justice. I studied how the InterVarsity Christian Fellowship (IVCF) at “West Coast University” (pseudonym) went from a group that rarely, if ever, broached issues of race in the early 1990s to a group that considered racial reconciliation one of its top priorities by the latter part of the decade. During this same time, IVCF shifted from being a predominantly White group to a racially heterogeneous group.

By the time I came to study the group in 2006, IVCF was at a crossroads. Its demography shifted towards being a predominantly Asian American group and some students were concerned that the group had stopped actively prioritizing racial reconciliation. My research focused on the assessment of how their priorities had shifted and how they worked to address race in an intentional fashion once again. In order to understand the complex dynamics at work, I interviewed 60 current and past IVCF students and staff and spent 15 months conducting in-depth participant observation with the group. While these findings are specific to the context of an evangelical Christian group, I believe that there are lessons that can be applied to many different spiritual and even secular communities about the interface of religious/spirituality and social justice concerns.

CONNECTING RACIAL CONSCIOUSNESS AND FAITH

The primary way that IVCF encouraged students to adapt a value for racial reconciliation was by positioning race consciousness and faith as complimentary value systems. I use Allport’s (1954) work on how the pursuit of a common goal can facilitate interracial interaction to frame how IVCF’s collective goal of promoting the Christian faith affected its efforts to bridge racial divides. In contrast to using a common goal to largely subsume racial difference by uniting participants around a new identity that transcends race (Gaertner & Dovidio, 2000), IVCF sought to pursue the tenants of Christianity without downplaying the uniqueness or relevance of race.

Instead, the group highlighted race consciousness as being complimentary – not counterproductive – to pursuing Christian principles. Establishing congruency between issues of race and faith paved the way for IVCF to bring together a multiethnic body of students and emphasize the significance of race in the daily life of the fellowship. How did they do this? Three main approaches that IVCF used to build congruency between race and faith included altering preexisting frameworks, reframing ethnic identity, and relying on a Christian-inspired approach to address race.

Altering Preexisting Frameworks

The first set of tools, altering preexisting frameworks, describes how some IVCF students went from seeing issues of faith and race as separate and unrelated to each other to seeing them as interrelated and relevant to faith. For some students, the contrast between these two worldviews was like the difference between night and day. This cognitive transition seemed particularly stark for the White male students in the group because they had such little prior exposure to thinking about issues of race, privilege, and discrimination before college.

Stanley, a White student, told me how he came to college a Christian and sought out IVCF because of its national reputation for supporting Christian students. However, he was shocked after attending an IVCF sponsored forum to talk about race. He recalled thinking: “This can’t be right. Talking about [race] is actually making it more of a problem, creating more barriers and segregation than not talking about it.” Still, he decided to keep attending:

I remember specifically going, “Just in case, I’m missing a point, I’m going to keep being open to this,” and I went back a couple more times. I think that’s where God started…I remember there was something at a conference about injustices or more like discrepancies in economics, income or where people live. I think seeing the actual facts about the injustices that are happening in our society was the big shift like, “Oh, maybe there is something to this and I’ve just been oblivious to it my entire life.” Yeah, it was definitely gradual. So yeah, I’d say my eyes were eventually opened, it was a gradual process. Where before I was like NO, THIS CAN’T BE FROM GOD! This can’t be good!

Even though Stanley’s existing framework for faith did not acknowledge the possible relevance of race, his curiosity made him go back to IVCF “just in case” he was missing something. On the other hand, Neha, a South Asian IVCF alum, explained how she came to see dealing with race as an essential part of what it meant to be a Christian.

I think we’re just very aware that God’s calling in his heart is for people to be reconciled. I think it’s something we realize that we can’t avoid. There’s something that we miss, if we don’t deal with this issue of race that people leave here with this skewed perception of who God is, without this reality of being reconciled to other people of other races and reconciled to ourselves. So I think it has been something that’s been very important for us.

For Stanley, like Neha, race became critical to the way he saw God and his faith. While race was just not considered to be spiritually relevant to most of these students prior to college, no one mentioned having a religiously-based belief contradicted by what they learned in IVCF. In encouraging students to adjust their preexisting frameworks of faith, IVCF leaders helped students incorporate race and racial reconciliation into their religious beliefs and practices.

Reframing Ethnic Identity

The second tool that IVCF used to facilitate congruency between race and faith was to encourage students to see their ethnic identities as both important and created by God. Some students did not see their faith and ethnic identities as having a strong relevance to one another. Still, I found that most IVCF students fell into one of two other categories: They either felt tension between their ethnic and religious identities, or they saw the two identities as fully compatible and relevant to one another.

Just as students altered their preexisting frameworks of faith to include the issue of race, students also adjusted their conceptions of ethnic identity to include a spiritual dimension. A key way that students dealt with potential tension between their ethnic and faith identities was to latch on to the idea that “God made race for a reason,” a concept that Sharon, a multiracial sophomore first heard at an IVCF conference:

I didn’t grow up in a Black community and I’m both Black and Latina. I’m not full, and so at the conference, I knew I was going to be uncomfortable. Then the idea came up that God made race for a reason and I realized that I’d never thought of it like that before. So for the whole year I’ve been on an identity crisis journey I guess you’d call it, just figuring out what it means for me to be multiracial and why God would do that and how that’s shaping my life. Now I’ve thought about it a lot more than before.

