The Traditions of Racism at Christian Universities

Whether it is Seattle Pacific University or other universities, stories of culture appropriations at universities have been surfacing over the last couple of years. From black face parties in Frat houses, to Yoga Clubs at the school gyms — college administrators have been asking where to draw the line.

I have been asking myself a different question lately.

Who draws these lines?

Who determines how far is too far?

Who gets to say enough is enough?

Unfortunately for the students who are the actual casualties of culture appropriation, it ain’t going to be them — or anyone who represents them. The people who draw the lines are the same ones asking themselves why “millennials have gotten so sensitive”. But the attribution of “sensitivity” to describe the outcry for justice from “millennials” comes from those who aren’t doing the suffering — those who inherit the luxury of being exempt from the sufferings others endure. Or can’t endure.

White people and People of Color (POC) who have internalized white supremacy are the ones making these decisions. Those who oppose the radical changes that “social justice warriors” are fighting for are usually those who prefer to preserve the status quo, and they do so by controlling the narrative through which social justice movements, and the activists within them, are framed. And whoever controls the dominant narrative also holds a disproportionate ability to influence the public mind. All throughout history, pro-status quo folks attempt to retain their monopoly on power by publicly distorting the motivation, character, and intentions of those who are fighting for change.

White administrators and their privilege and/or ignorance restricts them from seeing past their lens of ‘Whiteness’ in order to acknowledge the destruction that cultural appropriation does to the appropriated culture. Many universities operate under this Whiteness because of the social makeup of their university’s senior leadership team.

Old. White. Men.

I worked at Seattle Pacific University for a year, and I have witnessed first hand the inability to take action against these micro/macro-aggressions, as well as the invalidation of emotions/harm taking place. The program I worked for is called Multi-Ethnic Programs and its purpose is to advise students of color from diverse backgrounds as well as to advise student clubs/organizations that reflect a diverse culture. At least I thought.

Basically, I signed up to support non-white students as they navigated through a white Christian university. Throughout their four years, a student of color will experience racism, discrimination, lack of resources, isolation, social dislocation, emotional instability, and many other things, due to the color of their skin. If you think things would be different because SPU is a Christian school reflecting Christian values, you’re wrong. Many of us POC know that Christians can be the most racist people group in America. It is no different here at this mid-sized Christian university in “liberal” Seattle. In fact, most Trump supporters I’ve met claim to be Christian.

Working in the Multi-Ethnic Programs, I heard a lot of things in my conversations with the students I advised.

The racism experienced by students varied with the individuals. However, there was a clear common thread of where racism was always prevalent in SPU: the dorm life.

SPU slightly differs from larger universities in that they don’t allow sororities or fraternities. That sort of makes sense, seeing as how SPU is a Christian university. The school also has a strict “no alcohol” policy on campus. SPU, however, did not want to rob the students of the full “college” experience, so they created floor traditions.

Every dorm on campus (five in total) has floor traditions that students living on the floor participate in. While the school itself does not enforce participation in these traditions, there is an expectation that all who live in the dorms must participate in the floor tradition. The biggest difference between fraternities/sororities and these floor traditions is that one can choose which frat/sorority to pledge for — if they want to at all. The students at SPU are randomly assigned rooms and have an impossibly difficult time moving unless an “incident happens.”

Some floors are more known by students than other floors, and some of the floors have been around for a long time. One of the most well-known floors is 6th West Ashton, also known as the Orange Men.

This group of college students has a tradition of dressing up in orange prison jumpsuits and marching around campus, recently heard saying publicly “Orange Lives Matter!” mockingly. They are blatantly noticeable at most school functions and sporting events.

SPU dorm tradition called “The Orange Men” posted in the SPU yearbook

Many students came and shared with me their experience with these Orange Men. Many of these students have had loved ones in prison. Many of them have been traumatized by our country’s prison system. Many of them feel “tainted” because of the aura that may come with having a loved one in prison. Some students coming into my office have learned the oppressive and destructive history America has with mass incarceration. Others learn from classes what exactly the prison industrial complex is. But many have no idea why their black and brown family members are so commonly in prison while their white classmates haven’t met one convicted felon for themselves.

