Campus Protests and a False Sense of Colorblindness


I used to be the white girl who didn’t get it.

by Heather Caliri

Earlier this month, protests about race erupted at several American colleges. The uproar began at the University of Missouri, where the chancellor and president resigned over their responses to racially charged harassment.

Meanwhile at Yale, an official email about avoiding racist Halloween costumes, such as blackface, inspired one faculty member’s response asking for “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense.”

The initial upheaval in Columbia and New Haven sparked tensions elsewhere. Someone posted anonymous online threats towards students at historically black Howard University, and protests followed last week on campuses at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and nearly two dozen others.

These protests reflect the recent grassroots activism around the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but the racial tensions they attempt to address are nothing new. For decades, white administrators and students themselves have ignored or downplayed the concerns of people of color regarding the racial climate on campus.

I know because I was one of them.

Like many white students, I hadn’t experienced real diversity until I went to college. The idea of diversity seemed nice before I arrived on campus. But once I started my freshman year at Rice University back in 1996, I found myself poorly prepared to live in community with black students, even fellow Christians.

When I began looking for a church in the area, I asked Tanisha, the only Christian upperclassman I knew, if I could go with her. We pulled up in front of Tanisha’s church, and I realized I’d be the only white person there. I thought I was being “colorblind” by overlooking race, when really I blithely assumed she’d attend a white church like the ones I knew back home in suburban San Diego.

My naiveté appalled me. It was a painful lesson that my careful “colorblindness” was self-delusion. I noticed race a lot once I became aware of my own whiteness, and I felt ashamed of my reaction. Tanisha had welcomed me warmly, so why had I felt so alienated in her church? Instead of thinking through this experience, though, I shoved my questions down. Worse, I barely looked Tanisha in the eye again.

Years later, as a junior, I met a girl at a conference for Cru, where I served as a student leader. I wondered why she’d never shown up at Cru before and assumed she was just now getting serious about her faith. (Even more unconsciously, I thought perhaps all the African American students on campus were nominal Christians—otherwise, why didn’t they join the mostly white parachurch ministries?)

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SOURCE: Christianity Today: her.meneutics

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