Presentations at the ATS Committee on Race and Ethnicity Conference on "Racial Ethnic Faculty in Predominantly White Institutions" October 5-7, 2001 by Daniel Aleshire, The Association of Theological Schools
In my role at ATS, as I am sure is true in your roles as faculty, I am occasionally called upon to talk about something about which I know nothing. Being a teacher and preacher, I have developed the ability to go ahead and talk under such circumstances, and this talk is the quintessential example. I know absolutely nothing about what it means to grow up in this country except as a white person. I don't know what it means to have forged through doctoral study as a racial/ethnic graduate student. I know nothing about the work and worry of being a racial/ethnic faculty member in a predominantly white theological school. But the planners of this meeting were kind enough to ask me to talk, and I am honored to have the opportunity. There are some things I want to say in spite of my ignorance.
As I begin, I don't know whether I should ask for your patience--because I am not going to say well what I want to say, or for your forgiveness--because I am still unredeemed of the racism that flows in white thoughts, try as I have for a lifetime, not to think them. I want to pose three "unqualified thoughts." They are not unqualified in the sense that I will not properly limit them and use enough adjectives. I am enough of an academic that I can qualify most anything in that way. Rather, I mean that these thoughts are from an unqualified thinker. I simply don't know whereof I speak. These are the thoughts I am struggling with as ATS has undertaken some risky business.
For thirty years, the Association has taken racial inclusion and justice issues seriously-a commitment that is reflected in our documents and in our rhetoric. But ATS has not taken on the issue of race itself. For twenty years, we had a committee on "under-represented" constituencies. It was a term understood as a euphemism for racial/ethnic persons and women. We never defined the term, but no one ever argued that the committee should have more thin people, or more not-so-smart people, or more short people on it. Everyone seemed to know that "under-represented constituency" was code language for race and gender, but we had a hard time naming it for what it was. I wonder why? Usually, the inability to name something for what it is reflects an embarrassment (human beings have an infinite number of terms for going to the bathroom) or pain (we cannot talk about something because it hurts too much) or ignorance (we cannot talk of that we do not know). Race is a word that evokes all three. When something cannot be said, for whatever reasons, it is risky to begin talking about it.
So, when ATS says "race," it is engaging in risky business. The work plan that was adopted in 2000 contains the words "white" and "race" and "ethnicity," and I don't think those words have occurred in many ATS publications before. It is risky business to name something because naming it has a way of forcing people to deal with it. I still don't know that we have named the reality well. ATS uses the term "racial/ethnic," but we all have race and ethnicity. To say "racial/ethnic" may not be much of an improvement over "under-represented," but it moves us closer to a reality that needs a name.
Part of this reality that needs a name is the human tendency to prefer our own kind and to be suspicious of other kinds. I don't know why that is. Maybe the tendency is the indelible residue of original sin or, perhaps, it is the lingering strands of some evolutionary DNA. Whatever the reason, it seems to be oddly true. We are more suspicious of what is unlike us than what is like us. And in this culture, the human difference we pay most attention to is race. Cornell West is right, "race matters." In a culture that was predominantly one kind, one race, all the other kinds, the other races, have suffered, and that suffering is evident in religious communities and in theological schools. To name the reality is to say that we have to acknowledge the suffering and look for a remedy.
This seminar is the first of four that ATS will sponsor over the next three years. We will have a seminar this spring with representatives of thirty schools that have developed the most racially diverse faculties in the ATS. We want to know their stories and identify the elements of those stories that might transfer to other schools and increase the inclusiveness of their faculties. Next year, we will sponsor a cross-racial dialogue with Hispanic/Latino and Black/African-descent faculty. The following year, we will have a seminar for racial/ethnic faculty in predominantly racial/ethnic institutions, where I think original sin still manifests itself, even though the race card drops out. We are grateful that you are participating in the first of these four seminars. We hope that, together, the seminars put the agenda before us in a way that we can deal more effectively with it as theological schools, and in turn, as educators of religious leaders.
Let me raise my unqualified thoughts, which I will pose in the form of some questions.
The first is this: Can we succeed without failing? I hope that in twenty years, the Association is full of schools that are racially inclusive, where students are taught by faculty of many races and ethnic groups, and where students of many races and ethnic groups can receive a theological education that is equally relevant and useful. I hope that in twenty years, an education from any ATS school will prepare students of any race or ethnicity to exercise faithful and effective religious leadership in a continent that will be, more than anything else, a culture of cultures, and a culture of races.
