I grew up in a very white area of West Michigan. I went to Christian schools my whole life, including Calvin College. Most of the non-white students I came into contact with on a daily basis had been adopted by white families. And though I had almost no experience with anyone who was different from me, I never thought of myself as racist. But I do remember one chilly winter afternoon, seated in the Calvin College field house watching the infamous Calvin/Hope rivalry play out on the basketball court, looking around me at the sea of white faces cheering and thinking, “Is this what the kingdom of God is supposed to look like?” The Bible explains the kingdom of God repeatedly as made up of a diverse group of people from every tribe, language, people, and nation (Rev. 9, John 11). But for most of my life, I have lived in Christian communities with very little diversity.
I don’t imagine anyone wants to think of themselves or be thought of by others as racist. Race is an often avoided and incredibly difficult subject to talk about. But if we truly desire God’s kingdom, we must have these complex conversations. We must confront the realities of racism in our own lives and in our Christian schools.
Exact demographic information about the racial makeup of Christian schools is unavailable. However, though there are notable exceptions, my experience (as well as what U.S. Census reports reveal about enrollment in private schools in general) suggests that Christian schools are made up of mostly white students and teachers.
Over the years, I have heard many different explanations and excuses for this. Some argue that Christian schools appeal to a certain part of the population based on religious adherence that trumps race and ethnicity and therefore shouldn’t be held accountable for whether white or non-white people want to attend. Others mention that our schools have plenty of diversity, even without many different races or ethnicities represented, because each child is a unique creation of God. While they might make us feel better, both points reflect a “colorblind” mentality that ignores the realities of institutional discrimination. Unfortunately, solving the diversity problem in Christian schools will require a lot more than a few teacher seminars on multiculturalism and a smart new marketing campaign. The first step is uncovering the systemic privileges of being white.
In the well-known article, “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack,” Peggy McIntosh (1988) explained white privilege as an “invisible package of unlearned assets which I can count on cashing in each day, but about which I was “meant” to remain oblivious(p. 173).” She revealed that, “whites are taught to think of their lives as morally neutral, normative, and average, and also ideal (p. 173).” In order to better uncover the reality of her privilege, she put together a list of twenty-six conditions that she, but not her non-white friends and coworkers, could count on being true on a daily basis. Here are seven of them that are particularly relevant to education.
- I can if I wish arrange to be in the company of people of my race most of the time.
- I can turn on the television or open to the front page of the paper and see people of my race widely represented.
- When I am told about our national heritage or about “civilization,” I am shown that people of my color made it what it is.
- I can be sure that my children will be given curricular materials that testify to the existence of their race.
- I can arrange to protect my children most of the time from people who might not like them.
- I am never asked to speak for all the people of my racial group.
- I can go home from most meetings of organizations I belong to feeling somewhat tied in, rather than isolated, out of place, outnumbered, unheard, held at a distance, or feared.
How many of these conditions are true for you? How many of them are true for your students? Before we can challenge the social systems that preclude racial and ethnic diversity in schools, McIntosh argues we must first “acknowledge their colossal unseen dimensions (p. 176).”
So how does white privilege specifically affect Christian schools?
Research reveals year after year that non-white Americans are disproportionately affected by poverty, homelessness, hunger, crime, lack of access to health care and a host of other disadvantages, many of which would make affording the rising cost of Christian education difficult. But money is only a small part of the issue of white privilege in Christian schools. Assuming money is no object, there are still obstacles present that could discourage non-white families from wanting to enroll their children or present difficulties for the non-white children already enrolled. These obstacles can be referred to as the hidden curriculum.
Lisa Delpit, in her book Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom, wrote “We all carry worlds in our heads, and those worlds are decidedly different. We educators set out to teach, but how can we reach the world of others when we don’t even know they exist? Indeed, many of us don’t even realize that our own worlds exist only in our heads and in the cultural institutions we have built to support them (p. xxiv).”
Unfortunately for many non-white students, their “worlds” often do not match up to those of their white Christian school counterparts. And, in addition, the “world” created for them at school does not resemble at all the world they encounter at home and in their communities. There are myriad examples of this that white students mostly take for granted because the language, instruction, discipline, and even use of space and time in school is probably very similar to what they experience at home. The same is not often true for non-white students.
