In 1963, Dr. Martin Luther King argued the obstacle in the path of justice was not “the Ku Klux Klanner but the white moderate who is more devoted to order than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”
Westmont, we are the “white moderate.” We chose “negative peace” when we reprimanded Audrey Davis, Westmont’s first black female graduate, for holding a vigil after Dr. King’s assasination. We chose “negative peace” when we accused the organizers of #westmontwhitejesus of “circumventing good conversation” and then cancelled their event designed to facilitate conversation. We continue to choose “negative peace” as we censor student sharing in chapel, label vocal students of color as divisive, and ignore the righteous anger and courageous passion of those who created the artful chapel protest. This “negative peace” is one bar in the #toxicwestmont cage of oppression.
A second bar is the image of white Jesus atop North America in the prayer chapel. On Westmont’s website it reads “the only building on Westmont’s campus which clearly, in both form and function, indicates that we are a Christian college” is the prayer chapel. Therefore, the white Jesus at its heart must also “in form and function” reveal our nature, and it does. The image is problematic in its allusion to the continued use of Christianity as justification for colonialism, slavery (and its afterlife) and genocide, and also emblematic of our embrace of whiteness as a system of power. Too often we live as though the new creation is white normative by trying to become a part of the triumphalist body of the European colonialist, rather than the suffering servant body of Christ.
The impact of the #toxicwestmont cage on our community is alarming. The frequency of racial microaggressions is unacceptable. The persistence of racist, misogynistic, and homophobic jokes is worrying. Tokenizing students of color for “brand” and funding is disturbing. Placing the weight of “diversity” on one office, underfunded and primarily made up of students of color, is unjust. Restructuring that same office without their input is irresponsible. The lack of accountability for racial discrimination, and the racial demographics of non-transient positions is startling. The enshrining of white-centric masculine epistemology in curriculum and chapel is pitiful. The empty promise of a “diversity” position within the campus pastor’s office is disappointing but not surprising. Too many students of color echo the fears of Audrey Davis who, in 1968, said Westmont “made me resentful and hostile.” The problem is not the attitudes nor the feelings of students of color, but a climate which rewards compliance to white dominance and punishes faithful and scholarly resistance.
Our allegiance to Christ requires us to do all forms of justice, but we often act as if racial justice is an afterthought. Dr. King noted that it is us, the white moderate, “who constantly says, ‘I agree with you in the goal you seek, but I can’t agree with your methods’ … who paternalistically feels that he can set the timetable for another man’s freedom.” This same rhetoric serves today as another fierce bar in the #toxicwestmont cage.
The cruel irony in the backlash to “#westmontwhitejesus” is that, in many ways, #westmontwhitejesus was the perfect way to face systemic racism at a Christian liberal arts college. The movement invites a critical cross-disciplinary approach to unmaking unjust theology, art, science and culture. Given our most recent accreditation report, where all of the recommendations were directly or tangentially tied to diversity, the task at hand is urgent.
We sit at a crossroads in the story of our college. Members of our community who have been gifted power and tasked with stewardship have chosen to keep a racist image. They have invested in ignorance, and the return is idolatrous ideology in the fabric of our institution. In this context, we cannot forget that the silence of our community silence speaks. Our apathy reinforces #toxicwestmont and prevents us from fulfilling our mission statement.
To become what we must, it will take more than posturing or facilitated conversation. More than individualized reconciliation or adding “ethnic” Jesus to sit in white Jesus’ periphery. More than hiring staff, faculty, or administrators of color. Even more than the rewording of vision statements and three-year plans. It will take courageous members of our community to hold us accountable to God’s vision of justice rather than our own, and a radical restructuring of our institution so that last become first, and the first, last.