An Interview With George Yancey

By Joshua Canada

    Author and scholar George Yancey has been an important voice in the conversation about diversity within American Christianity. As an academician, he has spent the past 15 years publishing articles and presenting on topics ranging from sociological explorations of contact theory to constructing theological paradigms of reconciliation.  Yancey’s work has been a cornerstone of many contemporary works on Christianity and ethnicity and is a co-founder and current operational board member of the Mosaix Network, a relational network for leaders who are taking the lead on promoting a more multi-ethnic churches and interactions between churches with various primary ethnic backgrounds.

    Yancey’s most recent book, Neither Jew Nor Gentile: Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses, is a much-needed academic exploration at racial/ethnic diversity within the nation’s protestant campuses. Westmont College Resident Director, Joshua Canada, sat down with Yancey to ask questions about his research, the impact of diversity efforts on college students and the role institutions and, specifically, student development can play in diversity efforts.

    Joshua Canada: You have written a number of books concerning diversity within churches, within American Christianity, and within the broader culture, what was your motivation for writing about colleges and universities?

    George Yancey: As I worked with different churches that wanted to become more racially diverse, I noticed that they had a hard time finding pastoral and lay leaders. I realized that part of the problem was that the people they were seeking as leaders tended to come from racially homogenous colleges and universities. I wanted to study Christian colleges and universities to see how they can do a better job preparing students for a multiracial world.

    JC: You divide your findings between conservative and mainline institutions. What similarities and differences did you find between how well institutions from there denominational backgrounds embrace diversity.

     GY: Generally, conservative Protestant churches are more evangelical and more willing to make cultural adjustments to incorporate people of different races but are blinder to the power dynamics of race relations. The opposite is true about mainline denominations in that they are more set in their worship traditions but more aware of racial dynamics of power.  In regards to college endeavors, mainline colleges and universities are more likely to utilize diversity programs than conservative colleges and universities

    JC: Despite the finding that mainline institutions utilized programming more than conservative institutions, you make several comments that programming is not always the most effective way to promote diversity. When is programming effective and when it is more of a barrier than a bridge?

    GY: I suspect that programming that just dictates to students what they should believe is unlikely to be effective. On the other hand, programming that encourages open dialogue and produces knowledge is likely to be effective. However, my work does not fully answer this question and future research may be better suited for teasing this out.

    JC: In what you did find, how did students respond multicultural programming?

    GY: A lot of the time the students did not even know about that programing. The most popular response was to ignore it. Other students became aware of the multicultural programming, but resented it as they thought that it just made people angry. These students had a colorblind perspective. Some students benefited from the programs since it brought them more awareness and knowledge, but most did not. White students tended to be more receptive to diversity classes compared to others efforts.  I think this is because classes are part of what universities are supposed to provide and do not seemed forced on them. White students are also pretty receptive to professors of color for much of the same reason. However, if they do not like the personality of the professor of color or see the professor as incompetent then they may resent that professor and he/she will have little effectiveness for those students.

    JC: To change directions a little bit. Several student development theorists speak of ethnic-identity development being in its prime during the college years. In your interviews, how developed were various students in understanding their ethnicity?

    GY: White students did not tend to have developed much of a racial identity. It varied with students of color. Some of them had a very strong racialized identity. Others took on more of the identity of the majority groups. Students of color are not a monolithic group. Future research is needed to see what percentage of them have a strong racial identity as opposed to a majority group identity.

    JC: Previous research has shown that faculty-student interaction plays an important role in the development of college students, specifically in regards to diversity and multiculturalism. Did you discover any similar relationships in your research?

    GY: That interaction seemed especially important to white students. They were more likely to alter their racial perspective due to interaction with professors. For students of color this interaction was at times important ways for them to gain reinforcement. But they did not tend to change their past racial perspectives due to such interactions.

    JC: Both popular and scholarly sources have noted that black students have a particularly difficult time persisting at predominantly white institutions. Did you find this to be true and if so how did it manifest itself?’

    GY: There are differences for blacks as opposed to other racial groups. Most importantly, there appears to be little that can be done to recruit black students relative to other minority groups. They are retained with many of the similar measures of other students of color and perhaps in the long-run that will aid in recruitment. But short-term recruitment is difficult for black students. They are also more likely to attend Protestant colleges to participate in athletics and less likely to come to the colleges for spiritual reasons. It may be that culturally blacks define Christian spirituality different that those of other races. I did find that diversity measures were more likely to be correlated to retention of black students on conservative campuses but on mainline campuses those programs were more effective in retaining non-black minorities.

    JC: As a whole, what were some of the most significant difficulties ethnic-minority students at predominately white institutions face?

    GY: If ethnic-minorities are racialized then they often have a difficult cultural adjustment. They also are aware of the white/non-white power dynamics and want to be heard. The lack of professors of color also means a lack of role models and opportunities to gain mentoring.

    JC: What can CCCU institutions do to cultivate a healthy environment for ethnic-minority students?

    GY: The biggest thing they can do is recruit more professors of color and start academic programs that produce more diversity courses. The latter may be easier than the former since people of color are underrepresented in academia. I would also encourage them to support student led multicultural organizations as long as those organizations are focused on bringing people together.

    JC: Regardless of its Christian tradition, what role does an institution’s Christian faith play into the institutions pursuit of diversity?

    GY: Potentially that Christian faith could aid in diversity pursuits, but only if that faith is interpreted in a way that includes different Christian cultures. A narrow and culturally bounded interpretation of that faith will scare away people who are not of that racially-based cultural tradition.

    JC: Student development professionals have a great deal of day-to-day interaction with ethnic-minority students, how do you suggest we support students while not alienating them or making them feel like tokens in the institution’s agenda?

    GY: First be flexible. Do not assume that every student of color is racialized. There is a sizeable percentage that just wants to get through college like everybody else. Second, encourage multicultural student organizations to produce unity and not division. Plant ideas in the minds of the student leaders of these organizations of ways they can serve not just members of their racial group but for all groups. Third, promote knowledge but not an agenda. Pushing agenda on students tends to make the majority group students angry and that anger is picked up by minority students. This creates more animosity on the campuses. But almost all students appreciate knowledge. Finally, promote honest, but safe, interracial dialog. Students are much more willing to gain from dialog from other students than from being dictated to by university personnel.

    JC: What do you believe will be the impact of more diverse Protestant institutions on American Christianity and why do you believe diverse campuses are a necessity?

    GY: First, we will have a better witness as Christians. Having more diverse Protestant college and universities will help to remove the stigma of Christianity being only a “white man’s” religion. Second, we will have leaders better trained for a multiracial world. Christians can not reach the world if they can only reach those in their race. Students who are more comfortable dealing with people of different races will become more effective in ministering to others whether it is as clergy or at their secular workplace. Finally, students will have a better overall college experience. There is a good amount of work suggesting that exposure to different racial group is correlated with a number of positive outcomes, for example better problem-solving abilities. We should want our students to gain these positive benefits as well.

    Neither Jew Nor Gentile: Exploring Issues of Racial Diversity on Protestant College Campuses is available through Oxford University Press and most major book retailers.

     Joshua Canada serves as the Resident Director of Armington Halls at Westmont College, located in Santa Barbara California.


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