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Teaching for racial equality, and against oppression, has meant coming to grips with what my adult
students (domestic and international) do not know, i.e. the basic concepts of race and the mechanisms of racism in the United States. Teaching about racial violence, domination and hatred invariably means asking students to re-learn their views on race, as well as to become critically astute concerning issues of Western society and systemic oppression. Institutionalized white supremacy is a delicate and emotional subject.

Many students report that the conversations in seminary courses are their first critical, extended conversation about the “isms” (racism, sexism, classism, etc.). While I am not surprised, I am alarmed. I can but hope that their exposure to these conversations will compel them, in their own communities of responsibility, to lead more life-giving dialogues. If Black lives are ever to matter, we need religious leadership who understand the death-dealing institutions which frame our capitalist democracy and the targeted violence which ensues for the minoritized.

Extended conversations on racism and violence are embedded in my Introduction to Educational Ministries course. The required course, with conversations on attitudes of white supremacy and class privilege, has the reputation of being HARD. I have done little to counter the hallway-chatter because I think (re)learning race identity and the theory of racism is HARD work. It is not a soft, warm and fuzzy dialogue. It does not build self-esteem or use the approach of “I’m OK/You’re OK.” It is a conversation that most people would rather avoid. It is a conversation I push past triteness, trivialities and pleasantries.

After teaching about racism for these many years, I have a list of concepts for which students have told me, through their comments, silences, and behaviors, is the stuff that has caused the most cognitive dissonance. Rethinking what they thought they already knew - is confounding (HARD).

The biggest and most consistent surprise is that race is not a biological reality. Race is a social construct based upon cultural norms.

Beyond this fact, they are also halted by the following:

  • The traditions of race and racism in the USA have a history which needs to be studied. For example, at one point in US history, it was theorized that there were 35 white races.
  •  Laws and social practices create race based upon differences seen through the lenses of culture. Public policy by federal and state government (e.g. U.S. Constitution, Emancipation Proclamation, Affirmative Action, Civil Rights Act, Voters Right Act, etc.) has been the scaffolding of systemic racism, as well as anti-racist thought.
  •  Whiteness is not universally normative. The values, mores and behaviors (e.g. beauty standards, gender roles, worldview concerning community) espoused by whiteness are not essentialist. Whiteness is one culture (albeit powerful) in the mosaic of global cultures. 

Whiteness is more than skin color or ethnic origin. It is about privilege and access to opportunities, power, and wealth acquisition reserved by public policy and private action for those deemed as white. Housing, wealth, education and inheritance are systemically racialized by public policy.

Differences are not deficiencies. Those of us who are different from white, e.g. African-American, Latina/o, Asian, Native American, etc., do not have to compare ourselves to whiteness for legitimacy of culture or ontological presence. Non-white people are not inherently flawed; we are not divinely created as a holy mistake.

Racial markers (like skin color, hair texture, shape of eyes or nose) are assigned cultural values. The body, then, is the site of violence/de-humanization because it is believed that by viewing the body one can accurately identify race, thus instantly able to assess the power and worth of a person.

And, perhaps the most insidious of all:

Those who benefit the most from racism are oftentimes the least aware and critically articulate about the phenomena of racism. Those with white privilege are privy to the spoils of a racist system even if they are not personally racist. Keeping the oppressors unaware and inarticulate is a strategy of the successful, racist architecture.

At some point during these uncomfortable conversations, I tell my students that I expect them, now armed with this knowledge as well as with an awakening curiosity, to change the world into a less hate-filled place. I assure them that to assist persons with the burden of white supremacy is dangerous work, but ministry in the 21st century demands it. Then – for relief (theirs and mine), I play, “Awake Up Everybody” by Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

About Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D.

Nancy Lynne Westfield, Ph.D., is the fourth director of the Wabash Center for Teaching and Learning in Theology and Religion. She grew up in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, sharing a home with family and extended family dedicated to public education. Her father was a school psychologist and her mother was a stay-at-home mom who, as a volunteer organizer, greatly influenced the school board of the city of Philadelphia. Lynne holds a BS in Agriculture from Murray State University, a MA in Christian Education from Scarritt Graduate School, and a PhD in Religious Education and Womanist Studies from Union Institute. Lynne, as a United Methodist clergy person, served on the staff of the Riverside Church (NYC) where she redesigned the family education program. From 1999 to 2019, she was on the faculty of Drew University Theological School (Madison, New Jersey) as Professor of Religious Education.
Lynne’s first book was a children’s book entitled All Quite Beautiful: Living in a Multicultural Society. Her second book was a publishing of her doctoral dissertation entitled Dear Sisters: A Womanist Practice of Hospitality. Her books written in collaboration include: Being Black/Teaching Black: Politics and Pedagogy in Religious Studies and Black Church Studies: An Introduction. She also, for a brief time, wrote for the Huffington Post.

