Tuesday, December 10, 2013

An Open Letter to Students and Alumni of Color at Wheaton College

An Open Letter to Students and Alumni of Color at Wheaton College

Dear Students and Alumni of Color of Wheaton College,

Many of you have recently seen DannyAguilar’s post regarding racism at Wheaton.  I had the privilege of watching Danny and a group of motivated, dedicated, and brilliant students respond to the events of #chapeltweets in February, 2012.  I can say that even amidst the tears and pain of that event, I was never so moved by the passion and concern of students for one another and for their wider community. It was a time when hundreds of students of conscience, the majority students of color, rose up and led us all to think together about what it means to be Christians in the face of racism, fear, and willful ignorance. It was a pivotal event for many on this campus in thinking about our mission as a college and it demonstrated the power of students to affect change.

Nevertheless, Danny is absolutely right when he says that then, as now, the response of many White students was defensiveness, bewilderment, and denial.  For the 13 years I’ve taught at Wheaton, I’ve had a front row seat to this.  Generations of students have faced similar frustrations in an institution with a relatively homogeneous constituency, who are notoriously blind to issues of culture, structure, race, and history. Each year, we welcome a new crop of earnest, bright young students who bring with them the same baggage of White racism and privileged perspective that the classes before them have brought.  Change is slow.

For that reason, it is no surprise that many of you who have commented on Danny’s post have noted that it resonated with your experience as well. I wish it weren’t the case that this experience were so common, but we can all be grateful to Danny for putting together his years of thinking and work in one place, alongside the incontrovertible and painful evidence, so that we can continue to demonstrate the important and undeniable problems that exist at Wheaton.

At the same time, I hope that you will not lose the sight of the hope that is in Danny’s post.  He has strong words for Wheaton’s leadership, but ultimately he calls not for withdrawal, but for engagement and change.  In other words, in the face of this cultural and structural evil…

                                                                       lean in.

Push us. Demand action. Be involved. Lean in.

Though the pace of change at Wheaton is too often confoundingly slow;  though there is frequently more rhetoric than action; it is true that people who speak out forcefully are sometimes made to feel disloyal, irresponsible, or unchristian. At the same time, there are good things happening at Wheaton that are not merely window dressing. God is not silent and there are signs of God’s redemption even at Wheaton.

Some of these changes may be the result of demography. The fact is that the United States will be a majority minority country in perhaps 30 years or less. Latino/as are the fastest growing population, a community with a strong Christian contingent.  Wheaton would be foolish to ignore this change, and, in fact, we are not.

Some of this change may be the result of a younger leadership in among the trustees and senior administration who are more aware and connected to diverse communities.  Our current President, Phil Ryken, is in his fourth year at Wheaton, and has made deepening ethnic diversity one of his top priorities.

Some is the result of innovative and inspiring students, like Vince, Veronica, Irma, Rachel, and so so so many others who have had brilliant ideas and pushed them into reality. (The B.R.I.D.G.E. program was one such dream cum reality.)

All of it is, unquestionably, the movement of the Holy Spirit bringing shalom through his faithful servants, servants like Danny who are willing to speak, brashly even, to motivate and inspire greater faithfulness from us all.

It is my hope – my prayer – that those who believe in the vision of Wheaton, the idea of this place that is too rarely realized in the living, will not abandon us, but lean in to the opportunity to push it further in the right direction.

Here are some concrete things you can do as alumni, future alumni, and current students that can bring these changes to campus and make Wheaton a more accessible place for everyone.

  1. Come back to campus for alumni events and meet with senior leaders. Tell them what your priorities are and how you would like to see Wheaton reflect those.
  2. Take Danny’s suggestion to pool your resources to support initiatives that matter to you. (How amazing would it be to have the Adeline Collins Chair of Women’s Studies [first woman to graduate from Wheaton, 1870] or the Edward B. Seller’s Institute of African and African American Christian Studies [first man of African descent to graduate from Wheaton in 1866]). 
  3. Organize the Wheaton Alumni of Color Network to push Wheaton to realize a truer vision of what it means to be a Christian community that actively works against White racism in all its forms.

I, along with so many of my colleagues – your current and former faculty and staff - will continue to work with, and sometimes against, those at Wheaton who may not feel the urgency for change that Danny has articulated here. We’re in this. We hope you will be, too.  

