“We’re working on it”

A student's reflection to racism at Redeemer

I came to Redeemer in 2018 as a transfer student. Like many other students, I wanted an opportunity to be seen and heard, and to be valued as a relevant member of the community rather than just a number on a class list; Redeemer seemed like a great place for that. 

 

From my very first day, faculty and staff were generally warm, welcoming and understanding, but this year I’ve felt some underlying tensions that I hadn’t noticed before. There’s no denying that Ancaster is predominantly white, and the demographic at Redeemer is the same. While there is a small contingent of international students and visible minorities, we are still exactly that – minorities. And in an institution that places God first, one wouldn’t think issues of race (a social construct, mind you) and colour would be a big deal, but it can definitely feel like it. Despite our staff being God-fearing Christians, everyone is shaped by their own worldviews and biases, and those in turn, intentionally or unintentionally, shape one’s expectations, attitudes and reactions, especially regarding how they treat people. Accepting this, so that a real conversation can be had, is what we need.

 

I had a conversation with an Executive staff member in the Fall about attire (being worn by a particular student) that I found offensive to minorities and people of color. The response was along the lines of “we can’t tell people what to do, and if you wore a Black Lives Matter t-shirt, should I be expected to tell you to change?”. That was so troubling to hear. The fact that a representative of the Institution would equate Black Lives Matter with other political statements instead of a call for social justice is disheartening, especially in a Christian institution. I learned a lot in that response. Was I being told that while Redeemer knows there are issues of injustice, the Institution is at a loss as to what to do about it? Was the Institution skirting the issue by asking what other institutions are doing before perhaps formulating their own response? Why couldn’t Redeemer, while looking at what other institutions are doing, take the lead? As Christ asked us to?  Or, even more troubling, did Redeemer care at all?

 

In the aftermath of the George Floyd murder in the summer of 2020, students received an email from the Administration condemning injustice and standing with the black community. Since then, ‘specific actions’ like ‘listening to members of under-represented groups through anonymous surveys and discussion groups’ and ‘enhancing communication to both prospective and current staff, faculty and students about Redeemer’s beliefs and policies’ seem so incredibly empty. Why, you say? Well, between that communication of September 4th, 2020 and the February 2021 update about the survey, there has been little to no communication to students about these directives that I have seen (I stand to be corrected). When I approached Administration about these initiatives twice during this time span, it was met with an attitude of “we’re working on it”.  Another question I had, had to do with how the Administration plans to understand this issue, in essence, how they plan to paint an accurate picture of the history and experiences around racism, equity and diversity at Redeemer. This is because I strongly believe that to do so, you need to go back. Was this survey sent to former students and faculty of Redeemer? If not, what is the point of asking only those who currently attend? By asking only those currently in Redeemer, It becomes a point-in-time study, bereft of the richness that comes from knowing where we have come from, the gains we have made (if any), the areas of success that need more investment in time and effort by all those currently in Redeemer and lessons for the future. Without this, the effort in putting out a survey along with whatever initiatives we are introduced to may seem purely for the optics and not an intentional effort to address a thorny, uncomfortable, but necessary issue.  

 

Redeemer is blessed with an awesome faculty, but take a look at our website; one can literally count the visible minorities on one hand. I know what I will be told if I ask why: “Visible minorities aren’t applying for positions here”, or “we choose the best candidates regardless of colour” and perhaps many more. Why aren’t visible minorities applying to teach at Ontario’s premier Christian University? Is it attractive and safe for a person of colour to work in this institution? I agree totally that we want the best candidates for faculty positions at Redeemer; as a student, I cannot agree more. But because I know there are educated minorities, passionate about Christ and his Kingdom, relentless in their pursuit of excellence in academia and in their personal lives, I am surprised they don’t want to come here to live and work. And so should the Administration be at this university, if we are to be reflective of the Kingdom of God. I applauded hugely when our Administration decided to host Rev. Dr. Esau McCaulley, a Black professor whose book Reading While Black: African American Biblical Interpretation as an Exercise in Hope is filled with nuggets of wisdom for all, not just black people. While these opportunities for all students, regardless of colour, to hear from an excellent minority speaker are few and far between, they serve to make a strong statement. And creating more opportunities, consistently throughout the school year, will go a long way towards removing the feeling of tokenism that one-off gestures tend to make, as if to say ‘here you go now, now stop saying we don’t do anything for black people; be grateful’. Framing wonderful initiatives like this under an umbrella of concrete objectives, actionable, goal-oriented and measurable, would be ground-breaking for Redeemer University as it seeks to raise Christian leaders in Canada. 

 

How do we move on, together, to create a stronger Redeemer? It would be unfair of me to sit here and criticize the efforts of administration without having some ideas for change of my own. I’ve mentioned an idea in the past paragraph; it needs to be intentional. I also reached out to the Student Senate about the possible creation of an Equity and Diversity Board, and it was well-received. An effort to shine a light on more minority professionals and creatives e.g. during Black History Month would also be a great start. A survey that includes former faculty and alumni would be a great idea, as they can help shed light on historical narratives. Creating more avenues for minorities and people of color to talk about their experiences would help as well, to enable all of us to talk freely about the biases we have and how to live peacefully with one another to facilitate real and Christ-like change. 

 

I am blessed that God gave me an opportunity to be educated in this community of believers. My hope is that future generations of minority students can experience all the good that Redeemer has to offer without ‘tip-toeing’ around their blackness.

 

Ben Ashun, Redeemer Student