July 19 2024

On Diversity, Institutional Whiteness, and Its Will for Change

W. Anne Joh, Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary

Ask doctoral students from underrepresented communities of color how well they are being prepared for becoming theological educators in a rapidly changing climate and most will say “not well at all.” My reflections here revolve around a few questions that seem to emerge quite frequently in doctoral studies, especially from students of racial/ethnic minority communities and what institutional racism does to them during the process of going through a doctoral program. How are the needs of these students met or not met within the predominantly white institutions and programs whose curricula often reflect absence and foreclosure of the historical legacy of systemic racism? How can institutions committed to cultivating institutional diversity transform so that all students might thrive during their studies, become well prepared to enter their profession as educators, and be equipped to integrate into their teaching the quotidian issues that our societies face?

The life of white racism has neither been transformed nor dismantled even as university demographics change. If there has been any transformation of racialized dynamics and institutional racism, one could argue that race has become “a way of organizing and managing populations in order to attain certain societal goals such as . . . social unity.”1 Race as a technology of management conceals more than it reveals structures of inequality. Commitments to so-called institutional diversity can easily slide to the use of that term, diversity, solely as a form of institutional public relations. This form of diversity “work” changes perceptions of whiteness but does nothing to transform whiteness of institutions. As Sara Ahmed observes, “changing perceptions of whiteness can be how an institution can reproduce whiteness,” rather than dismantle it.2

The arrival of words like diversity and phrases like “diversity is good” has meant a departure from, perhaps, more critical words and concepts like social justice, equality, and equal opportunities. I wonder at the appeal of the term diversity: Does its assimilation and acceptance by institutions signal a loss of critical edge? Might it be possible that the term is much more appealing to institutions because it is far easier to diffuse diversity than social justice?

Divestment from Institutional Whiteness

George Lipsitz’s phrase, “possessive investment in whiteness," names what I see as entrenched and systematic institutional racism in higher education—specifically in theological education.3 The purpose of higher education, especially in training of doctoral students in theological education, should be building a teaching community that is able to transgress boundaries to transform a broken world. Students should become equipped with theories and pedagogical practices that are “engaged in creating a new language, rupturing disciplinary boundaries, decentering authority, and rewriting the institutional and discursive borderlands in which politics becomes a condition for reasserting the relationship between agency, power, and struggle.”4

In general, theological education in the United States does not combat racism. Rather, through what can be provisionally named as the ruse of diversity, the weight of negotiating, understanding, surviving, and even dismantling white racism is often framed in terms of individual responsibility rather than institutional and collective ethical response-ability. Diversity becomes a ruse when it is delinked from historical legacies of injustices rooted in a global ideology of racial supremacy. Moreover, diversity becomes a ruse when it becomes motivated by a colonial posture of benevolence rather than justice.

Drawing from Lipsitz, in theological education (as in other sectors):

Whiteness has a cash value; it accounts for advantages that come to individuals through profits made from housing secured in discriminatory markets, through the unequal education allocated to children of different races, through insider networks that channel employment opportunities to the relatives and friends of those who have profited most from present and past racial discrimination, and especially through intergenerational transfers of inherited wealth that pass on the spoils of discrimination to succeeding generations . . . white Americans are encouraged to invest in whiteness to remain true to an identity that provides them with resources, power and opportunity.5

Lipsitz goes on to note most accurately that possessive investment in whiteness demonstrates that “white supremacy is usually less a matter of direct, referential, and snarling contempt than a system for protecting the privileges of whites . . . While one can possess one’s investments one can also be possessed by them”.6 Collective possessive investment in whiteness, in entitlement, in cumulative access to resources—like higher education—is directly linked to the act of dispossession of others.

The critical recognition that learning is an embodied practice threads the overall narrative of this report. Theological education is premised on the shared values and ethical responses of justice in the face of injustice, compassion in the face of cruelty, liberation in the face of suffering. As educators and students, we not only bring our own embodied lived experiences (never homogenous or singular) but also our bodies into the classrooms. Our bodies themselves are sites of collective memories (never homogenous or singular), historical traumas (never monolithic but complex and multiple), as well as collective resistances, which continue to persist and endure.