Now, if that is success, can we achieve it without failing? I don't mean can we achieve this success without failures. We have consistently failed, and will continue to fail, because this is very hard work for humans to engage. What I mean by "can we succeed without failing?" is: Can we create communities of racial and ethnic inclusion without losing the amazing gifts that race and ethnicity bring? Whether he meant to or not, Henry Louis Gates started me thinking about this, and I want to read a passage from the memoire he wrote for his children about his growing up not terribly far from Pittsburgh, in Piedmont, West Virginia.
I want to be able to take special pride in a Jessye Norman aria, a Muhammad Ali shuffle, a Michael Jordan slam dunk, a Spike Lee movie, a Thurgood Marshall opinion, a Toni Morrison novel, James Brown's Camel Walk. Above all, I enjoy the unselfconscious moments of a shared cultural intimacy, whatever form they may take, when no one is watching, when no white people are around. Like Joe Louis's fight, which my father still talks about as part of the fixed repertoire of stories that texture our lives. You've seen his eyes shining as he describes how Louis hit Max Schmeling so many times and so hard, and how some reporter asked him, after the fight: "Joe, what would you have done if that last punch hadn't knocked Schmeling out?" And how ole Joe responded, without missing a beat, "I'da run around behind him to see what was holdin' him up!"
. . . . I'm divided. I want to be black, to know black, to luxuriate in whatever I might be calling blackness at any particular time-but to do so in order to come out the other side, to experience humanity that is neither colorless nor reducible to color. . . . Part of me admires those people who can say with a straight face that they have transcended any attachment to a particular community or group. . . but I always want to run around behind them to see what holds them up.(1)
I have this idea that racial communities, particularly the communities of people not like me, have fashioned a strength that would not have been fashioned apart from the pain and grace of those racial communities. A statement like that, from a person like me, seethes with questionable implications: No, I don't think that these communities should have ever been segregated or forced to bear what the dominant white culture forced them to bear. No, I don't think these communities form a suffering community that learned lessons in their suffering that, in the end, might save us white folks. What I mean is what I think Gates means. There was something wonderfully good about that Negro community of the 1950s in West Virginia, that made for cultural wholeness and gave people what was needed "to hold them up."
I was listening in on a faculty interview one time at an ATS school. The candidate was white, and the conversation was about white faculty and African-American students. This woman told about a student's sermon at the school where she was currently teaching. The student was Black, and preached on Rev. 3:20: "Behold, I stand at the door, and knock." He told about the rural community in which he grew up and his memory of the nights, once a week, that the insurance man would come to collect the premium for his father's death benefit policy. The insurance man knew when there was likely to be cash in the house, and he would come at dinner time to the kitchen, walking in without knocking to get the money. The student told this story, with the grief of the routine violation of private space, and then said, "But my Jesus knocks." I got chills when I heard the story, and get them when I think about it. There is no better exegesis of the text. The Spirit knocks. In the white working-class community where I grew up, there was more than one picture of a whitish Jesus standing at a door knocking. But the picture never taught me the text the way that student's comment, relayed by his teacher, did. I hate to think of the conditions of the past that created the story, but I would hate to think of a future where we don't have those stories.
Can we succeed without failing? Can we build the inclusive communities that we need and have people not forget where they are from, and need to go back to from time to time?
The second question is this: Can we have diversity without goodness? Since the thought in this question is not immediately obvious, if in fact there is a thought, let me try to explain.
In 1900, as the twentieth century was about to begin, I think that homogeneity was assumed to be good in this culture. We assumed that people should be with their own kind. European immigrants found it easy to group among people who spoke a common language, had a common religion, and shared a common cultural heritage. If you were to go into Pittsburgh, to the South Side off Carson Street, you would see the remnants of late nineteenth and early twentieth century neighborhoods of eastern and southern European immigrants. They are nestled between a hillside and the river. You can look down a main street for about six blocks, and then it appears to dead end. When you get to what looks like the dead end, you can see that the street actually jogs a half block and then goes another six or seven blocks. The reason, I am told, is that these immigrant communities built their streets so that everyone would know when the Polish community ended and the Ukranian community began, and where the Ukranian community ended and the Russian community began. Somehow, these communities assumed that "like" was good, and they wanted the geography to demarcate where one "like" ended and another "like" began. Now, there was no reason for this; no one had a moral argument as to why "like" was good. When people tried to offer arguments about why "like" was good-as in the efforts to defend the moral correctness of separation of "likenesses" in the form of segregation-those arguments were morally bankrupt. They were absurd.