Sharon explained that most of her processing around her multiracial identity happened through IVCF. However, as the next part of her narrative shows, her parents were initially confused over why she became so interested in understanding her multiracial identity when she already had an identity as a Christian:

It mostly happened within IVCF. We were going through a book called Check All That Apply and it’s by an InterVarsity staff about being multiracial. I had talked to my parents about it and at first they didn’t realize how big of a deal it was for me. They told me, “You know, your identity comes in Christ first.” I knew that, but being multiracial is really hard and I told them that I wanted to be both parts at the same time. I didn’t know how that would work. I mean, it’s fun being multiracial, but I think it’s made me more aware of race in everyday situations. I’m always conscious of race, all the time.

Sharon’s journey of negotiating her identity echoes other accounts of multiracial college students coming to terms with their identities during college. However, her journey was slightly complicated by her parents’ assertion that ethnic identity was less critical because she already had an identity as a Christian. Yet, Sharon found a way to bring these two worlds together when she encountered the idea at an IVCF conference that her ethnic identity was created by God and therefore important.

In this way, ethnic identity and faith identity were seen as mutually reinforcing. Viewed as part of God’s unique design of people and purpose for the world, IVCF members generally cast ethnicity in a highly positive light. Even though there were several cases of students who stated that their ethnic identity was secondary to their identity as Christians, I did not encounter any students who asserted that ethnic identity was irrelevant or counterproductive to Christian unity. Instead, ethnic identity and faith identity were generally seen as mutually reinforcing.

By better understanding one’s ethnic identity, students hoped to gain a more authentic sense of who God created them to be. To use religious language, by attributing ethnic identity to God, ethnic identity itself was “redeemed” as valuable, rather than something to be subsumed by a more salient religious identity. Through this reframing, ethnic identity was cast as relevant to the pursuit of faith. In turn, faith provided an additional rationale for students to value ethnic identity.

Applying a Christian-Inspired Approach

Finally, a third way that IVCF drew congruency between race and faith was to draw on what I call a Christian-inspired methodology. Two of these approaches included looking to the Bible for spiritual direction on race and using Christian principles to create a safe space to discuss race. Some students specifically cited the Bible as being the foundation for why they felt a multiethnic community was important, like Yuka, a Japanese American senior:

I think the Bible has a lot to say about how I view just the world, but in terms of unity, it just talks a lot about how we’re not an isolated group that only loves our own specific type of people. It talks specifically about loving everyone universally, and so that has opened up many spheres in my life to just relate more with other types of people, just being conscious of that.

A second way that IVCF students and staff developed an approach for students to address race was through drawing on Christian principles to facilitate their discussions of race. Students brought up how certain personal attributes, such as civility and humility, associated with being Christian made discussing race possible or even easier .

Erica, a Black senior, noted that discussions about race could be difficult and conflict-ridden. However, she also noted how faith influenced students’ commitment to engage in civil discourse about difference: “We’re Christian people, so we’re not like screaming at each other, but I’ve learned a lot.” Robin, a Black senior, noted how the Christian principal of humility helped students approach the issue of race in their friendships, making it more acceptable to admit mistakes or ignorance. Similarly, in the New Testament, Philippians 2:3 exhorts Christians to “in humility, consider others as better than yourselves.”

CHALLENGING PREJUDICE THROUGH FAITH AND BEYOND

Naturally, traits like civility and humility are not the exclusive domain of any religious or spiritual heritage, and neither is the concept of ethnic identity. I do not want to overstate the applicability of my findings to the remarkable range of religious and spiritual beliefs, or lack thereof, among college students. Outside the Christian domain, my work on IVCF is an example of how the “pursuit of the common goal,” as Allport (1954) puts it, can support interracial interaction, friendship, and community on college campuses. Nor does the issue of race necessarily need to be displaced by a common unified interest or identity. Educators can make race matter by helping students to see how it relates to the goals that are bringing them together, from a basketball team trying to make sense of Don Imus’ racist remarks against the Rutgers’ women’s team several years ago to the jazz ensemble beginning to understand the evolution of the musical tradition.

My findings do have particularly direct implications for the many Christian colleges around the country, many of which have low institutional commitments to advancing diversity (Parades-Collins, 2009). Many evangelical Christians and, in particular, White evangelical Christians embrace a colorblind philosophy in which they discount the relevance of race to individuals and society (Emerson & Smith, 2000). My study directly challenges this population to consider what it is doing to advance the call to love one’s neighbor as him or herself. Depending on one’s exposure to Christian America, the trend of colorblindness might seem like something that affects a relatively small sector of the population. However, as Emerson and Smith (2000) note, the tendency of many White Christians to overlook or disregard systemic inequalities continues to divide Black and White Christians, and in turn works to exacerbate broader ideological divides in this country. Just as Allport stated, there is something in religion that leads to prejudice. However, my research on IVCF affirms his observation that religion can also play an important role in unraveling and challenging prejudice.


Julie J. Park is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at Miami University. Her dissertation, When Race and Religion Hit Campus: An Ethnographic Examination of a Campus Religious Organization, examined how intersections between organizational culture and campus demography influenced opportunities for cross-racial interaction and friendship in a religious student subculture. Other research interests include Asian American students, college access, and spirituality/religion. Her work has been published in venues such as the Journal of Higher Education, the Review of Higher Education, and Research in Higher Education. She received her Ph.D. in Education at UCLA.

References

Allport, G.W. (1954). The nature of prejudice. Reading: Addison-Wesley.

Allport, G. W. (1966). The religious nature of prejudice. Journal for the Scientific Study of Religion, 5(3), 447-457.

Emerson, M. O., & Smith, C. (2000). Divided by faith: Evangelical religion and the problem of race in America. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Gaertner, S. L., & Dovidio, J. F. (2000). Reducing intergroup bias: The common ingroup identity model. Philadelphia: Psychology Press.

Parades-Collins, K. (2009). Institutional priority for diversity at Christian institutions. Christian Higher Education, 8, 280-303.

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