Universities of Diversity

In his latest book, sociologist George Yancey explores the ways Christian colleges promote racial diversity on their campuses, the responses of students and faculty members, and the strengths and weaknesses of multicultural programs.

George Yancey has been an important voice on diversity within American Christianity. In addition to authoring several books, the University of North Texas sociologist is cofounder of the Mosaix Network, a relational association that promotes multiethnic churches and interactions between ethnically diverse churches. Yancey’s most recent book, Neither Jew Nor Gentile, is an academic exploration of racial and ethnic diversity on Protestant campuses. Urban Faith contributor Joshua Canada talked to Yancey about his work. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.

DIVERSITY PROF: George Yancey.

URBAN FAITH: You have written a number of books about diversity. What was your motivation for writing about colleges and universities?

GEORGE YANCEY: As I worked with different churches that wanted to become more racially diverse, I noticed that they had a hard time finding pastoral and lay leaders. I realized that part of the problem was that the people they were seeking as leaders tended to come from racially homogenous colleges and universities. I wanted to study Christian colleges and universities to see how they can do a better job preparing students for a multiracial world.

You divide your findings between Conservative and Mainline institutions. What similarities and differences did you find?

Generally, conservative Protestant churches are more evangelical and more willing to make cultural adjustments to incorporate people of different races but are blinder to the power dynamics of race relations. The opposite is true about Mainline denominations in that they are more set in their worship traditions, but more aware of racial dynamics of power. … Mainline colleges and universities are more likely to utilize diversity programs than Conservative colleges and universities

You wrote that multicultural programming is not always the most effective way to promote diversity. When is programming effective?

I suspect that programming that just dictates to students what they should believe is unlikely to be effective. On the other hand, programming that encourages open dialogue and produces knowledge is likely to be effective.

How did students respond to multicultural programming?

A lot of the time, students did not even know about that programing. The most popular response was to ignore it. Other students became aware of the multicultural programming, but resented it as they thought that it just made people angry. These students had a colorblind perspective. Some students benefited from the programs since it brought them more awareness and knowledge, but most did not. White students tended to be more receptive to diversity classes compared to others’ efforts.  … White students are also pretty receptive to professors of color.

Previous research has shown that faculty-student interaction plays an important role in the development of college students’ views on diversity and multiculturalism. What did you find?

Interaction seemed especially important to White students. They were more likely to alter their racial perspective due to interaction with professors. For students of color, this interaction was at times an important way for them to gain reinforcement. But they did not tend to change their past racial perspectives due to such interactions.

Did you find it to be true that Black students have a particularly difficult time persisting at predominantly-White institutions?

There appears to be little that can be done to recruit Black students relative to other minority groups. They are retained with many of the similar measures of other students of color and perhaps in the long-run that will aid in recruitment. But short-term recruitment is difficult for Black students. They are also more likely to attend Protestant colleges to participate in athletics and less likely to come to the colleges for spiritual reasons. It may be that culturally Blacks define Christian spirituality differently than those of other races.

As a whole, what were some of the most significant difficulties ethnic-minority students at predominately-White institutions faced?

If ethnic-minorities are racialized, then they often have a difficult cultural adjustment. They also are aware of the White-nonWhite power dynamics and want to be heard. The lack of professors of color also means a lack of role models and opportunities to gain mentoring.

What can Protestant institutions do to cultivate a healthy environment for ethnic-minority students?

The biggest thing they can do is recruit more professors of color and start academic programs that produce more diversity courses. The latter may be easier than the former since people of color are underrepresented in academia. I would also encourage them to support student led multicultural organizations as long as those organizations are focused on bringing people together.

What role does an institution’s Christian faith play into the institution’s pursuit of diversity?

Christian faith could aid in diversity pursuits, but only if that faith is interpreted in a way that includes different Christian cultures. A narrow and culturally bounded interpretation of that faith will scare away people who are not of that racially-based cultural tradition.

How can ethnic-minority organizations support their students at predominately-White Protestant institutions?

