Dismantling Racism

Russell Schoch
April 1, 2007

The Strategic Plan, 2005–2010, adopted in January 2005 by the Board of Trustees, has as one of its goals dismantling racism and building cross-cultural competence: "PSR will equip leaders with the values, skills, and commitment to cross-cultural competency necessary to build anti-racist institutions and dismantle systemic racism in society, and model this commitment and work in its own campus community." The story below provides a look at where PSR stands in relation to the goal of dismantling racism. The other featured story details the contextual learning experience of three students as they work to build cross-cultural competence.

At a recent campus meeting, someone was trying to remember the story of a certain prophet, one who was reluctant to follow God's calling. Names were mentioned: "Jeremiah, Jonah, Amos...." Then someone added the name "Jesus." Everyone laughed in recognition, because they saw what was common in all of the instruments chosen by God to speak truth to humanity: They didn't want to do it. They each felt burdened and inadequate for the call. And they didn't want to lose their positions of security and comfort.

Diane Thomas, director of advancement programs at PSR, tells this story and says there is a clear echo of it in our individual and collective resistance to examining racism and the implications of white privilege — even here, at Pacific School of Religion.

Not that there hasn't been progress. In 1975, one barrier was broken when Archie Smith became the first African American appointed to the PSR faculty. The president at the time, Davie Napier, was rebuked by an older faculty member, who said: "I knew you were determined to appoint one of 'them.'" "You're wrong," Napier replied. "I was determined to appoint one of 'us.'"

Three decades later, PSR has one of the most diverse faculties at any American seminary and, boldly, it has written a commitment to dismantle racism and build cross-cultural competence into its Strategic Plan (2005–2010). The question is: How is the school doing in carrying out that commitment?

Different people have different answers to that question, but everyone would agree that while PSR is ahead of most seminaries in the United States — nearly half of Association of Theological Schools have no persons of color on their faculty — much remains to be done. Two current statistics drive that point home: Archie Smith, 32 years after his appointment, is PSR's only tenured African American faculty member. And last fall's entering class included only two African Americans, no Hispanics, and no Native Americans — despite the seminary's clearly stated goal of increasing diversity.

The past year revealed some of the stresses and strains that exist on campus. In April 2006, at a meeting of the Sister Circle — a support group initiated by African American and African women at PSR and the GTU — one member reported a recent incident of racism. This brought forth other voices and other incidents. The women decided to distribute a list of these racist incidents — a litany, they called it — at the following Tuesday chapel at PSR. The litany, which began "Even here" (even at the GTU and on the PSR campus), was distributed at the chapel on April 25, with many African Americans attending in clothing of their culture.

Among the incidents in the litany: "An African Catholic nun in full habit (including crucifix) can enter the CDSP refectory for dinner and be asked if she is the new cleaning lady." "An African American woman, putting bags in her car, can be approached by a white female student who says, 'I'm late for class, can you just take my keys and park my car?'"

Immediately after the chapel, PSR President William McKinney left on a ten-day trip, and there was no direct response from the administration to the litany, although the president on May 5 sent out an e-mail restating the seminary's policy of "zero tolerance" for racism. Members of the Sister Circle and the Dismantling Racism Committee called for a "Day of Mourning" on May 9. The PSR community was urged to wear mourning clothes, assemble for a silent lunch hour of prayer and meditation, and then gather on the quad, where many expressed their grief and their frustration.

"I can only speak for myself," says current MDiv/MA student Kim Brown Montenegro, "but what I was hoping for after these two events was a greater awareness and acknowledgement of what reality is here for people, and an active effort to change that reality. But that didn't happen."

After the end of the semester, in June, three of the women who helped to craft the litany sent a memo to the seminary's Dismantling Racism Committee (DRC) and to President McKinney, requesting him to meet with African and African American students and proposing a campus-wide meeting on racism in the fall.

In July, McKinney answered with an apology for not responding more quickly in the spring and agreed to the suggested meetings for the fall. On September 6, he met with African and African American students. On October 16, a community assembly was held in the chapel, led by President McKinney and Board of Trustees Chair Jerry Vallery.

During the current academic year, the Dismantling Racism Committee has been reconfigured and has produced a charter, and the administration has added funds for a half-time position to assist with dismantling racism at PSR, beginning July 1, as well as for training and consulting.

As the seminary grapples with its goal of dismantling racism, how is this effort viewed on campus? In the following, a group of PSR people — students, faculty, staff, alumni, and the president — provide their views.

Some views on racism at PSR
"Some people say that PSR is doing very well because it looks so contrary to the ATS establishment — but look at the establishment!" says Renee Williams, assistant to the faculty at PSR since 2004 (who asked that her photograph not be used). "PSR's liberal ideals and 'desire' to dismantle racism does not keep me safe from acts of racism on this campus. I bear the scars of PSR racism — imposed on me by those least expected. Further, as a woman of African descent, PSR's 'zero tolerance' policy affords me little to no comfort, and here's why: 1) the scars I bear have occurred with this 'policy' in place; and 2) what does 'zero tolerance' mean? What are the consequences for violating this policy? How does 'zero tolerance' address the entrenched legacy of institutional racism at PSR? In my experience at PSR, people do some very racist things — all the time — and nothing happens."

Williams was elected co-chair of the Dismantling Racism Committee last fall but resigned from the position and says she won't serve on the committee after this spring. Why? "Because of the way institutional racism works. If you're a person who speaks out about injustice, the systems around you can make you uncomfortable.

"A lot of what happens in this institution is that people of color are dismissed by their white counterparts. It's unfortunate, but it's true. PSR needs to genuinely engage this issue, and genuine engagement means that you start from the top down — the board, the president, and so on. Dismantling racism calls for serious people who willing to seriously stand up — and it may cost friendships, money, students, and positions — but until PSR is wiling to risk and invest to become a place that is safe for me in the fullness of my blackness as it is for you in your whiteness it will remain stymied."

She acknowledges that there are differing opinions among people of color about racism at PSR: "We are not a monolith; we come from differing perspectives, and address issues of inequity very differently. What is consistent in this country and in this institution is the legacy of racism and its ability to marginalize you, even when you are not looking."

Roy Sano, who was sent with his family to Poston Concentration Camp in Arizona during World War II, served in the 1970s and '80s as a PSR faculty member and as director of the Pacific and Asian American Center for Theology and Strategies (precursor to the PANA Institute). He was elected bishop by The United Methodist Church in 1984.

"PSR is the only seminary that can claim among its graduates an African American [Roy Nichols], a Chinese American [Wilbur Choy], and a Japanese American [Roy Sano] who became bishops in The United Methodist Church. This reflects the long-standing commitment of PSR to racial inclusiveness.

"As far as Pacific and Asian North American interests are concerned, there has been a quantum leap in adding faculty and hiring staff. Thanks to Fumitaka Matsuoka's outstanding leadership, the seminary has received major foundation grants for PANA. I wish we could make more progress with African American, Native American, and Hispanic recruits for both students and faculty.

"I used to be liaison to 13 United Methodist seminaries. None of those seminaries is as far along in its commitment to inclusiveness as PSR. Nonetheless, candor and modesty lead us to say that white privilege is alive and that persons of color are still operating with the racism they have imbibed. It's currently a cliché, but there is truth in the notion that we are at best 'recovering racists.' Racism is still active in us and we need to strengthen healthier ways of interacting in the rich diversity on campus, among churches, and in the community."

Ayanna Moore, a first-year MDiv student from Seattle, has been a social worker and high school counselor and is currently a minister in training at Rock of Ages Missionary Baptist Church in Bayview-Hunter's Point, San Francisco. "From my professional experience," she says, "I think what PSR is doing is revolutionary, and I think the seminary is to be commended.

"I realize there have been incidents of racism here — we first-year students have heard about this. But to have an institution that actually has a strategic plan that addresses racism and cross-cultural competence — that's part of why I choose PSR. I see PSR as a kind of role model. I've never worked in an institution — outside of social work — which has had the courage to address such a difficult and oftentimes painful issue.

"Where I see resistance here is among the student body. I think the institution's goals are ahead of where the students are. I think somebody has to be brave and force us [students] to be culturally sensitive and competent.

"I hope that we at PSR don't get disheartened by where we need to go, or what we haven't done, or the tensions that exist. I think it helps to be reminded that PSR has the courage to sweep things out from under the rug and face some very painful issues."

Kim Brown Montenegro, who grew up in Stockton and graduated from St. Mary's College of California in Moraga, is a third-year MDiv/MA student who serves on PSR's Dismantling Racism Committee. She says that "PSR has been the place where I've experienced the most amount of racism — of unconscious, white liberal racism — where people make comments that are usually not checked or changed. And these incidents have happened throughout the years I've been a student here."

About the litany of racist incidents at the GTU and PSR, she says that some people might react by saying: "'Is this really racism? I need to judge for myself if that was a racist incident — perhaps it was misunderstood, or perhaps that person's being too sensitive, or maybe they just had a bad day.' But, as a person of color, I am aware of when racism is present. It's something I've experienced throughout my life.

"I don't think the campus culture among the student body is much better off now than it was a year ago, before the litany and Day of Mourning. The campus culture remains the same. What needs to happen is training and facilitating to dismantle racism throughout the campus, starting with the administration and including the lowest-paid employee and the newest student. This needs to be worked on systemically.

"What's also needed is a financial commitment, in an authentic way — not just throwing money at the problem but addressing it from multiple facets. Up until now, PSR has relied on the volunteer efforts of the committed people of the Dismantling Racism Committee. That is not enough, and the work comes at too high a personal cost for many people."

"I am grateful to the students and staff who raised their voices last spring to name and protest the racism that still exists at PSR and on Holy Hill," says Bill McKinney, president of PSR. "I apologize, on behalf of the PSR community, our administration and myself for the very real pain that people of color continue to experience in our midst resulting from individual acts of racial insensitivity and from structural racism that continues to plague all institutions, including PSR. Many people on campus have helped me understand my own complicity in those acts and the need to change.

"I am thankful for the work that has been done over the years, particularly by people of color in this community, to move PSR in the direction of transformation. When we hear that 'nothing has changed,' we ignore some important realities. We are not yet where we need to be, but neither are we where we once were.

"A number of constructive things have happened this year. The Dismantling Racism Committee has been reconstituted and has formal representation from faculty, support staff, students, the administration, and the board of trustees. It has direct access to the faculty, to the administration and to the board. PSR has shaped DRC's charter so it is recognized as having an important leadership role in our community. The board of trustees and administration have directed more attention and resources to our commitments.

"PSR doesn't aspire to be an institution that announces average goals just so we can boast about our progress. By adopting 'A Tradition of Boldness' as our major theme, we both raise expectations and invite criticism of our practice and performance. While boldness can imply arrogance and triumphalism, it can also imply a willingness to take on really hard, important work. I believe that is what is happening here at PSR."

David Ofumbi, a second-year MDiv student, came to the United States from Uganda in August 2005. Before then, he had studied American history and says he expected to be inundated by racism here. "I was ready to confront issues of racism," he says. "I was not willing to be a victim. I would confront, and I would affirm who I am, no matter what."

But, he says, his reception at PSR was wholly different from his expectations. "I found the place warm, and I found people reaching out to me. 'How can we help you?' This overwhelmed me; it calmed my heart. It made me feel I belonged. And it made me think: There's a lot of stereotyping by Americans on this race issue. I wouldn't today describe to others the way some people had described to me how racist America was."

Ofumbi has examined the incidents in the litany from last spring: "Some of them I don't see as racism," he says. "Some of them may have been. But I found mostly that there are stereotypes, that people already have things in their mind, and this makes them interpret the incidents that way. They encounter them as victims. And I think that is where I have a problem with how some of these issues were addressed."

In terms of his education at PSR, Ofumbi says he would like to see the curriculum broadened. "Why is it that scholars other than Euro-American scholars are not mentioned in class? Caucasians are the ones featured most. This is a debate the school needs to engage in, to broaden the base of education to include other people's experience."

Mark Wilson has been adjunct professor since 1996 at GTU and 1997 at PSR and joined the faculty here half time in 2004 as assistant professor of ministry and congregational leadership. He was born in Oakland, educated at Howard University, spent time in Germany, and received his DMin at Harvard and his PhD from the University of Michigan. Recently, while talking to a colleague in the parking lot at PSR, he was approached by a white couple and asked to park their car.

"Racism is part of the fabric of your life as a person of color," he says. "Therefore, a discussion of this should be part of the fabric of the institution.

"However, I don't know if 'dismantling' racism is the best word to use. I think I would prefer 'understanding' — understanding how to act. You can't 'dismantle' what's been the basis for our national, international, and global means of empire building without dismantling altogether some of the corporate and global capitalism in which we all participate in one way or another. But I do think one can understand one's own formation within racially oppressive systems and try to go to the roots of how one might respond to and resist what one has been taught. Then perhaps we could become aware of how we can develop trust—and fight together for better race relations.

"And I don't only mean understanding racism in "the other," but also in myself. If I walk up to an Asian staff person or faculty and call him or her the name of another Asian co-worker, how visible is that person to me? Or, to give another example, no matter how much I call myself a feminist male, I also have to admit the privilege and benefits I receive from being male in this society. The more I become aware of this, the more I can, hopefully, put some things in check about myself while engaging and working with others on projects of social change."

Diane Thomas, director of PSR's advancement programs since 2000, was a founding member her first year here of a faculty subcommittee on racism, which set up workshops and student orientations; and she helped form and co-chaired its successor, the campus-wide Dismantling Racism Committee. She and her colleagues helped bring about a "racism audit" conducted by The United Methodist Church in 2004, which paved the way for "dismantling racism and building cross-cultural competence" to be included in the school's Strategic Plan.

"There's a remarkable level of acceptance of racism in theological education, and PSR is considered in the forefront of ATS schools combating this issue," she says. "And there definitely has been improvement here in the last seven years. We now have a structural container for concerns about race, with the Strategic Plan; the Dismantling Racism Committee has a charter; and the seminary has budgeted money to hire a person to help with this effort. So there's more awareness of the problem and more space for people to speak up. We've pushed ahead. But part of what you realize after that amount of time is how hard it is.

"White liberal racism, to me, is the trap between awareness and action. Liberals know there's a problem — they may even know a lot, intellectually, about racism, but they don't necessarily risk anything or take effective action. White people are used to being liked and being comfortable, and it's hard for us to acknowledge acts of racism in other white people — or sometimes in ourselves. The question is: How much discomfort and unhappiness can we take on?

"In the end, this is a theological issue, and it's going to take theological leadership, which is what makes the issue so important to this school. Building cross-cultural competence and dismantling racism are things that need to be worked on simultaneously; one without the other is ineffective. Remember, Jesus' injunction was to speak the truth and to love. 'Dismantling racism' is speaking truth by naming the structures, calling people out on their attitudes, and creating the structures where this can happen. 'Love' comes in building cross-cultural competence — learning to listen, to understand, and to take seriously the differences all around us."