Lipscomb University, in Nashville, TN, has had a rough few weeks since it became a flashpoint for racial angst and conflict in mid-September. Although the racially fraught moment occurred recently at the President’s home, the campus has carried and covered frustrations around race and inclusion for a long time. Looking at this moment provides us with a helpful thought experiment in how we actually go about welcoming marginalized others into the spaces we hope to share. First, context:
Lipscomb is a Church of Christ school, and as such is considered more exclusive of others than inclusive. This view does not represent the vast majority of the members of the University community; nevertheless, this reputation is important contextually because the University leadership is actively trying to transform the type of community Lipscomb represents. Among many other thoughtful and successful initiatives, the President of Lipscomb hosted two dinners in his home this fall for students of color with stated goals to celebrate and get to know these students as they shared their experience. At the dinner with black students, some were uncomfortable when they saw cotton centerpieces on the table and were served collared greens and cornbread. They were further disappointed when asked to share the ways in which they were finding Lipscomb to be a transformative experience, but not asked to share the ways in which Lipscomb can be a lonely or difficult place for a student of color. When students expressed their discomfort with the evening, the President was quick to clarify that an employee had decorated and picked the menu, defensively dismissing their concerns. While the President, faculty and students have since made efforts to learn from each other, this incident, and the ongoing fallout, provides us with an important example of how uncomfortable we are with discussing or dealing with perceived and real racial divides.
As a professor on campus, I feel strongly that adult followers of Christ in university settings have a responsibility to facilitate conversations with our students about this situation, as well as other current events in our local and national communities. In these divided times, a willingness to discuss such events can be perceived as an aggressive act, as if acknowledging the pain or discomfort some of our students experience is a slight against the system. Lipscomb is like the city of Nashville and the rest of our country in that most of us are curious about the experiences of others, and most of us are willing to hear from a person whose life is very different than our own. Most of us are even willing to stand with and defend people once we have heard and understand their stories. The problem is that most Americans move in homogenous circles in which we do not regularly interact with people whose experience of the world is different from our own.
The dinners reveal this segregation. The President’s desire to connect with and hear from students of color is a good and necessary one. We can have the best of plans to create welcoming spaces for others, but unless others help design those spaces in the first place, and unless we are willing to ask for their feedback about the success of our effort, our intentions might not be realized. If Lipscomb University, like so many institutions and churches in Nashville, has the humility to recognize they have not successfully welcomed all types of people, and then the wherewithal and energy to take action to create a more inclusive environment, success should then be measured by the people being welcomed. Intentions to be inclusive are not, in fact, inclusive unless excluded people feel included. The menu choices and presence of cotton are not inherently racist acts; instead these choices suggest that the team planning the dinner did not include people of color. It also suggests a lack of cultural competency. We become culturally competent when we spend time with people whose cultural norms are different from our own. No shame is required when our ignorance of other cultures is revealed; however, active steps must be taken to learn about and understand marginalized cultures. I do not believe the President or his team meant to be disrespectful or hurtful; nevertheless, their choices revealed a lack of awareness about and engagement with marginalized communities.
When a person expresses discomfort, the appropriate antiracist response is to listen to that perspective, apologize for the discomfort caused, and create a welcoming space for dialogue with all the energy one has. The problematic moment of this particular evening was the immediate response of defensive distance when discomfort was confessed. If people in power want to create hospitable environments where all are welcome, where equitable opportunity is available to all, then we must listen to the perspectives of others in all parts of the process, even if that perspective states, “I know you tried really hard to welcome me, but I feel unwelcome for these reasons.” Disappointing people is, well, disappointing. Failing at an effort to be hospitable, especially when the effort made was great, is frustrating; however, frustration is not a reason ignore or belittle the concerns of another.
For many white people who find themselves in institutions and churches where everyone looks the same, there is a movement stirring to change the reality of our discomfort with difference. There is an awareness spreading that we have taken action to create these homogenous communities, even if we didn’t mean to. There is a call to action being pursued by many who want to intentionally welcome others to belong. This movement, this awareness and these actions are not enough though. If we want to be successful in this work, we must first invite those we pursue to help shape the changing environment. Invite them to the table not after it is set, but as the work is beginning. Dream up the event together. Secondly, people with power must ask for the opinions and experiences of those they have welcomed, and then respect the fact that they have a right to their opinions! Do not pretend to care for others if you get defensive when those others are human beings who perceive and experience life differently than you anticipated. Listen. Learn. Appreciate. Apologize.
I am grateful for conversations I hear on campus. It is true that many picked sides with no investigation, and many students of color have been called racial slurs, attacked and maligned by those outside this immediate community. However, the students I know continue to patiently explain their perspectives, their disappointments, and their hope for honest and active reconciliation moving forward. As each of us works to expand our us, let’s consider their words: