Theology How to be an Ally 101 Christian Living Identity

5 Ways Christian Institutions of Higher Education Can Avoid White Supremacy

Jarvis Williams

When you hear the phrase “white supremacy,” you might naturally associate it with violent, white hate groups that assaulted, harassed, and murdered people of color in the 1900s to create and preserve a white society.

In my view, this is a narrow understanding of white supremacy. Certainly, the above definition is an example of white supremacy. But white supremacy is fundamentally an ideology of hate that prioritizes whiteness, believes whiteness is superior, and that degrades non-whiteness. This version of white supremacy is educated, articulate, clothed in suits and ties, and skinny jeans. It is successfully working to overcome the images of violence, white sheets, and burning crosses of the 1900s.

If white supremacy is fundamentally an ideology of hate that prioritizes whiteness and degrades non-whiteness, then a white supremacist ideology is present whenever and wherever the stories of people of color are left untold, ignored, marginalized, or dismissed because they do not represent or cohere with the counter narratives of majority white culture.

In many cases, there are those at middle class and elite white colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries who will not recognize the need to push against a white supremacist ideology, because these institutions have benefited from the racism against people of color that still exists in both society and in the structures of the US, including many US institutions of higher learning (e.g. schools were founded by slave owners and financially sustained by money earned on the backs of exploited slaves).

Below, I offer 5 things Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries can intentionally do to avoid becoming or to stop being white supremacist hubs. These 5 suggestions are not listed by order of importance.

  1. Don’t Make Excuses for the Racism of Certain Heroes of the Christian Faith

Christians love their heroes, so much that they might even ignore their gross sins and faults. The sad reality is some of the heroes of the Christian faith were racists. From Martin Luther to Jonathan Edwards, the history of western Christianity is grossly stained with the dark spot of racism.

As much as I appreciate Luther’s 95 theses, he was still an anti-Semitic racist. As important as Jonathan Edwards was to “evangelical” Christianity in the new world, he was a racist who owned slaves. Many black and brown people have grown weary of listening to our white brothers and sisters constantly praise the virtues of our white heroes of the faith while making excuses for or ignoring their racism.

  1. Don’t Make Political Ideology A Mark of Christian or Institutional Identity

Some Christians express that Jesus prefers one political party over another, and associate political affiliation with Christian identity. This point became most clear to me during the 2016 presidential election when prominent Christians wrote articles and gave interviews suggesting that Christians should vote for the current President-Elect.

Even though the President-Elect offended many black and brown people and women because of his racist and misogynist remarks, many white (and a few black and brown) Christians still voted for him. Some of those who voted for him dismissed the fear and anxiety that many of their brothers and sisters in Christ were experiencing. This fear and anxiety stemmed from the uncertainty of what the next four years would be like for people of color.

  1. Don’t Be Color Blind

Colorblindness is impossible for black and brown people living in a racialized country. Leadership at white Christian institutions that naively thinks colorblindness is a possibility or should be the goal in a racialized society, where racist social constructs have already shaped and determined an institution’s ideas about certain groups of people (especially about people of color) because of the color of their skin, will continue to prioritize whiteness and to malign, ignore, or dismiss non-whiteness in either overt or covert ways.

White people generally don’t have to think about their racial identity in the US because they are the majority culture and this country did not begin by forcing whiteness to the fringes of society or to be socially oppressed as slaves. Whiteness is normalized and beautified virtually everywhere in American society—in commercials, in movies, in magazines, in churches (Surprisingly, I’ve even seen images of white Jesuses in black and brown churches), and in places of employment. But black and brown identities have a history of denigration and ostracism because their black and brown bodies are not white.

For at least these reasons, black and brown people must not only constantly think about our racial identities, but we often suffer because of them. Whether we’re called Nigger, Spic, half-breed, Uncle Tom, wetback, chink, whether we’ve been denied an opportunity because of our skin color, whether we’re viewed with suspicion, or whether our good work is ignored because of the color of our skin, people of color know firsthand what it’s like to live in a racialized society that, on the one hand, tells us to be color blind and to stop talking about race, but, on the other hand, to live in a society where people of color suffer racism from some of those same people who call for colorblindness.