Those who have been away for years, even decades, you are welcomed to come back and see the ways Wheaton has (as well as the ways it has not yet) grown in becoming a more diverse and inclusive community. 

Those of you who have been here more recently, I encourage you to take Danny’s energetic call as a reason to stay involved and be connected.

The vision that gave rise to Wheaton, rooted in abolitionism, gender equality, and engaged Christianity has wavered in its history, but the dream is not dead. There are good reasons to be hopeful. Stay with us. God honors the brave. But most of all, God is with those who stand for righteousness in love. Stand with us. 

Humbly,

Brian Howell
Associate Professor of Anthropology



10 comments:

Anonymous said...

Counseling patience is a time-honored way of excusing unwillingness or incompetence. You are right that it's people who care about Wheaton that should "lean-in" but the problem (for Wheaton) is that group is getting smaller and smaller. With good reason.

Brian Howell said...

Oh, I definitely do not want to be seen as counseling patience! No, I think we've had enough patience. Rather, I am counseling hopefulness. I don't believe the group of people of color who care about and/or are associated with Wheaton is getting smaller. Certainly among the faculty it is at the largest in our history. Wheaton is not what it should be, or could be, but I don't think we can honestly say that it is getting worse.

Anonymous said...

I agree more people on campus are aware there are issues to be addressed, but the community as a whole is DECADES behind the curve and throwing the same tired forums/committees/earnest town halls/breathless public apologies/short-term admissions strategies at the problem. Those without a vested interest in the school (like Danny) have stopped wondering if dear Wheaton can turn it around this time. Wheaton should thank their stars that someone like Danny still has the give-a-damn to speak out at all.

Brian Howell said...

That's just it; we've got more going on now than just forums and public apologies. I won't go through all the responses again, because I don't want to seem that I'm defending what is a problem, but I don't think being "behind the curve" is the big problem. The problem is lack of forward motion. But given that we ARE moving forward, we can say that things are getting better and we should be hopeful, not discouraged.

Andrew said...

Brian, thank you for an excellent post!

Daniel Watts said...

Fantastic words - thank you for penning this, Dr. Howell!

adam garrett said...

Thank you for your post Dr. Howell. Praise God that President Ryken has made the issue of deepening ethnic diversity a top priority. My prayer is that as students, alumni, and otherwise rise to support his efforts, that the administration at large continues to follow suit. It is wonderful to hear about the progress already made with the BRIDGE program!

PaulS said...

The truth it that for many alumni of color, scars that were covered in biblical language remain fresh despite decades of separation. The mere mention of this incident reinforces the notion that after almost 20 years, the menacing ugliness we all experienced, often just under the surface, is still alive and well. The fact that the world after Wheaton has been kinder to many of us, and larger secular institutions of higher learning more accepting, makes it difficult for many of us to ever want to engage in this tired conversation at this institution yet again.

Anonymous said...

The truth it that for many alumni of color, scars that were covered in biblical language remain fresh despite decades of separation. To even hear of this incident reinforces the notion that after almost 20 years, the menacing ugliness we all experienced, often just under the surface, is still alive and well. The fact that the world after Wheaton has been kinder to many of us, and larger secular institutions of higher learning more accepting, makes it difficult for many of us to ever want to engage in this tired conversation at this institution yet again.

Anonymous said...

First of all, I would like to thank you for this meaningful post. Wheaton has a unique roll within the broader evangelical movement in this country, and if it can really move to take action on these topics, I hope and pray that it can be a beacon for others to do the same.

The one concern that I have with your post, and this comes from living and teaching within the African-American community for a number of years, is the term "white racism." I understand the historic issues surrounding this, but racism exists in all people groups, even those who have had to endure horrific deeds and words at the hands of whites. This may come across as defensive- I pray that it does not. In no way am I trying to say that whites should get a pass just because other people show discrimination, but neither should anyone else. If we are truly building a beloved community "For Christ and His Kingdom," then we all have to recognize the sin that infects us without negating the institutional and structural issues that must be dealt with as well.

That said, I am praying with you and others that Wheaton would see a spiritual awakening around these issues.

Coram Deo