Welcoming a World of Complexity and Color
What one sees when regarding race is determined largely by where one stands, both culturally and geographically. Historian Tom Tweed describes the interplay between “sight,” “sites,” and “citing” in the work of constructing historical narratives. He points out that the story of U.S. religious history looks different from the perspective of Seminole Indians, African slaves, or Irish maids. The story looks different if it is seen from the Canadian border, the Miami skyline, or the Pacific Rim; different if the tellers are mainline Protestants, Russian Orthodox missionaries in Alaska, or Latino Catholics in the Southwest.1
The point applies to race as well. There is no grand narrative, but a diversity of situated stories – sightings – that we tell. What anyone sees regarding race is shaped and limited by the place and time and skin – site – in which one lives. We expand our understanding when we cite more stories, and particularly when we include stories from marginalized persons and groups. This is a challenge that continues to confront the nation, its congregations, and theological schools.
At seminaries that work hard to promote racial diversity among students, staff, and faculty, our sightlines are broad and deep, yet also restricted by the geographical sites from which we hail. At many divinity schools and seminaries, it is still rare to find even one faculty member from India, a nation of 1.2 billion people. The problem is not that schools like Yale Divinity School cannot study Dalit theology, or Hindu texts for that matter; we have extraordinary libraries. Yet we do not get to chat, dine, or worship with Indian scholars whose vision of faith has been formed there. Nor do we get regular opportunities to converse with such scholars about the way race functions in India, where the illegal but de facto caste system, with all of its racial inflections, still obtains.
Suffice it to say that a group’s collective vision is impaired to the degree that it becomes accustomed to what one student referred to as a “sea of whiteness,” and then comes to believe that a community so composed is normal, good enough, or even the best in the world.
Prompted by some efforts begun by the 2011- 2012 student council, this year three YDS committees came together to begin conversations about race in our school community and racial justice in the U.S. It has been fascinating to listen in and hear the different ways in which race is regarded by the diverse constituents and groups in the community. Race looks different to European scholars than it does to African Americans, different to Latino/a students, to Korean and Korean-American students, and so on. These differences are expressed in worship, in classrooms, and in conversations that have been taking place at many different levels.
Regarding race at the interpersonal level is difficult. Group conversations about this tend to produce at least a little bit of anxiety. Some might wish to skip this step, believing that we are beyond racial bias in our interactions, in our teaching, in our hiring processes. Yet research on the topic of implicit bias suggests that no one is beyond bias, though our biases may be unconscious.2 This is because human beings trying to process information quickly often rely on shortcuts in thinking, and these shortcuts often contain social biases.
For example, Harvard’s “Project Implicit” has found that all of the people who have taken the online Implicit Association Test, when asked to think fast and press a key to make an association, show at least some degree of preference for more socially valued groups. Comparable levels of bias are found in studies of attitudes and stereotypes related to gender and sexuality. Members of stigmatized groups also show preference for the more socially valued groups, though to a lesser degree.3
It appears that we are socially conditioned to think in biased shortcuts. It is not that we cannot think otherwise, but that almost before we think at all, stereotypes can kick in. Seen in this light, it is not surprising that many of us express biases in our interactions sometimes. The point is not to feel shame over this, but to try to find ways to be attentive and thoughtful in our interactions with each other in order to undermine and subvert these biases.
Racial biases are also more or less ingrained in institutions. In understanding how racial dynamics work at the organizational level, the people at the top – those in positions of power – cannot be the sole judges of how things are going. Faculty, for example, simply cannot see what students or staff members, particularly if they are persons of color, can observe from their side of the desk. Of course, students’ viewpoints and those of persons in neglected or marginalized groups are also limited and partial. But the experience of living in darker skin and inhabiting a less powerful position in an institutional structure does afford one an important sightline on power dynamics and dominant-culture assumptions.
At YDS, students in particular have been generous in forthrightly naming their various experiences and thoughts about what it is like to be here, as a Latina for example, living and learning in this community. They tell us that when one does not hear one’s cultural realities named, or when authors from one’s group are rarely read in class, or when few, if any, persons with institutional power resemble oneself at all, it becomes more difficult to flourish.