Delpit argues that this can have negative consequences. She says, “When a significant difference exists between the students’ culture and the school’s culture, teachers can easily misread student’s aptitudes, intent, or abilities as a result of the difference in styles of language use and interactional patterns (p. 167).” For example, research reveals that non-white students are disproportionately represented in special education, with studies showing that black students are more likely than white students to be labeled as “learning disabled,” and more likely to be found to have an emotional or behavioral disorder. Many people attribute these problematic representations to the disconnect that black students experience between their home and school culture, leading to behaviors that white teachers easily mislabel as deficiencies.
A friend told me a story of a Christian high school that had recently implemented a program to reach out to disadvantaged populations. As a result, they experienced an influx of about twenty new black males into their predominately white student population. After the first semester, my friend lamented, all twenty of those black male students were failing every single class in which they were enrolled. Something is wrong with that picture, and it is not with the failing students. What hidden curriculum prevented so many non-white students from succeeding, and what can be done about it?
We hear a lot of talk today about multiculturalism in the classroom. Schools are slowly starting to realize that too much of the curriculum comes from (or is centered around) “dead white men.” But critics suggest that our efforts to be more multicultural still have a long way to go. Tim Wise, in his book White Like Me, makes this observation:
“Multiculturalism, in most instances, is something that feels thrown together as an afterthought. Mainstream multicultural efforts are there for two reasons: either for prettiness or for a cover-up. When it comes to the way in which non-white folks and cultures are presented and discussed in class, the typical arrangement tends to reduce them to ‘food, fabric, and festival.’ But learning what exoticized ‘others’ wear, eat, and how they celebrate, hardly alters the fundamental dynamics at work in the schools—dynamics that continue to favor the dominant group by making that group’s story the centerpiece of everything that one studies, and everything about which one is supposed to know, in order to be deemed educated (p. 19-20).”
This certainly speaks to the curriculum that I encountered growing up in the Christian schools, though it was years before I became aware of it. But it is a scathing indictment and one that is difficult to swallow by well-meaning, overworked teachers who genuinely love their students and want what is best for them. Lisa Delpit points out that the solution is not necessarily to try to create a perfect “culturally matched” learning situation for each ethnic group (p. 167). Certainly Christian schools, and most other schools for that matter, lack the resources and time to make that tall order a reality. Recognition, Delpit and many others argue, is the first step towards making a change. Christian schoolteachers must recognize the challenges we face and the structures we must navigate—structures that may be subtly and explicitly privileging one racial group over another, structures that are preventing our schools from reflecting the kingdom of God. And there are things we can do.
What We Can Do
First, I believe that all Christian schoolteachers, administrators, and staff should be required to read the authors I have cited in this article if they haven’t already. White teachers must come to terms with their own privilege before they can begin to unpack it in the classroom.
Second, Christian schools must carefully examine their curriculum to see how it privileges the white European version of history and reality over other cultures. I have been in multiple meetings with non-white parents who have asked me how my school incorporates texts and material from minority voices. I had to admit I could only speak for my own curriculum and that it was unfortunately very lacking in representing other voices. I also had to appreciate how difficult those questions must have been for them to ask and how clearly those encounters revealed the reality of white privilege. After all, I am sure that no teachers have ever received the same question from white parents about the inclusion of white voices in the classroom.
Third, Christian schools should take a close look at the images hanging up around their school. Do the posters, books, pictures, and promotional materials reflect the diversity of God’s kingdom? What about the images of Jesus in your school? Is he portrayed with pale skin and light hair? Not only are those images of Jesus historically and scientifically inaccurate, but they send a strong message to non-white visitors about the God that we worship.
Finally, Christian schools should be places that celebrate diversity and service. For example, what did your school do to honor Martin Luther King Jr. Day? How about Black History Month? It occurred to me this fall that my school did nothing to acknowledge World AIDS Day. Aside from that being an important cause that Christians should be working to help alleviate, AIDS is also a disease that disproportionately affects the black community in North America and the world. Christian schools should seize every opportunity we have to point out issues of injustice and inequality as well as celebrate and acknowledge the important gifts that people of all races, cultures, and ethnicities.
- Delpit, Lisa. Other People’s Children: Cultural Conflict in the Classroom (New York: The New Press, 2006).
- McIntosh, Peggy. “White Privilege: Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack.” In Paula Rothenberg (ed.), Race, Class, and Gender in the United States, 8th ed. (New York: Worth Publishers, 2010): 172–77.
- Wise, Tim. White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son. (Brooklyn: Soft Skull Press, 2008).