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 anacademic 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 cannot 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.
A UCLA student’s rant about Asians goes viral, drawing accusations of racism. But, sadly, what she expressed isn’t that different from what a lot of Americans think, even if we’re not posting it on YouTube.
Invictus may not be as popular as this year’s bigger holiday releases, but its poignant themes of justice and peace are both entertaining and redemptive.
Clint Eastwood’s Invictus has generated lots of buzz as a potential Oscar contender, and rightly so. But it’s unfortunate that bigger films like Avatar and Sherlock Holmes are drawing more attention from audiences, because Invictus presents a story that’s both entertaining and transformative.
In 1990, Nelson Mandela was released from Robben Island’s maximum-security prison after 27 years as a political prisoner whose only crime was resisting South Africa’s unjust apartheid laws. In 1994, Mandela became the first Black president of South Africa. In 1995, he began to reconcile his country through peace, justice, selflessness, and rugby.
Director Eastwood utilizes the superb talents of Morgan Freeman (Nelson Mandela) and Matt Damon (Francois Pienaar) to adapt John Carlin’s book Playing the Enemy: Nelson Mandela and the Game That Changed a Nation to the silver screen.
Make no mistake — Invictus is an inspirational sports film. Those hoping for an epic history of Nelson Mandela’s trials and triumphs in office or a deep commentary on South Africa in 1995 will be disappointed. The film paints a decent background of South Africa in the mid-1990s and Eastwood and Freeman intentionally refrain from painting an idyllic picture of Mandela, but these are supportive elements for a story about reconciliation and the power of humility.
Noticing the brokenness of his country, Mandela views the South African national rugby union team, the Springboks, as an opportunity to promote a unified national pride. Mandela understands that the Afrikaners (White South Africans) are afraid of his administration and fear exile from a country that has become their home. Instead of exploiting his new position as an office of domination and vengeance, Mandela acts humbly and selflessly. Mandela calls the nation to seek peace not by changing their colors or the name of the Springboks. Rather, he asks his fellow Black citizens, who spent years viewing the Springboks as a symbol of apartheid, to embrace the team as their own.
The title “Invictus” (Latin for inconquerable) comes from the poem by William Ernest Henley. Mandela drew strength from Henley’s triumphant text while in prison, and he sends a handwritten copy of the poem to Pienaar to inspire him to lead South Africa’s team to the world championship. The eventual national embrace of the team transforms a symbol of division, racism, and hatred into a symbol of a “Rainbow Nation” growing towards reconciliation.
The film rightly shows the historical racism and domination of many White South Africans, but it does not do so with a broad brush and addresses the danger of Black South Africans harboring anger and desiring retaliation. This is good. Eastwood, however, errs on the side of making the White South Africans too innocent and weakens the magnitude of the reconciliation that follows. It is too easy to forget that Nelson Mandela was blessed compared to other civil rights advocates who died at the hands of a White South African government. South Africa was — and is — reconciling and recovering from a very brutal system of hatred, abuse, and murder; it is important not to forget the harshness of reality.
In a poignant scene, Pienaar and his teammates travel to Robben Island and view the cells in which many Black South Africans, including Mandela, were held. The weight of the prison intoxicates Pienaar. He sees the work yards, touches the steel bars, and encloses himself in Mandela’s former cell. Pienaar feels the sense of entrapment and dehumanization that permeates a prison. Overcome with the severity of apartheid, a system he lived within but simply accepted as status quo, and realizing the gravitas of Mandela, he remarks in genuine awe: “I was thinking how a man could spend 30 years in prison, and come out and forgive the men who did it to him?”
Mandela and Pienaar must take up courage to engage the task before them. Mandela, in a position of political power and influence, takes it upon himself to refute the temptation of revenge and put down fear. He reaches out to a person who was once his enemy and asks him to participate in something larger than either of them. Pienaar, filled with uncertainty, takes the risk to trust Mandela and reexamines the system he had believed to be true and just. He becomes a symbol and representative not only for Afrikaans, but also for the 43,000,000 South Africans of all races, all of whom are trying to discover their role in the new nation.