They can provide a place where these students can get back in touch with their cultural and often spiritual roots. They must be careful not to be too exclusive since more students today are developing friends across the racial spectrum. However, they can be places of refuge if they remember to encourage the student to go back out into a multiracial world after they have gotten their rest

What will be the impact of more diverse Protestant institutions on American Christianity and why is this necessary?

First, we will have a better witness as Christians. Having more diverse Protestant colleges and universities will help to remove the stigma of Christianity being only a “White man’s” religion.

Second, we will have leaders better trained for a multiracial world. Christians can not reach the world if they can only reach those in their race. …

Finally, students will have a better overall college experience. There is a good amount of work suggesting that exposure to different racial groups is correlated with a number of positive outcomes, for example better problem-solving abilities. We should want our students to gain these positive benefits as well.

About the author, Joshua Canada

Joshua Canada graduated with a B.A. in sociology and an M.A. in higher education from Taylor University and has worked in student development at Taylor and Huntington University. Prior to graduate school he worked in the non-profit sector with urban youth and children in the foster care system. He currently serves as a resident director at Westmont College in Santa Barbara, California, helping students ask the "big questions" of life and walking with them as they grow as whole persons.
  1. I will look for this book as I am a Wheaton College graduation (1981!) and I had what I would call a bittersweet experience.

  2. RLynn, my son went to Wheaton (class of ’07) and had a similar experience. Apparently not much had changed in a quarter century.

  3. Pingback: Christian Colleges Need to Promote Racial Diversity | Praise Cleveland - Praise 1300 Cleveland's Home for the Gospel Community

  4. This is a difficult, but so necessary discussion, and it’s vital that we begin to make some demonstrable progress. Thanks for highlighting this book; I plan to take a look.

  5. Pingback: Commentary: Christian College Diversity « Rhymes of a Neosoulist

  6. Excellent interview, Josh! I look forward to reading this book.

  7. Before I dropped out of Spring Arbor College (now University) I asked God for 3 things.
    1) Christian Friends (with similar desires as me)
    2) A mentor
    3) a Church
    Most of my friendships either remained surface or my friends didn’t have the same level of desire to follow God. The other 2 things never happened for me. So I left.
    I chose a Christian college because I wanted a place where I could walk out and grow in my faith and be equipped to be a Christian in this adult world. I left frustrated. At that time, I felt the school’s idea of Christianity was insulating their students; it felt like a prolonged adolescences; and with so many people graduating and coming back to work for the school I feared it wasn’t a good place to become prepared for the real world. Still the worst thing was the depression that came from loneliness. My first year, I was the only black person in my dorm. Because of my name and because I wasn’t able to make it to the Black student orientation, I didn’t get put in the dorm with all the other black students, but I felt so different from them. I didn’t listen to secular music, I was very guarded about the type of movies I watched, I didn’t dance in the same ways that they did, the told coarse jokes… the things I wanted to escape by not going to a secular university were more concentrated in the minority population. I felt isolated from the white students and the Black. My White roommate felt so uncomfortable with my race that she turned the word “Black” in to a 2 syllable word “Buh-Lack!” I was then asked to be over the minority group (which at the time was all Black and 1 Puerto Rican) and be the minority representative on the student council. That was cool. I was able to help and do some things. While I was there, our “significant minority” started a cheerleading squad (got shut down), a Gospel Choir (still going), a Gospel Fest, and I revamped the Minority Student Organization and turned it into the Cultural Interaction Association and welcomed all minorities as well as international students so that everyone could have a voice and allowed us to educate everyone on campus about our differences (and similarities) and corporately celebrate and embrace those differences. The CIA continued but name returned to the MSO (because of the school). We also went directly to the Dean of Students and talked about racially charged incidents that occurred on campus and I had a chance to talk to the President of the school about ways to help retain minorities on campus, starting talks about grants and scholarships and academic mentors or like races. I appreciate that he was serious about implementing those things, however, I needed to leave.
    I did not like my time there at that school, however, in hindsight, I truly appreciate the people I’ve met, the experiences I had (good and bad) the knowledge I gained in my OT survey class and my Gospels & Acts class with Chuck White, as well as my English, Arts Appreciation, Speech, Communications, Sociology (which became my major), Radio Broadcasting (which became my career after leaving and going to Broadcast school), and even math classes. I also appreciate my one and only camping experience I was forced to go on for my Core 100 class. Most of all, I appreciate the opportunity to learn White people (especially White Christians), the difference, the similarities, the misconceptions you have about others, your views about yourselves, the ways you interact with each other, your value systems, how education is written and taught from a White world perspective, and I learned about freedom – lack of judgement, freedom of expression, freedom of self, freedom of worship… on the flip side I learned about this incessant need for conformity, assimilation, and approval. I learned to worship in spite of musical differences and preaching differences. I learned that often White people view “other” worship (music and preaching) experiences as a novelty and not exactly on the same level spiritually. I learned racism looks different. I learned White people are people and not people defined by the color of their skin. They are individuals and yet similar. I learned they don’t think of themselves as a collective race and are fascinated by the camaraderie other races share, yet seem bent on assimilating “others” into their collective norm, appropriating what pleases them (as a novelty) and expecting everyone else to dismiss, erase, or minimize stubborn markers of cultural differences. “Why can’t we try to just enjoy their music?” I learned to carry Season Salt and Hot Sauce with me in my purse. I learned that some people really can see you w/o minimizing nor focusing on your race. I loved those people. I learned that people are people, but that some people are raised very differently and so their interaction with people can be very different.
    I ended up later choosing to go to a predominately white church that I loved very, very much. I made great, dear friends whom I love. From my latter experience I hope I taught my friends about Black people. We aren’t what everyone thinks. Not angry, we’re intelligent, we’re generous and not just the recipients of charity, we’re hard working, we’re kind and compassionate, we’re people just like them. We also relate to one another differently. We’re honest. We don’t pull punches. We love from the bottoms of our hearts. We believe in getting into our worship. We love to FEEL the Word being delivered and we vocalize that feeling. We’re observant. We put more thought into how we speak to White people than they probably do towards us or each other. We come from different classes and economic statuses. We have various types of jobs. We can do anything (like write commercials for country stations and workday stations, rock stations, and sports stations along with Urban stations… like I do). We love Jesus in the same way they do. We actually do know our Word and don’t just have emotional experiences and concerts. We believe in togetherness. We still deal with racism and ignorance even in my generation, and we’re very sensitive about cultural insensitivity (for instance, the word “Assimilation” was first introduced to us by the play “A Raisin in the Sun” and had attached to it a very a negative connotation, and connotation can be far more important than a definition.) We want to see more than just our faces in the congregation. It’s imperative that we see ourselves in leadership. By the way, Blacks always, ALWAYS scan to room for other people that look like them or at least that don’t look like (and/or act like) the majority… and we count. We also wait with baited breath to see how people will respond to us – overly welcoming = you don’t have enough Blacks and want me to help fill the token quota – or distant = you don’t want me here, you feel uncomfortable with me here, you’re afraid I’m going to be too Black (this can come form Whites, Blacks, and Bi-racial people) –> I’ve actually had this experience at a number of White churches I visited with a friend who moved to the suburbs. I actually feared some people would try to clean everything we touched after we left! No one should have that experience (a Dorothy Dandridge experience).
    At any rate, all in all everyone in the Body of Christ could stand for a cross cultural experience so we can make our love more genuine; so we can forgive; so we can forget our ignorant prejudices; so we can bond as the family we actually are in Christ; so we can heal from wounds and stop wounding; so we can let go of hate, hurt, fear and distrust; so we can stop using one another; so we can grow from our relationships with one another; so we can expose things in ourselves and one another in order to be fixed; so we can meet the needs of a world that’s diverse; so we can show Jesus’ love for all Gentiles; so our children benefit from other perspective and upbringing; so we don’t have to continue on like our parents and grandparents; so we know how much we have in common and celebrate and learn from the things that are different; so we’ll never have to be afraid of race and can uproot the attitudes that feed into racism.

  8. Pingback: The Challenge of Diversity on Christian College Campuses | Urban … | CampusDeal.org

  9. Pingback: Christian Colleges Need to Promote Racial Diversity | WERE-AM 1490