Theological education, then, is about engaged and embodied teaching and learning. For students from historically racialized groups, enduring personal and collective historical and material legacies weigh-in, become unpacked and reconstructed in ways that are transformative not only for their own individual selves but also for all whose lives and histories have also been shaped by these legacies.7 Although experiences, memories, and interpretations are always multiple and never singular, doctoral students from communities of color often disproportionately bear legacies of the cumulative effects of collective historical traumas.

For example, one critical process in doctoral education is the deconstruction and construction of epistemological frameworks. Doctoral education demands students become masters of suspicion (i.e., critical thinkers). However, this process of becoming a critically-thinking scholar often entails unpacking legacies of personal and collective traumas. All students go through this process; however, students from communities of color often experience far more intense struggle as they not only unpack their own embodied experiences but also those of their communities.8 These historical excavations extract mental, physical, and intellectual energies from students, but institutions often offer little to no support to enable students to survive the doctoral program.

Gildersleeve et al. examine the seemingly endemic racialized nature of doctoral education in their article, “‘Am I Going Crazy?!’: A Critical Race Analysis of Doctoral Education.”9 In order for students to become successful, they must become socialized into systems and structures with internal codes of operation that often are not familiar. These include academic expectations, definitions of success, and modes of professional and personal life which allow students to join the academic ranks. The study illustrates often dehumanizing cultural experiences in the everyday lives of doctoral students due to race, racialization, and racism inherent in the social practices of higher education. Of course, the social and institutional practices of higher education were founded on the uncritical acceptance of particular European epistemological frameworks, which have tended to foreclose and invalidate other structures of knowing and interpreting our world and realities.

Well-meaning institutions tell students from communities of color that they are inclusive and have a commitment to diversity, but they neither cultivate institutional will for justice-oriented diversity nor forge new institutional habits. As a result, students and faculty of color are often left to work as individuals within institutions whose wills and habits are in opposition to, or in direct conflict with, the lived worlds of these scholars.

“Being included” or folded into such unchanged institutions is to experience violence at close range. If diversity is often imagined as a “form of repair, a way of mending or fixing histories of being broken,” and if diversity is the imagining that we can all work and get along, and that “getting along” is understood to right the wrongs, then students and scholars of color are set up to experience the onslaught of structural violence and violations that become ordinary. Assimilating to institutional norms and values, often not resonate with doctoral students’ own familiar values and norms, refers to a “sense-making” process, which can leave these scholars feeling isolated, frustrated, and untethered from their communities of support. In other words, institutions of higher education continually expect doctoral students to perform these historical excavations while abandoning them to do so in inhospitable institutions and with epistemological frames of reference that predominantly privilege white European colonialist perspectives.

The “unquestioned prevailing assumption of institutional and structural homogeneity, and the accompanying codification of existing racial powers and frames of reference” need further examination.10 The response cannot be a reactive frame of recognition and accommodation. What is urgent and critical is a radical shift in how we envision and put into practice the kind of heterogeneity that would generate coconstitutive theological institutions’ formation, which makes conditions of possibility for radical responsibility to each other a real possibility.

The public relations approach to addressing the issue of diversity has generated sentiments that we are “over” race or that we have “moved beyond” race by giving growing signs of inclusion. On the contrary, these sentiments point to how racism is overlooked. It is critical that we examine how those who have been historically excluded are becoming included, to what extent they are included, into what are they folded into, and to the dangerous pitfall of how institutionalizing diversity can actually obscure institutional racism or institutional whiteness.

