White Reactions to Diversity Initiative

When an organization gets intentional about fostering ethnic diversity, there is potential for misunderstanding. Today’s post comes from Andrea Murdock who reflects on some of these misunderstandings and offers her own thoughts on how to respond. 

The room is full of Bible college students from all over the nation and some from out of the country! The president of the college walks out and announces a new focus that the school will be undertaking. He talks briefly about reconciliation and he uses the word intentional a lot. He calls it a “diversity initiative.”

Some of the students roll their eyes. Some, though they may be few, are ecstatic and hopeful. Many are wary, concerned or confused, unsure that this is a good thing. Diversity can feel like a vague term, but initiative implies change. Across the board there are many different reactions to a focus on diversity and they are not always positive, but for the purpose of this article, we will focus on the reactions of the confused, concerned, or unsure group.

Along with each concern/issue/reaction, I will share some thoughts and insights of my own. Please understand, I am no expert. I am a white associate children’s minister who lives in Joplin, Missouri and I am passionate about racial reconciliation and diversity in the Body of Christ.

So, here are some basic reactions from white people toward intentional diversity, and some thoughts that I have in response to each one:

A diversity initiative will mean the neglect of white students. They worried that such a focus would cause white students to feel less important than students of color. They also worried that it would mean students of color, many of them friends, would be singled out for photos, etc. and put in the spotlight simply because of their skin color.

First of all, of course there is going to be something of a spotlight placed on students of color because of a diversity initiative. If the purpose is to bring in people of color, the wise thing to do would be to show them there is a place for them. Why is it so wrong to want to draw attention to progress and celebrate a reflection of the diverse world that God has made? Second, a concern for the possible neglect of white students reveals a subconscious misunderstanding of how people of color have been treated. This is not an either/or situation. A diversity initiative is not an effort to kick white people out, it is an effort to bring people from minority groups in. It is an effort focused on growing the Kingdom of God and expanding our horizons, understandings, experiences, and cultures. Ask yourself, “What am I afraid of losing?” Chances are it is an opportunity you are not at risk of losing so much as an opportunity people of color now have but were denied for centuries.

A focus on diversity will put a second-rate candidate of color in a position for which a white person might have been more qualified. For example, scholarships which only a student of color can receive are being created. These do not provide equal opportunities for a white student who might deserve it more. The feeling is that such scholarships are racist and unfair.

This argument suggests a person’s skin color should not be a desirable, qualifying factor. The fact is a person’s skin color brings with it a variety of experiences and insights from having lived in that skin in a racialized society, and these should be considered more valuable than they often are. This failure to value experiences and insights from people of color is also why so many don’t realize the deficiency of a homogeneous campus culture and experience.

To address the scholarship issue, I would first like to point out that this country denied people of color basic human rights and prevented them from having the same opportunities as white people for centuries. With institutions such as slavery and segregation, America has, over time, developed a culture of systemic racism. In order for things to become truly equal, opportunities designed specifically for people of color are necessary and imperative. Equality has yet to be reached. America is still in the process of repairing damages and making things right, and scholarships like this are just one step toward racial reconciliation. Once again, if you are concerned about a scholarship or job position designated specifically for people of color being unfair or unequal, consider that it actually could be a great effort in the pursuit of real fairness and equality. 

A diversity initiative will take away from our main mission as Christians, which is to spread the Gospel. To expect everyone to be a part of a diversity initiative or to agree that it is necessary will mean giving up some other area of ministry that is greater passion or concern, thus detracting from a ministry calling.

If you do not make a focus on diversity part of your ministry calling, you are hurting the ministry of the school/church/organization in which you are working. Racial reconciliation is not a “facet of ministry” in the same that way teaching, preaching, leading worship, or youth ministry might be. Racial reconciliation through diversity efforts must be part of every aspect of ministry or the ministry will fail, if not right away, further along down the road. We can no longer focus on one group of people or skin color. We have to start making room and accommodations for minority ethnic groups. Jesus prayed for a unified church in the garden of Gethsemane before he died for the sins of the world (John 17). He prayed for a visible unity that would show the unbelieving world the true love of God. Of all the things he could pray, Jesus chose that. He stated that if we unified together in Christ, then the world would see and believe (verses 22-23). Visible unity through the reconciliation of various skin colors and ethnicities is a major opportunity to actually spread the Gospel and is necessary in every aspect of ministry in order to be fully effective in an increasingly diverse society. Mark DeYmaz, an advocate for multiethnic ministry and founding pastor of Mosaic Church in Central Arkansas wrote in an article for Outreach Magazine that reconciliation is “not peripheral to the gospel but intrinsic to it.”

We would rather focus on people’s hearts, rather than on their skin. We should all be “colorblind.”

While this response is often well-intentioned and  spoken by people who truly want to see God’s Kingdom grow, I see two fundamental flaws with this reasoning. First, this sentiment suggests a person’s heart can be divided from their skin — that skin does not matter. A person’s experiences and culture and worldview are influenced a great deal by their skin color. Not only does a suggestion like this reveal ignorance and an unrealistic idealism about humanity, but it also inadvertently insults our Creator. God chose to make different skin colors and it would be foolish of the church to ignore them.

Second, God gave us diversity as a tool to advance the Gospel and grow God’s Kingdom. In a nation that is slowly but surely eradicating the idea of a “majority group,” a lack of focus on diversifying your congregations/student body/faculty/staff is going to leave you with no hearts to focus on at all. I think we should see the increasing diversity in our society as an opportunity provided by God himself to bring people into a relationship with Christ. Don’t reject it.

A final concern often not actually spoken but reflected “between the lines” of the other concerns is this: I like things as they are. This feels right to me. It’s comfortable.

I readily admit that even just having these conversations risk people being offended or found wrong in their thinking. And we don’t want to give up our preferences, whether in chapel worship, cafeteria options, or campus activities and emphases. The thing is in order for a diversity initiative to work, people are going to be uncomfortable. They are going to feel displaced and perhaps unhappy or discontented. The only way for such an initiative to be truly effective is for those involved to die to themselves. You will have to embrace the uncomfortable and awkward. You will have to make room for changes and sometimes you will have to toss your preferences in order to bring people to Christ.

Folks, diversity is not optional. Reconciliation must take place and the Body of Christ must be visibly unified for the sake of the Gospel.

About Andrea Murdock

Andrea was born in Joplin, MO, but spent the majority of her growing up years in Maryland where she attended a multiethnic church. A graduate of Ozark Christian College, Andrea currently works at College Heights Christian Church as the Early Childhood Associate Minister. She and her husband Malachi reside in Joplin, MO with their son, Jonah.

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