So here they were, at a Christian school where these predominantly white students proudly stroll around campus in prison jumpsuits.

One student confided that the first basketball game he ever attended in his freshman year was also last.

“My father died in prison, he suffered and ended up losing his life to the prison industrial complex. He died in prison and it killed me. So when I see these mostly white students running around in orange jumpsuits, it affects my whole experience here at SPU.”

I saw another student while I worked at SPU who is Native American. He was the first student I saw and the only thing I knew about him was that he refused to live in the dorms. He commuted to campus and had to travel 90 minutes using bus, train, and his legs. When I started working at SPU I already knew about the Orange Men. I knew he didn’t live on that floor and asked what was so wrong with his floor that he wanted to commute every day from such a far distance. I then learned that it didn’t end with the Orange Men. Another floor in the same Dorm complex also participated in major culture appropriation. These group of men called themselves The Tribe. The photo below shows themselves painted in what they would describe as tribal paint, mimicking the Native culture here in America.

SPU dorm tradition called “The Tribe” posted in the SPU yearbook

Imagine being this student, away from his tribe and family — thousands of miles away — trying to survive at this school. The “tribe’s” traditions, I learned later, consisted of painting themselves a couple times a year while removing most of their clothing. It doesn’t matter who you were or where you came from, this is mob mentality. If you wanted to fit in, survive, and assimilate, you did what everyone else did.

I imagine what most of you are thinking: why don’t these sensitive black and brown students pick another school to go to? Well, consider this. Many of the students I saw were first generation college students who would have never imagined a 4-year education. Many have never had other scholarship opportunities. They come to SPU and know they should be grateful for the opportunity for education. As we POC hear many times, education should be “the great equalizer” to society. For those reasons alone it is no surprise that SPU’s diversity rate has shot up from 5 percent to almost 40 percent within the last decade. SPU made a conscious effort to give students from urban neighborhoods an educational opportunity they normally would not have. But gratefulness and assimilation can only go so far. What SPU and other small Christian colleges don’t expose are their raw retention rates. How many of these “should be grateful” students actually make it through college? How many of them barely survive physically, mentally, emotionally through graduation?

Not many. Not many at all. In fact, many universities have retention rates as low as 40 percent for black and brown and indigenous students.

The national college graduation rate for black men is 33.1 percent compared with 44.8 percent for black women, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Seattle Pacific University’s slogan is to “Engage the Culture and Change the World”. With evidence of discouraging retention rates, I have to ask myself whose culture is SPU actually engaging? Whose world are we changing? Sticking students of color in small classrooms twice a month and calling it a multi-ethnic club does not show POC that their culture actually matters. In fact, what it shows students is that SPU is like most of white America, willing to acknowledge the “other” only to the point of exploitation. They will take POC’s culture, food, clothing, stories, and slap them on a prospective student pamphlet until their cultures are fully appropriated. Universities know that adding POC on their advertisements will increase their chances of recruiting students of color. As long as your pamphlet is diverse and inclusive, the rest of your school apparently does not have to be.

So where do they draw the line? Can we trust them to draw the lines? For white, privileged, mostly male administrators who will never know what it means to step into the shoes of their black and brown students, where do they draw the line? What will it take for white America to see that culture appropriation goes beyond the sensitivity of millennial students wanting to be politically correct?

I no longer work for Multi-Ethnic programs. I could not compromise. There was nothing more I felt called to during my time there than to advocate for the marginalized students at SPU. This may seem like a given considering my job description. But something happens when you realize that the only way to change where the line is drawn at an institution like SPU is to take the pencil in your own possession, so that the oppressed — who have the most credentials with suffering and therefore with liberation — may draw the lines necessary for the empowerment of the vulnerable. If anyone can erase all the lines that were made to ‘box in’ people who are different from the dominant culture, it is only the oppressed who have the credentials of experience and wisdom to do so.

Unfortunately, most times when we try to steal the pencil from the oppressor, they end up just sharpening it and piercing you with it. But those wounds won’t stop my advocacy, because the traumatization of these students need to stop. It will take us, the oppressed, to take a stand and keep reaching for that pencil. It is time for us to survive.