SCRD seeks to include more white voices in APU’s diversity narrative

On Wednesday, the Student Center for Reconciliation and Diversity (SCRD) hosted a panel entitled “It’s Not My Fault I’m White.” The panel was introduced and moderated by Tajianna Okechukwu, president of the Black Student Association (BSA), and included professors Justin Ashworth, Justin Smith, Cybelle Barthelmess and Teri Merrick.

The event aimed to help white students navigate their white privilege to better help and connect with students of color at Azusa Pacific. In introducing the agenda, Okechukwu covered general guidelines and terminology to guide the discussion.

According to Okechukwu, the term “white privilege” does not mean all white people are privileged in life. She said while some white students might struggle with many issues and have difficult lives, their skin color is not a cause of that struggle, like it can be for people of color.

“I think it’s always touchy because we don’t want to talk about race and things that may make us uncomfortable,” Okechukwu said. “But that’s where growth comes from … We’re able to change for the better when we get exposed to new perspectives.”

According to APU’s 2018-19 Fact Sheet, the institution currently holds 56 percent undergraduate ethnic minority students, making unegraduate Caucasian students a minority. This is not a unique statistic since students of color have been enrolling at APU at increasing rates for several years.

“As we progress as a country that is becoming more and more brown, or people of color, I think  [it’s good] for our students to have a healthy conversation around identity [and] to understand who they are,” said Aaron Hinojosa, executive director of SCRD.

The panelists were introduced after an icebreaker and a brief overview of the agenda. The all-white panel was asked questions regarding race and ethnicity and how they, as professors, have experienced race at APU and within their personal lives. One question asked what it means to be white.

“I think the first thing for me is that it means to be a member of a group that has historically oppressed people,” Merrick said. “And it’s hard to distinguish white privilege from class privilege, so to be aware of that.”

Smith said the idea of racial whiteness in America is unique compared to other parts of the world, especially when looked at through a historical text.

“[Being white] also means that … somewhere along the line, someone made decisions related to relieving you of your cultural distinctiveness,” Smith said. “It wasn’t good enough to be Italian; it wasn’t good enough to be Irish; it wasn’t good enough to be German; it wasn’t good enough to be Polish; it wasn’t good enough to be whatever — that wasn’t going to get you anywhere. Being ‘white’ would.”

The panelists were also asked to recount the times in which they realized they had white privilege. Merrick and Smith said they both realized they had white privilege due to Malcolm X’s writing. For Merrick, teaching Malcolm X in the classroom allowed her to connect with some of her students of color who related to Malcolm X’s anger in a way that surprised Merrick.

Smith had a similar experience when he read Malcolm X at a young age and came across the term “white devils.” According to Smith, being able to read Malcolm X’s work and listen to his anger allowed him to realize for the first time how he benefited from a system that was historically racist to people of color.

The panelists also recounted times when they were shunned for supporting social justice causes. Smith said he experienced it within his household, and Barthelmess said she experienced it at work.

“My dissertation topic is ‘Best Practices for Engaging Evangelical White Students Into Racial Justice,’ and with that I have gotten other faculty members here at APU say, ‘Well, you’re not going to get a job with that,’ or something to that degree,” Barthelmess said. “At home and outside this context, it’s been really hard.”

Ashworth said white professors have the unique ability to help guide these conversations into a positive light.

“Every once in a while when we’re talking about issues that have to do with race and racial justice, I am able to say, ‘Listen up, white people,’ and be taken seriously,” Ashworth said. “Whereas if my black colleagues or female colleagues were to say [the same thing], people would just shut down.”

Ashworth said being a white male gives him and other professors an opportunity to better educate people on racial and social justice issues because it feels like he is critiquing himself rather than critiquing others.

Students continued to engage with the panelists after the event was over, asking questions and sharing personal experiences.

“The goal [of this event] is to not create sides,” Hinojosa said. “It’s really to say we’re all in this discussion. We all have a part to play in that. It’s important to hear from our white students and our white faculty and staff and hear their voices in the conversation.”