Black to School: Reflections on My Time at a Christian University
Editor’s Note: This is an unofficial addition to a much needed conversation taking place at christenacleveland.com entitled “Black to School: African-American Voices at Christian University”, a 7-part series that aims “to affirm and give voice to the long-silenced stories of black students.” As an alumnus of a Christian University, I thought it might be helpful to unofficially chime in.
In 2006, I attended Belhaven University (formerly Belhaven College) in Jackson, MS on a basketball scholarship. Perhaps when you read Jackson, MS, you leaned in because you are sure my story will be the juiciest, laced with racial slurs from young KKKs with ropes in hand. That’s not Jackson. Don’t believe the hype or horror. Furthermore Belhaven is extremely diverse in regards to race, socio-economic status and culture largely due to the fact that it is a Christian Liberal Arts school and is one of only 30 schools in the United States to be nationally accredited in all arts programs: dance, music, theatre and visual arts. Belhaven’s students are from all over the United States and the world, which makes it an ideal school to consider attending.
Originally from rural Pickens, MS where blacks are the dominant majority, I experienced complete culture shock when I arrived at Belhaven. Initially, I engaged and interacted as I did back home. Although I was only 45 minutes away, I soon realized that I wasn’t in Pickens anymore.
The conversations were different. The clothes were different. What was socially acceptable back home was not always acceptable here. For the first time in my life I was a minority. I felt like an alien and outsider. It was in college I fully realized what W.E.B. Du Bois describes so eloquently in The Souls of Black Folk:
“One ever feels his twoness – an American, a Negro; two souls, two thoughts, two unreconciled strivings; two warring ideals in one dark body, whose dogged strength alone keeps it from being torn asunder.”
There were some things about me that needed to change for the sake of spiritual maturity and personal growth. However, I felt this implicit internal and external pressure to become “white” in certain social settings in order to be accepted. I was laughed at for not getting a joke or not catching certain cultural references. Students were not sympathetic because the assumption was “all Americans should know this.” After taking a mission trip in 2008 to Kenya, I realized that principles used by Christians on the mission field were not being applied at home. For example, the famous “it’s not right or wrong, it’s just different” was only applied over seas and never with minority neighbors in the States.
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As relationships progressed, people began to get more comfortable and make ignorant remarks. My favorite was “Phil, you’re not really black.” This communicated that this person thought “black” equaled ghetto, ignorant, and inarticulate. Sadly, this stereotype is perpetuated in the black community as well when we call our brothers “Uncle Toms” and “house negroes” for communicating opinions that are labeled “white”. Other noteworthy ignorant statements made to my face include “racism doesn’t still exist”, “there shouldn’t be a Black History month”, and referencing blacks as “colored” (although this was as innocent as it was ignorant) to name a few. I won’t even get into all of the interracial dating challenges I encountered, another topic for another day.
I’ll admit that some of my negative experiences had a lot to do with culture. However, situations were heightened due to ethnic differences and dynamics. There have been times I’ve heard whites say they should be able to address blacks and whites equally without considering race. This argument is unacceptable and if applied in other similar situations, such as addressing and engaging abuse victims and people who haven’t been abused equally without regards to their unique experiences, would be labeled naïve and insensitive. We have a history in this country that neither our emotions nor memories will allow us to ignore, even if we tried. Therefore, in order to advance race relations, we must be willing to deal with the history, rather than ignore it.
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Why I Made It
Despite bad experiences, I survived. I used “survived” loosely. I absolutely loved my time at Belhaven. Apart from God’s effectual grace, I credit my overall good experience to his relational providence. At the end of my freshman year, I almost quit. Due to a painful experience that was partially birthed out of my own sin, I concluded that Belhaven was not for me and decided I should complete my education elsewhere. After this decision was made public, I received gracious calls from school officials, coaches, staff and students encouraging me reconsider. It was then I begn to realize that they cared.
I returned to campus and the following semester was introduced to the new campus minister for Reformed University Fellowship. He was white so I engaged him pessimistically while he pursued me persistently. The Lord primarily used him to equip me spiritually and emotionally to engage majority culture. His name is Chad Smith and the weapon he armed me with was the Gospel.
The Gospel compelled me to not only love God, but also my neighbor. The Gospel furnished me with tough skin to encounter rejection and at the same time a soft heart to respond with charity. The Gospel gave me vision to see my own blind spots and sin before an omnipotent and flawless God. Consequently, the Gospel gave me deep, rich, strong cross cultural relationships. To this day, I live in community and do life with a good amount of friends I made in college and still keep up with professors and staff. One professor, Dr. Wynn Kenyon who is now with Jesus, was dear to me. He taught me how to think.
[Tweet “The Gospel furnished me with tough skin and at the same time a soft heart.”]
[Tweet “The Gospel gave me vision to see my own blind spots and sin before an omnipotent and flawless God.”]
Everyone that has encountered Belhaven did not have my experience. I know students that left due to cultural and ethnic challenges. It’s not perfect. Yet I’m pleased with the institution’s efforts over the years to make it a safe place for minorities. I’m committed to being apart of these efforts for the rest of my life because I know that when the university is at it’s best, great things happen.
5 thoughts on “Black to School: Reflections on My Time at a Christian University”
Nice piece brother.
Since you say that racism still exists, why are you not directing your comments to whites instead of going on about personal responsibility of blacks? Why are you not taking white leaders to task, instead of deliberately using “Al Sharptons of the world” as your stereotypical black leader pushing for government dependency? Frankly, as a white woman, your comments depress me profoundly.
” I was laughed at for not getting a joke or not catching certain cultural references. ”
Brother, let me say thank you for your graciousness in handling such a sensitive topic. I appreciate that deeply. It’s so crucial to challenge stereotypes rooted in racist presuppositions (like you pointed out friends would say, “Phil, you’re not really black.”) Hit the nail on the head. Thanks for that.
I’m a white guy, so I read articles such as these from a white guy’s angle trying to understand race-relations with my black brothers and sisters as best I can. I’m committed to this conversation. Still, after reading your article, I confess I am left with key questions that I think are close to the root of tensions. You write,
“There have been times I’ve heard whites say they should be able to
address blacks and whites equally without considering race. This
argument is unacceptable and if applied in other similar situations such
as, addressing and engaging abuse victims and people who haven’t been
abused equally without regards to their unique experiences, would be
labeled naïve and insensitive. We have a history in this country that
neither our emotions nor memories will allow us to ignore, even if we
tried. Therefore, in order to advance race relations, we must be willing
to deal with the history, rather than ignore it.”
A few things come to mind when I read this. The first is that, I think all sides should be slow to call an argument unacceptable. Many people–myself included–feel there could be a genuine point to be made here, provided it is made with care and brokenness. Is there nothing to be said for the dangers of developed dependency on expectations adjusted according to race? Shouldn’t high expectations be sought for all? What precisely is the nature of this “addressing blacks and whites differently” which you call for? And at least in theory, isn’t the equal treatment (addressing) of blacks and whites *ideal,* provided equal treatment does not brush over or brush aside cultural distinctives?
But as a white man, this is the rub–something like individualism with respect to personal accountability. Granted, my individualism is partly a function of my whiteness in American culture. (It’s also partly due to my deeply held conviction that all human beings will personally have to give an account to God for their own personal actions.) Granted, certain social structures and other pathologies effect a person’s stances. But this is why the abuse analogy, to my thinking, doesn’t jive.
In the case of the abuse victim, the person is *directly victim.* Of course, that doesn’t mean blacks aren’t victimized as a consequence of racism daily. (They surely are.) That doesn’t mean racism doesn’t exist anymore. (It surely does.) It does mean that there is a fair categorical difference between the direct victimization of blacks as slaves or second-class persons (as per segregation laws) and the indirect victimization of blacks as underprivileged urban majority,
where the latter, contemporary victimization has some causal connection to blacks themselves.
This can’t be said for the abuse victim. While racism that demeans a
person by virtue of skin color still exists today, it is far more rare,
and certainly no longer basks in the approval of broader American
But more to the point: do we really want to portray blacks as endlessly victimized? I have a few black friends I’ve discussed this point with, and they tell me that such portrayal as victim is, from their perspective, counterproductive. They don’t want to be ignorant of history. But neither do they want to be thought of as being held down by society, for fear of self-fulfilling prophecy.
I suspect when definitions of racism are taken away from the individual–to mean something closer to systemic structures of oppression (in which capitalism is typically though misleadingly included)–I confess I bristle. Not because there’s nothing to be said for systemic racism, but because it’s too easy to shift the lens away from personal accountability. And I’ve had too many such conversations where complicity in self-destructive culture is merely swept aside beneath language of victimization (“Well, we wouldn’t be here in the first place if it weren’t for patterns imbibed thanks to slavery.” True as this is, it doesn’t change the fact that it shifts focus away from personal accountability–where I believe God’s focus, when we meet him, will be; Rom. 14:12.)
And while some blacks are still directly victims of racism and some whites still cling to stereotypes driven by racism (older R definition–judging a person’s character by virtue of skin color), to connect the history of slavery back to personalized victimization, to my thinking (as a white man), undermines race-relations progress. To put it in the form of a question: How many generations need to pass by before the current black generation no longer considers itself victims of slavery’s residue? Six generations? Seven generations? Admittedly recent as the history is, it can and will be appealed to indefinitely unless there is some clear stopping point where blacks can say, “OK, I’m no longer victim of white hegemony.” It seems to me that race-relation conversations should proceed surrounding clear, discernible, and achievable goals beyond banner words “equity,” “progress,” or “equality.” Because as long as there are no set goals or time frames around the conversation, the Al Sharptons of this world will continue the drive towards governmental dependency, playing off the fear that anyone who disagrees wants to “put y’all back in chains.”
Of course, many won’t agree with these points. I think the most important point is that we who are in Christ constitute a “new race” in the Gospel. And to tow tired tribal lines of black and white…there must be a better way of thinking through these issues that take us beyond the labels of “victim” and “racist oppressor.”
Sincere apologies for the comment’s length! I hope this hasn’t been too offensive, but, it’s my shot at honesty in dialogue. Love you brother, thanks again for this thoughtful article.
Phil, thanks for sharing this. I think you hit on a significant point that race doesn’t matter as long as blacks conform to a particular image. Praise God for the wonderful experiences too and that you speak so highly of them.