As we enter the twenty-first century, I think this culture no longer assumes that "like" is a "good." In fact, I think we would say the opposite: "diversity is good." As this century begins, most of us would be as ready to argue that diversity is good as people at the beginning of the last century were ready to argue that homogeneity is good. My question is this: do we have a better moral argument for diversity than they had for homogeneity?
Don't get me wrong. I am deeply committed to diversity; I think it is a moral good, a cultural good, a human good. But, do I have a reason for my position that will hold up better than the reasons for homogeneity held up under scrutiny? The Bible's first story about diversity is that it was punishment for the presumption of a homogeneous people that they could build a tower and get to God. Diversity of language was a punishment.(2) There are wonderful passages about the work of the Gospel that breaks down barriers and tears down the dividing walls; that in Christ, there is neither Jew nor Gentile, slave nor free, male nor female. Those texts could be interpreted to mean that our diversity is something to be overcome, not to be nourished and encouraged. What is the biblical, moral, and theological substructure for our conviction that diversity is a good?
I've heard an argument about the value of diversity in human communities based on the value of bio-diversity, which is helpful. The moral argument for justice and equality is overwhelmingly convincing to me, but the moral good of justice for all people and their inclusion in the benefits of the culture is a different moral argument than that diversity, itself, is a "good."
Learning to be a multicultural church and multicultural culture is going to be hard work and cause us all a lot of pain. It will be hard enough work that we will all need something to hold us up, and what we need is the moral and theological basis for our conviction that will sustain us in this hard work. How will we construe the good that is diversity?
Finally, can we be multicultural without being cultural? Like my other unqualified thoughts, this one doesn't make much sense on the surface. So, I have to ask your indulgence one more time. In a way, this question is related to the first one, but I think it is slightly different. Perhaps another way to ask this question would be "Is multiculturalism a transitional cultural reality?" If multiculturalism is what we have when we bring different cultures into common interaction with one another, then what will we have after all the cultures have been together, interacting, for multigenerations? After we are all together for awhile in the multiculture, will it turn into a new mono-culture that consists of bits and pieces of old multicultures? Will a typical evening meal consist of sushi, biscuits, fried catfish, fajitas, and kielbasa, all cooked together as a stew? Can we have multicultural without some means of maintaining the cultures that come together to form the Multiculture? Or, in my original way of phrasing it, can we be multicultural without being cultural?
I want to turn to another book written by a parent to her children and the description that Marian Wright Edelman offers about the culture that formed her for the work to which she has given herself.
The legacies that parents and church and teachers left to my generation of Black children were priceless but not material: a living faith reflected in daily service, the discipline of hard work and stick-to-it-ness, and a capacity to struggle in the face of adversity. Giving up and "burnout" were not part of the language of my elders-you got up every morning and you did what you had to do and you got up every time you fell down and tried as many times as you had to to get it done right. They had grit. . . . I still hope that I can be half as good as Black church and community elders like Miz Lucy McQueen, Miz Tee Kelly, and Miz Kate Winston, extraordinary women who were kind and patient and loving with children and others and who, when I went to Spelman College, sent me shoeboxes with chicken and biscuits and greasy dollar bills.(3)
I think Edelman is asking how she can raise her children to learn important values, absent the culture that gave voice and muscle to them in her own growing up. How do we nurture the genius of racial and ethnic differences that have shaped cultures worth preserving if there is no just and good way to let those cultures live?
I wish I had a better way to say what I am trying to say tonight. I feel like the young preacher in an Appalachian church that my friend Bill Leonard told me about one time. The young preacher was having difficulty with his sermon. He couldn't get it going. Finally, as he was struggling, a woman called out from the congregation "'Hep him Jesus, 'hep him."
Can we succeed without failing? Can we define the good of diversity? Can we educate toward a Multiculture that maintains the good of the multicultures?
Maybe Jesus needs to 'hep us all.
- Henry Louis Gates, Colored People (New York: Alfred Knopf, 1994), xv.
- After this presentation, someone mentioned that there is a very different way to think about this. One Argentine theologian, this participant noted, has argued that diversity in the story in not a punishment, it is a saving gift. Diversity was God's gift to humanity so humanity would be spared the presumption that, together, they could build their way to God--or at least a point to that effect.
- Marian Wright Edelman, The Measure of Our Success (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 6-7.