Based on a True Story: Freeman and Damon in Invictus (left), and the real-life Mandela and Pienaar.
Mandela and Pienaar are archetypes of reconciliation, not because they are perfect, but because they are real people. Mandela has failed marriages and a disappointing family life that mark his past. Pienaar benefited from the inhuman structure of apartheid. Yet, despite their missteps, regrets, and blotted histories, their humility in 1995 was driven by their Christian faith and understanding of biblical reconciliation.
For a film that was destined to garner Oscar talk, Invictus is surpringly grounded. Clint Eastwood does not burden his movie with sappy, self-important filmmaking. The film is straightforward, somewhat predictable, and the cinematography is rather ordinary. But, on the other hand, Eastwood does not waste any film in the telling of this extraordinary story. The film’s simplicity is engaging.
Freeman’s depiction of Mandela is noteworthy. Although Freeman is much taller than Mandela and does not quite master a clean Black South African accent, the profundity of his performance emulates the spirit of Mandela. Likewise, Matt Damon becomes immersed in his powerful and earnest portrayal of Pienaar; it is easy to forget that Damon is only playing a role.
As with any movie “based on a true story,” some of aspects of Invictus are fictionalized for the sake of the silver screen. Mandela’s involvement with the Springbok was not as calculated as the film displays and it was after the match that Mandela and Francois Pienaar became friends. However, this poetic license does not detract from the purpose of the story.
Invictus may not win any Oscars — although Damon, Eastwood, and Freeman have been nominated for Golden Globes — but it is a substantial film nonetheless. There is enough action to keep the film moving and enough drama to maintain a salient theme. The film is suitable for teenagers and adults and asks its audience — especially its Christian viewers — to find their role in reconciling a world of broken nations, broken people, and broken hearts.
The team members from Chapel Hill Bible Church prepare for their missions adventure in Nairobi, Kenya.
Round Trip, Christianity Today International’s new documentary-style DVD and curriculum about the lessons and adventures of short-term missions trips, can be boiled down to these three maxims: 1. Humankind is made in the image of God. 2. We have a lot in common that we may not be aware of. 3. There are things that others can teach me.
In expounding upon these themes, Round Trip offers Christian leaders and laypeople vital wisdom and guidance on a ministry ritual that is becoming an increasingly standard part of contemporary church life.
In early December, my wife, Alyssa, and I moved to Huntington, Indiana, a town of 17,000 that’s about 98 percent white. Alyssa is Taiwanese American and I’m African American, so this was a bit of a shock for both of us.
Although we both attended Taylor University in nearby Upland (another 98 percent-white community), we were in college then. Our community was students, staff, and professors. Though the student body was predominately white (only 7 percent American ethnic minority), with just under 2,000 enrolled, most people of color didn’t feel isolated. Additionally, the town was so small that we didn’t spend much time in civic life or patronizing businesses. To grocery shop, go out to eat, and engage with the broader community we ventured to Marion or Muncie. Although we were in rural white America, as college students, the town was not our home. In Huntington we aren’t afforded that exemption; we are community members in a northern Mayberry. We shop. We go out to eat. We have friends. We go to church. We are citizens of the City of Huntington. For two ethnic minorities who are interracially married, this foray into rural white life has been an interesting journey.
A few weeks ago Alyssa and I were engaging in one of our favorite activities, our weekly shopping trip to Aldi. We had gotten our cereal, fruit, and other necessities and were heading to the checkout. But before we made it, my ADHD kicked in and I decided to go back and grab some other — unnecessary — items, namely more cereal. When I returned to my wife, I noticed she was conversing with an older, white woman. When she saw me, the woman responded in a surprised yet excited manner, “This must be him!” In retrospect, I think she was scouting us from the moment we entered through the sliding doors. As we chatted, we discovered that the lady, stereotypical of many older women, was quite inquisitive. She thought our olive oil was wine, and she was overbearingly sociable. After seemingly meaningless banter, our conversation ended by her saying that she was “very glad that we were in Huntington,” and like many “good” Christians, she invited us to visit her church.