In the hallways of so many theological schools one will find rows of pictures of famous white male scholars, all part of an institution’s illustrious history. One notices such galleries of representation also in congregational settings – pictures of saints, familiar depictions of Christ, the framed portraits of past ministers and heroes of the faith. Whether we pause to examine the portraits, and imagine the lives and minds of their subjects, or simply glance at the pictures without thinking, we are recruited into some level of visual practice, just because we need to get down the hall.4 Does this visual practice serve to inculcate certain dispositions in us, what Bourdieu called, “a past which survived in the present and tends to perpetuate itself in the future by making itself present in practices structured according to its principles …”5? Intentional reflection is required if we are to discern the ways in which certain practices, patterns, and rules may unwittingly re-enforce racist norms from the past.
Regarding race at the interpersonal level and at the level of organizational practice does not cover the gamut. Currently, numerous academic programs in critical race studies and such related topics as global raciality, postcolonialism, mixed-race studies, race, culture, and gender, race and ethnicity, and intersectionality are burgeoning. These fields of study and the new knowledge they produce have been filtering into theological education at a relatively slow pace.
In an article on “Diversity Troubles” at Harvard Divinity School, Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza suggests that structures of domination and privilege may blind scholars at elite schools to the biases in research and pedagogical protocols. In particular, she points to the scientific ethos of value-free scholarship that was adopted in many theological fields of study in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. This ethos naively asserted that theological research was or ought to be unbiased, objective, apolitical, universal, and so on. Though the fictive nature of these assumptions has long since been revealed, Schüssler Fiorenza suggests the professionalization of our academic disciplines that resulted from this ethos:
“(E)ngendered theoretical dichotomies, such as pure or impure, theoretical or applied science. Dualistic opposites – rational and irrational, objective and subjective, hard or soft, male and female … were given material form, not only in professional disciplines, but also in their discursive practices.”6
The legacy of this ethos still affects elite academic cultures, where studies of those who have been excluded from the academy, or from studies of social discrimination and its impact on religious or biblical or theological or pastoral scholarship, are still considered peripheral, not quite at the heart of the discipline. She notes that in academic searches and promotion processes, scholars who focus on the experience of one particular neglected or underrepresented group, or on postcolonialism itself, are often seen as offering perspectival opinions, intellectually suspect because they depart from established scholarly, quasi-scientific norms.
Interrupting Business As Usual
How can schools promote scholarship that not only increases the diversity of authors and texts we deem worthy of citing, but also broadens the disciplines themselves so that they move beyond such theoretical dichotomies and allow the new scholarship in race studies to infiltrate and expand all of the thinking in the field? What research principles and practices will help us move toward a more truly inclusive scholarly ethos? At YDS, we have already among us many fine scholars who are prodding us along. They expand our sightlines, complicate our viewpoints, challenge our assumptions. As in many schools, pre-tenured faculty members help to lead the way.
The topics we teach and those we choose to research matter. We need to incorporate more viewpoints, more methods, more stories, more historical and contemporary struggles for racial justice. The quest for human self-understanding requires us to probe our assumptions more deeply, and perhaps in some cases to hold more lightly the ideas that have shaped us as scholars. We need to promote and encourage ever fuller and more nuanced pictures of both Creator and creation.
Of course, the complex dynamics of race also operate at larger political and cultural levels. Last spring, one YDS student asked that the entire school be invited to read Michelle Alexander’s The New Jim Crow and then discuss it together. Two deans had the wisdom to support this idea, not only by funding the purchase of books, but also by bringing the author to campus. This is a fitting interruption of business as usual in a divinity school whose mission statement explicitly includes “the commitment to social justice.”
Alexander demonstrates how since the 1980s’ “war on drugs” began, police officers in the U.S. have been routinely arresting lower-income African Americans and Latinos for non-violent drug offenses, charging them as felons, and incarcerating them at a dramatically increased rate. Simultaneously, the rights of formerly incarcerated persons, particularly those who were convicted or pled to felony offenses, have been severely curtailed, creating a new, racial lower caste of citizens. This systematic discrimination and loss of rights have been taking place in what some have called a post-racial or colorblind age. Alexander challenges the whole notion of a colorblind society as an ideal and argues that what we need instead is a caring society, one that regards people of diverse skin colors and ethnicities as human beings worthy of our care, compassion, and concern.7
Blindness of Colorblindness
Following the writing of Martin Luther King Jr., Alexander claims that the indifference of the majority of citizens is what supports the current racial caste system, the new Jim Crow. The belief in a colorblind society may in fact encourage the whole society to simply ignore the fate of the numerous lower-class black and brown men and some women who are filling up our prisons and losing their rights.
Care in this situation cannot mean becoming colorblind. Caring involves looking into lives and social systems and discerning what is happening. How can it be that African-American and Latino teenagers in urban areas are being rounded up and charged with felony drug offenses at such an alarming rate, while white teenagers living in the suburbs, whose documented rates of drug use are equal if not greater, are so rarely charged, much less convicted or jailed? Caring involves regarding people, seeing them in all of their complexity and variety, including their skin color, rather than turning away and claiming that race no longer matters.
Caring also involves seeing prisoners as human beings with dignity, human beings like ourselves, who sometimes fall prey to substance use or abuse. When those of us who are wealthier and lighterskinned find ourselves or our loved ones in such conditions, we tend to want to find high-quality mental health care. Why should poorer and darkerskinned human beings, who are likewise sometimes caught in addictions, be given a cage rather than health care?
More Scrutiny, Not Less
Michelle Alexander makes the point that convicted felons do not make good poster children for racial justice. Not everyone in jail is there for a non-violent offense. Still, however imperfect individuals may be, they deserve legal justice. And when a person leaves prison, he or she needs to be able to make a way in the world. The legal discrimination against formerly incarcerated persons in employment, housing, and food stamps effectively prevents those who are released from prison from getting on with their lives. Better to regard this situation critically, and use our energy and intelligence to work for justice, than to avert our gaze and pretend that we live in a post-racial society.
Regarding race: more scrutiny, not less, is needed. We need to continue deconstructing white privilege, interrupting social discrimination, and coming to terms with each other in the midst of our similarities and our differences. We need to see more complexity, more colors and more creeds, more imaginative visions for change.
At the end of his award-winning book on Christian theology and the origins of race, Willie James Jennings writes: “I yearn for a vision of Christian intellectual identity that is compelling and attractive, embodying not simply the cunning of reason but the power of love that gestures toward joining, toward the desire to hear, to know, and to embrace.”8 Many at YDS and other schools and congregations also yearn for such a vision of religious identity, one that is broadly inclusive and vigorously engaged in the work of racial justice.
Certainly all of this year’s gestures toward joining, knowing, and loving have been tentative and partial. Yet gesture we must, however haltingly, toward a fuller vision, a more complicated conversation, and a richer understanding of the compelling power of love.
Mary Clark Moschella is the Roger J. Squire Professor of Pastoral Care and Counseling at YDS. Her books include Ethnography as a Pastoral Practice: An Introduction (Pilgrim Press, 2008) and Living Devotions: Reflections on Immigration, Identity, and Religious Imagination.(Pickwick, 2008).
1 Thomas A. Tweed, “Narrating U.S. Religious History,” in Retelling U.S. Religious History, Thomas A. Tweed, ed., (California, 1997), pp. 1–26.
2 See https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/education.html to take the Implicit Bias Test.
3 See https://implicit.harvard.edu/implicit/faqs.html
4 This, of course, would not be true of those who are severely visually impaired or non-sighted.
5 Pierre Bourdieu, Outline of a Theory of Practice, (Cambridge University Press, 1972), p. 82.
6 Elisabeth Schüssler Fiorenza, “Diversity Troubles,” Harvard Divinity Review, Summer/Autumn 2012 (Vol. 40, Nos. 3 & 4),
7 Michelle Alexander, The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness, (New Press, 2010), p. 229.
8 Willie James Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (Yale University Press, 2010), p. 291.