When white Christian institutions call for colorblindness, people of color often hear this to mean that those institutions don’t care about the racialized narratives of the suffering of black and brown people, whose identity in the US cannot be separated from suffering because of the color of their skin.

So-called colorblindness often serves as a means by which racism and white supremacy are perpetuated in white institutions, because there will be those in majority white culture, in white institutions, who will be blind to and apathetic toward the racial injustice facing many people of color. This would happen both in a racialized society and in their very own racialized institutions because the experience of racism is often not part of the narrative of majority culture in majority white cultural contexts.

Apathy toward black and brown suffering at predominately white institutions will be even more likely if these white institutions have no black or brown people in positions of institutional power or privilege. In other words, colorblindness in a mono-ethnic white institution will prioritize the majority white culture, because if the majority white culture dismisses or is blind to the normal and everyday racialized experiences of black and brown people, they will likely import their normalized majority cultural narrative onto black and brown people at the institution and will attempt to normalize whiteness for them.

  1. Read and Require Black and Brown Authors

Many Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries advance a white supremacist ideology by virtue of their curriculum and syllabi. I’m amazed that certain students can graduate from certain white Christian institutions and never be required to read a non-white author. Shocking, but true!

I often receive emails from a diverse group of women and men throughout the country, who studied at theologically diverse colleges, universities, seminaries, or divinity schools, asking me for a reading list of black and brown authors because their institutions only required them to read white authors (and in many cases, they read “only” white male authors)! This is not only a problem at so-called theologically conservative institutions, but certain liberal and progressive Christian schools also ignore black and brown scholarship.

A fast way to advance a white supremacist ideology at a Christian institution of higher learning is to create a culture of belief that only white people have made contributions to the history of ideas. A culture of white superiority is created in part when white institutions require students to read “only” white authors. There are too many students (black, brown, and white) graduating from white Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries that believe white people are the only ones who have made or are making significant contributions to the church, to the academy, or to society.

White Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries that ignore black and brown scholarship are teaching their white students that whiteness is superior to non-whiteness. They are also teaching their black and brown students to self-hate and to despise non-white contributions to the church, the academy, and society. White institutions that only require black and brown authors as a foil against which to argue are no better in pushing against a white supremacist ideology than those institutions that fail to require black and brown authors at all.

  1. Intentionally Pursue Qualified Black and Brown People to fill Positions with “Real” Institutional Power and Privilege

Institutional racism doesn’t change from the bottom up, but from the top down. White Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries that want to avoid being white supremacist hubs must share real institutional privilege and power with qualified black and brown people.

By “real” institutional power and privilege, I mean the institution must not simply hire minorities to fill “ethnic” specific positions (e.g. professor of black church studies, Korean church studies, director of institutional diversity, etc). Instead, white institutions must intentionally pursue the best black and brown hire that the institution can afford and bestow upon that black or brown person “real” institutional power that would enable her or him to have a say in the structural direction of the institution, not simply a say in the “ethnic” progress of the institution.

It’s naïve for white institutions to think that mono-ethnic white institutional leadership can deconstruct a white supremacist reputation and heritage amongst people of color. In fact, white institutions who think that they’re able to avoid becoming a white supremacist institution without black or brown leadership are blinded by their own privilege.

Predominately white institutions are predominately white for historical and cultural reasons. These institutions need the help of people of color to lead them away from and to keep them away from all forms of white supremacy, especially intellectual white supremacy.

May God help Christian colleges, universities, divinity schools, and seminaries avoid becoming or to stop being white supremacist hubs. And may the leaders of these institutions be willing to learn from and submit under black and brown leadership in efforts to help their institutions reflect the beautiful ethnic diversity of the kingdom of God as we continue to live in the present evil age as members of the universal family of Abraham, with many ethnically diverse Christians throughout the world.

5 thoughts on “5 Ways Christian Institutions of Higher Education Can Avoid White Supremacy

  1. g

    Hello Joshua,

    I appreciate what seems to me to be a firm but kind interaction. As to your Asian reference, I think a carful re-read of Dr. Williams article may produce the consistency you are looking for: “Whether we’re called Nigger, Spic, half-breed, Uncle Tom, wetback, chink, whether we’ve been denied an opportunity because of our skin color, whether we’re viewed with suspicion, or whether our good work is ignored because of the color of our skin, people of color know firsthand what it’s like to live in a racialized society that, on the one hand, tells us to be color blind and to stop talking about race, but, on the other hand, to live in a society where people of color suffer racism from some of those same people who call for colorblindness.”

    I believe the sixth pejorative That Dr. Williams used is a reference to Asians. So it seems to me not only is he consistent, but I believe he is personally familiar with this pejorative because of family ties. Furthermore, I don’t believe his over arching point is blacks as much as it is nonwhite or any people of color other than white.

    However, because he is addressing institutions like the SBTS and the SBC and their difficulty as to their own histories and the ongoing legacy of white founding individual’s unbiblical views of blacks in particular, it seems then appropriate to address this as at least a black and white issue on those terms.

    As to slavery spoken of in scripture, I read slavery was not always the worst situation. In fact sometimes I believe it was at least temporally preferable as an alternative for the poor who had no family help or land. But even then Paul says gain freedom anyway if can. And I believe Paul even try’s to persuade new believer Philemon to fully except Onesimus and treat him as an equal. I think then how much more mature believers should understand this instruction of Paul.

    In our case though, man stealing or at least knowingly dealing in stolen men as property is the charge against the church. Surely we have no Biblical way to make that alright. I just think we the church will not be forgiven by God until we come to terms over how wicked this sin really is and name the sinners and their sins as we read, to our benefit, the sins of our hero’s of the faith in scripture.

    I read in Romans chapter one, even an unbeliever “clearly perceived” he is stealing, selling, buying and owning a person made by God in His image. How much more Johnathan Edwards then. No, we simply will have no excuse when we stand before God. We know. He knew.

    Correct me if I am wrong, but I don’t believe Edwards owned or tried to purchase any other race other than black. I’m not even sure there were any other race available for sale at that time. Even if there were, some how I just can’t imagine Edwards buying a blonde haired blue eyed teenaged girl or any white man allowing the black man you mention to own her ether. Yes, that to me is racist.

    I don’t know him personally, but In my view Dr Williams is doing us a favor if he is able to show us our sin. It is I think the purity and unity of the whole church that he is after. Wouldn’t you agree that it will be a great example to the world if the church could get past the sin of James chapter 2? Perhaps honest talk and listening like this will help that come about.

    If you are interested in more resources on the subject I have heard Dr Williams has a new book or study coming out: Removing The Stain of Racism from the Southern Baptist Convention: Diverse African-American Voices (co-editor). Nashville, TN: B&H Academic, Forthcoming 2017.

    Also Mark Dever, senior pastor of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D. C., and the President of 9Marks wrote: ” But my friend’s experience had been different. He had people in his life who said they shared his Savior, but because their skin color was different, they wouldn’t share their daughter, or their love. Having done nothing wrong, this friend had found, throughout his life, people who acted as his “enemies.” His history taught him different lessons than mine had taught me. But his probably allowed for experiences like mine, where mine had no place for experiences like his. So I needed to supplement the lessons my own history had taught me, with lessons that history had taught others—hard lessons—like the one my good friend had been taught.” You can find the entire interesting article on TGC recent archive.

    Praying for us now.

  2. Joshua Price

    Hello G,

    Thank you for your comment, I appreciate the interaction. I think you may have misunderstood me on two counts. First of all, regarding your request that I get to know Dr. Williams before I “get carried away with the Asian comments.” I am sure Dr. Williams is a wonderful man and a talented scholar, but that is not relevant to my critique. I mentioned the lack of mention of Asian Americans because it reveals an inconsistency in Dr. Williams’ position. You did not respond to that critique, nor did you explain how exactly I got “carried away.” Second, you say that you assume by my comments that I “don’t consider buying and selling black people racist.” I believe buying and selling people is inherently immoral, regardless of the color of their skin. Slavery is always wrong. There were black slaveowners who owned black slaves. Were they racist? Thank you for the resource recommendations. I will check those out when I have time.