Alyssa and I pushed our cart up to the checkout lane, bagged our items, and headed to the car. Then my wife filled me in on chapter one of the story.
While Alyssa was walking through the frozen food section, she almost bumped into something. She turned around and noticed this something was an older lady. The cordial “excuse me” came out from both my wife and the elderly woman. My wife assumed that the incident was over; both had gone through the social routine of apology and now it was time to move on with life. However, the woman, in her curiosity, had other thoughts.
Before Alyssa could scoot away and find me, the woman asked, “Oh, are you from the college?” It is a logical assumption: 1) we are young and many of those under 25 who live in Huntington are students at Huntington University, 2) when in non-business clothes, we (I especially) dress more “urban,” and 3) we are ethnic minorities, and many of the ethnic minorities that live in Huntington are affiliated with the college — or work at a restaurant.
Post-assumption, Alyssa informed the woman that she was not from the college and that I actually worked at the university. Unaffected by my wife’s attempts to escape, the woman asked where we lived – assuming that we didn’t actually live in Huntington. Alyssa told her that we just moved from Fort Wayne and that we previously lived in Champaign, Illinois. At that moment, the great awkwardness began. In an effort to connect with the anomaly of an Asian American in Huntington, the lady trotted down the road of “trying too hard.”
“I lived in Chicago!”
My wife politely responded, “Oh, I am from the suburbs of Chicago.”
The lady, in all genuineness . . . and cluelessness, said, “What, Chinatown?”
Alyssa’s face immediately expressed the words she could not — or at least should not — articulate, “Are ya serious?” The lady must have noticed my wife’s chagrin because she quickly recanted her statement, “That was a stupid and dumb thing to say . . . but you are Chinese, right?”
My wife, attempting to maintain her patience, responded, “Kinda, I’m Taiwanese.”
At this point, I, the unsuspecting husband, came up with my box of Aldi-brand Honey Bunches of Oats.
The complexity in this situation comes from the lady’s honest naiveté. She had probably never interacted with an Asian American in Huntington; she was probably nervous and somewhat dumbfounded; she was probably hopeful about the prospect of diversity, yet unsure of how to embrace it.
The blessing of this situation, odd as that may sound, is that my wife was given the opportunity to offer grace. When dealing with racial issues — reconciliation as a whole — grace must remain preeminent. This doesn’t mean that words do not hurt, people aren’t insensitive, or that people aren’t bitter. It does mean that as Christians we do not have the liberty of staying mad at someone. Grace is sometimes difficult. Uttering something racially offensive — in either ignorance or brazenness — not only conjures personal incidents of racism, but uproots the experiences of others, of family, and of ancestors. This is a deep litany of pain. It is much easier to choose the ways of anger or apathy rather than the way of grace.
The words that this woman spoke were wrong, they were insensate, but my wife had the opportunity to show her love just the same. If Alyssa had snapped back and said, “No, I am not from Chinatown, you racist idiot?” her frustration would have negatively influenced this white woman’s tolerance for diversity and understanding of others unlike her. My wife’s face said enough to suggest that the comment was not cool.
Don’t get it twisted, though; my wife was upset with the words spoken and she was angry that they were spoken. One is justified for having those emotions as the response of the sin and/or its ramifications. Grace does not preclude us from experiencing frustration and anger, but rather redirects those emotions to a productive, restorative response.
Ultimately, this situation was neither about my wife nor this woman, it was about reconciliation. A graceful response both freed my wife of bitterness and, hopefully, influenced that well-meaning woman towards a greater understanding of racial diversity and, more important, reconciliation.