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#CRClistens: Dialogue is Hard but it's Worth It

Editor's note: This is the second post in our new series How to Stay in Conversation with "the Other Side". During this series, we hope to learn together how to communicate about contentious issues in ways that build up the Body of Christ. Above all, we hope that this series will help you stay in conversation in constructive ways that honor and respect the image of God in those you disagree with and in the people affected by the issues about which you are talking. Perhaps these reflections will even help us to engage well as a Christian Reformed Church in dialogue around hard questions, particularly at Synod 2016. 

To receive updates on the series in your inbox, subscribe here. To engage in the conversation on social media, use the hashtag #CRClistens. If you'd like to comment on this post, please do so on the CRC Network or on the Christian Reformed Centre for Public Dialogue or Office of Social Justice Facebook pages.  

Lately I’ve been writing about white privilege. White privilege is a topic that tends to make some people (mostly white people) feel anxious, guilty, or angry. As a white man, I can empathize with some of these reactions, others less so. I am convinced, and as a Christian I would say convicted, that I need to speak out about white privilege. At the same time, I am equally convinced that the folks I’m most interested in talking to are often the least likely to want to listen to me, and that I often fail to reach them.  

Some background: I teach social work at Calvin College, a mid-sized, Midwest, Christian liberal arts school. In November, one of our students, accompanied by a friend, wrote “white power” and drew a swastika in the fresh snow on the rear window of a parked car on campus. When photos of the graffiti found their way onto social media, the campus was confronted with a sobering reminder of the persistence of white supremacy. The campus came together to respond, and our president condemned the action as having "no place at Calvin College." The primary student involved later confessed, and issued an anonymous public apology. 

In December, I wrote an op-ed for the campus newspaper. The core of my argument there, and what provoked the most response, was my assertion that the denial of white privilege pushes one towards implicit assumptions about white superiority. If you deny white privilege, if the United States is essentially meritocratic, it is difficult to avoid assumptions about who tends to win and who tends to lose.

This was not a universally popular hypothesis.  While I did receive some support and affirmation from colleagues and friends, it was quickly overshadowed by a deluge of negativity, ranging from substantive disagreement to threats of physical violence. My op-ed for the campus newspaper had been picked up by Tucker Carlson’s online site The Daily Caller, which ran a piece entitled, “Professor Blames White Privilege for the Existence of Michigan.” The article was shared thousands of times and copied on numerous other conservative news sites. The comments section on our campus newspaper site was suddenly flooded with angry folks who had probably never heard of Calvin College. 

The staff at our student newspaper emailed me asking if I wanted them to shut down the comments section. Part of me certainly wanted to. Ultimately, however, I asked them to leave it up. I wanted students to see these comments, even the ugly ones. More importantly, however, I wanted to try to engage with them in productive ways. If you spend time interacting with online comments you’ve probably been advised more than a few times to avoid “feeding the trolls,” people who are really only interested in provoking responses. As Christians, however, we always have to push ourselves to remember the human being sitting at the keyboard, created equally in the image of God. It seems to me that we also have to hold out hope that communication remains possible. 

So I tried to respond as thoughtfully and clearly as I could to each comment. I answered dozens of angry emails. Most importantly, I set up appointments with colleagues who expressed disagreement to talk. I won’t pretend that all of these efforts were successful—that certainly was not the case. Several of these conversations, however, did close with some sort of reconciliation, or at least a more respectful agreement to disagree about certain specific ideas. Email chains that had begun with phrases like “deluded” or “lack of intellectual honesty,” ended with statements like “Thank you for responding. Try not to see issues in extreme black or white (no racial pun intended). Take care.” 

In reflecting back on this episode, I’ve come to believe that these efforts to engage with the other around the statements I made were in some ways as important as the statements themselves. This is especially true about the difficult face-to-face conversations with my colleagues. The students I teach are entering college in a hyper-polarized political atmosphere, and are offered the opportunity to digitally surround themselves with only those they agree with. Many of them were ready to jump to my defense on social media, but have expressed fear and anxiety about how to talk about these issues with family members. The put-down comment is easier to write than it is to talk to your father about why that Beyoncé music video may be worth thinking about after all. I think we have to engage with both the comment and the conversation, and to try to speak the truth in love in both situations. Ultimately, however, the hard and personal conversation is more important. I’m also convinced that the conversation is as important as the comments that start it.  

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[Image: Flickr user Virginia State Parks]


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