  3. g

    Hello Joshua,

    Let me encourage you to get to know Dr. Williams and his family before you get to carried away with the Asian comments. I would also invite you to learn the history of the names on the buildings of the SBTS to look for some “proof” you say is missing. It might further help you to learn of Martin Luther’s racism as it surely will be discussed this 500 year anniversary. I assume by your comments that you don’t consider buying and selling black people racist so I won’t ask you to consider Johnathan Edwards. I hope you have time to read Dr. Williams book “One New Man”.That also might help you with the evidence you are lookin for. Perhaps if you have the time you would also benefit from listening to Dr. J. Ligon Duncan III, Chancellor & CEO, John E. Richards Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology who wrote and explains: “What happened? Reformed theology failed to apply our own theology to this question [of racial equality].” Praying for us now.

  4. Joshua Price

    Your redefinition of white supremacy is perplexing. I know of no Christian college or seminary has “an ideology of hate that prioritizes whiteness, believes whiteness is superior, and that degrades non-whiteness.” But you maintain that this ideology is present “whenever and wherever the stories of people of color are left untold.” Are you saying that the mere fact of an institution having a majority white population is white supremacist? Surely you don’t think your own seminary, SBTS, is white supremacist merely because most of the leadership are white?

    1. You said Edwards was racist, but you provided no evidence to support that claim. You mention black and brown minorities, but omit Asians. Why is that? It would seem that consistency would require you to advocate for their inclusion in this group of allegedly disadvantaged racial minorities.

    2. You rightly observe that political ideology is not equivalent to Christian identity, but we should not blur the distinctions between the two party platforms. The Democratic Party’s platform of infanticide and the profaning of marriage is completely opposed to Scripture and morality. A Christian with a biblical worldview cannot consistently support that platform.

    3. You provide no evidence of so-called black and brown suffering at “white institutions.” By the way, an institution cannot be “white” any more than it can be “blonde.” You provide no evidence of systemic racism, but you assume its presence. You speak several times of black and brown minorities, but never of Asian Americans. Why is this? Do you believe they are being discriminated against or not? If so, why didn’t you mention them? If not, then they appear to be a counterexample to your entire framing of “white supremacy.”

    4. So, you think that a professor ought to assign books on the basis of the author’s skin color? That is a racist practice. To make distinctions on the basis of race is wicked and ignorant. I don’t know the skin colors of most authors I read, unless I happen to see their picture. Thomas Sowell is one of my favorites and happens to be black. He also rejects this idea that racial minorities ought to receive preferential treatment.

    5. Are you saying that an institution ought to hire minorities simply because they are minorities, regardless of their qualifications? Or are you saying that if the qualifications are equal, they ought to hire a minority because they are a minority? Either way, you are advocating a racist policy of racial preferences in hiring. Also, you again exclude Asians. Do you think black and brown individuals should be preferred over whites and Asians, or just whites?

    Overall, a very troubling article.

  5. g

    Dr. Willliams, I lost my breath as I read your article as His Spirit witnessed to my spirit.

    As I am tempted to tell of the cost for those of us who have spoken these very words to the church, I am reminded of my failures because God did not give me this platform of authority. But, God is faithful. Here you are with a God given platform of authority.

    God impressed these very thoughts into my mind over the last decade and I have been so frustrated and even sinfully angry at times that I can be so easily silenced; But not you. How true and bold your message. You are sure to pay a price for telling this truth this way; Pauline like. Call me from prison; I will bring you your coat and papers if you like.

    Please know that we are praying for you and your family; this is my platform of authority. We love the church and long for her purity. Surly God has sent you to further her cleansing. Praying for us now.

Leave A Comment