Success to diversity begins with institutional leaders’ commitment, which then becomes distributed and shared by others. Commitment must begin from leadership, must include the Board of Trustees, donors, and alumni, and must spread through forms of influence, promotion, and drive. Every institution has a particular ethos and mission, both of which also suggest that it has institutional habits as well as an institutional will. Mission statements indicate what institutions hope to accomplish and embody; it takes institutional will to break old habits and turn those hopes into realities and new habits. Over time, this form of willing must manifest into new institutional habits or ways of being that become intuitively embodied. This work involves divesting ourselves from being possessed by institutional structures of racism and finding ways to invest in the richness of diversity. Diversity, and in particular institutional diversity, in theological education need not be simply a ruse, a cosmetic change that keeps the structure unchanged. If we are genuinely committed to diversity, then it means ultimately offering another vision of the world by changing our structures of learning: how we learn, what we learn, and from whom we learn. Diversity without this kind of overall structural change is a defanged diversity with neither long-term power nor hope. Diversity that is constituted with the presumption to powerfully transform this world is not only life affirming for those who have suffered historically from structural exclusion and dispossession, but it can also ultimately be liberating for all from unjust structures. Through embodied will for radical comprehensive change, this kind of attention and practice of inclusion generates what activist scholars see as the “uncoercive rearrangement of desires” to be angled toward the other.11 We need to take account of institutional racism particularly in doctoral theological education because to do so means to offer a different account of the world.

Falguni A. Sheth, Toward a Political Philosophy of Race (Albany: State University of New York Press, 2009), 22.

Sara Ahmed, On Being Included: Racism & Diversity in Institutional Life (Durham: Duke University Press, 2012), 34.

George Lipsitz, The Possessive Investment in Whiteness: How White People Profit from Identity Politics (Philadelphia: Temple University Press), 2006.

bell hooks, Teaching to Transgress: Education as the Practice of Freedom (New York: Routledge, 1994), 129 [quoting Henry Giroux & Peter McLaren].

5 Lipsitz, vii.

Ibid., viii.

7 CF., Ron Eyerman, Cultural Trauma: Slavery & the Formation of African American Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University), 2001.

8 CF., Elizabeth A. Povinelli, Economies of Abandonment: Social Belonging & Endurance in Late Liberalism (Durham: Duke University Press), 2011. She offers critical insight in how and why some communities experience horrific catastrophic events that then become and are accepted as routine, everyday, normal part of life.

9 Ryan Evely Gildersleeve, Natasha N. Croom, & Philip L. Vasquez, “‘Am I Going Crazy?!’: A Critical Race Analysis of Doctoral Education,” Equity & Excellence in Education, 44 no. 1 (2011): 93–114.

10 David Theo Goldberg, The Racial State (Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 2002), 255.

11 Gayatri Spivak, “Terror: A Speech After 9-11,” boundary 2, 31 no. 2 (Summer 2004): 81.

W. Anne JohW. Anne Joh received her PhD from Drew University in 2003 in theological and philosophical studies. She is the cochair of the Theology and Religious Reflection Section of the American Academy of Religion as well as the faculty director of the Center for Asian/Asian American Ministry at Garrett-Evangelical Theological Seminary. Joh’s areas of research interests include postcoloniality, gender, affect, war, militarism, trauma, political theory and race, economies of freedom, rights, debt, critical Cold War studies in relation to transpacific Asian America, and theorizing politics of love. She has also written Heart of the Cross: A Postcolonial Christology (Westminster John Knox Press, 2006).  Forthcoming are Terror, Trauma and Hope: A Spectrality of the Cross (Westminster John Knox Press) and a coedited volume, Engaging the United States as a Military Empire: Critical Studies of Christianity from Asian/Asian North American PerspectivesHer contributed essays include “Teaching to Learn from the Other,” “Postcolonialism in Fugue: Contrapuntality of Asian American Experience,” “Loves’ Multiplicity: Jeong and Spivak’s Notes Toward Planetary Love,”  “Interrogating Race, Class, Gender and Sexuality in Feminist Theology,” “Gender and Sexuality in Asian American/Pacific Islander (API) Religious and Theological Studies,”  “Violence and Asian American Experience: From Abjection to Jeong,” and “Relating to Household Labor Justly.”