Reader Interactions


  1. Thank you for this article Dr. Westfield. One of the most challenging aspects of my journey as a seminarian has been having racial conversations in a diverse classroom. As an African American woman, I have had numerous conversations about racism among family, friends and even church members but they are also African American. The conversation is different when you are talking to people from various cultures. It takes vulnerability, honesty, forgiveness and love. If one is not careful, bitterness can creep into the conversation and hinder progress. This type of dialogue is not for the faint at heart. 

  2. As a white anti-racist male, the racial conversation continues to be a challenge. Just the other day, in a tweet, I used the #blacklivesmatter. A day later a friend from university, a Christian white male who would say with great confidence that he was not racist, commented on my tweet “#alllivesmatter bro.” His “correction” rubbed me the wrong way as it continued to negate and marginalize black and brown bodies. It is frustrating because we continue to live in a world that still privileges one body over another. Thus if whiteness is made equal with black and brown bodies perpetuates systemic racism. As a white male I do have to admit that racial conversation are Hard, but I see how this road for racial reconciliation or even racial reparations, is critical for doing ministry in our world today. Thus, if a white person continues to miss the complexity of the conversation, as my friend did, we unknowingly, and with ignorance, continue to perpetuate systemic racism in the United States. This is the last thing I want to do in religion leader. Thank you Dr. Westfield for this hard, yet insightful article as I continue working to transform the world into a “less hate-filled place.”

  3. Yes Melaine Rochford, the racial conversation has been one of the most challenging aspects of seminary. When I came to seminary all I wanted to do was Love God and Love people. No one told me the complexity of loving people. Once I became honest with myself, I began to realized, as a white male, just how much my privilege played a role in getting me where I am at today. Being honest about ones privilege is hard, even for whites like myself who earnestly seek to be anti-racist. Thus I agree, even-though, “this type of dialogue is not for the faith at heart.” it is important. whites need to be vulnerable and honest about white privilege in our churches, academics and politics.

  4. It’s good to hear your perspective Parker. #BlackLivesMatter is never to negate the value of other lives. All lives in fact matter but it appears that due to systemic racism, some lives are valued less. It’s a painful reality but our duty is to faithfully remind people that ALL life regardless of race, gender or socio-economic status is valuable.

  5. For as long as I can remember, I’ve struggled with the belief that I had to somehow prove that I am not racist. The problem is that I also understand that when I attempt to do so, I am probably being disingenuous by trying too hard, and thus, not really convincing anyone. As a father of a biracial child (through adoption), I believed that this would lay any doubt to rest. But still, I had this nagging sense that I have to somehow justify my “not racist” credentials (as if anyone really gave a… well, you know).

    As you state however, “Those who benefit the most from racism are oftentimes the least aware and critically articulate about the phenomena of racism”. So, I have come to learn through my seminary training that while I have struggled to ensure that I am personally fair and just to all people and patted myself on the back for my self-avowed “enlightened” attitude, I had remained blissfully ignorant of the systematic racism that exists still today.
    So, even while I hope to have accomplished the act of not being racist, I am aware that I have benefited from racism nonetheless.

    If any good news can be extracted from this, it is this: As I feel that I am now more competent in identifying systematic racism on a larger scale, thanks to seminary, I am now noticing it on a much smaller scale far more often than I ever did. Comments from friends through social media that I would have at one time, just laughed off or ignored, I now recognize as a part of a larger problem for all minorities. Understanding that I can almost always drive 15 mph over the speed limit is something that I’ve always taken for granted. I never thought that this was anything but a universal truth for all people. I understand now that it is not. And it is through this new understanding that I believe that the solution lies: one enlightened person at a time addressing and correcting and standing up for what’s right. Solutions will not come from the system that promotes and benefits from the racism; it must come from people shining light onto the darkness and demonstrating God’s justice for all people.

  6. This is an interesting article, well articulated. The issue of racism cannot be underestimated. Regardless of being in the digital 21st century world, we still see deep hurt and inquietude when the topics of these “isms” (racism, classism) are raised. Re-learning as well as redefining ways of teaching these real life issues will be very instrumental to the society.
    In one of my classes, the professor gave a profound illustration about racism. In this, she said, “class, what will be your response if a black professor comes to class, wearing a shirt with the inscription, ‘black is beautiful.’ And how will you respond if a white professor comes to class wearing a shirt with the inscription, ‘white is beautiful?” This really got the whole class rethinking about racism. Although most people feel uncomfortable to open up for such discussions nevertheless, ‘it’s painful to undergo surgery but we mostly end up having outstanding result with our health.’ Such topics are very sensitive but we must endeavor to embrace both the teaching and the learning of them because we have a world in mind to change.

  7. Sometimes I very much dislike these conversations. I hated them a when I was younger because I didn’t appreciate them. I stood firm on a belief that race wasn’t an issue until someone dragged it into the current situation. Yet, I felt the issue nearly everyday. It’s like having an illness you can’t quite name. You feel tired and frustrated by inability to function fully but continue to dismiss the reality that something needs to be addressed. As I got older I could not ignore the symptoms as easily. How I easily caught attention when walking around certain towns, the feeling like I had to validate myself to strangers and peers, and the grand moment in one of my undergraduate classes where I heard a peer say something along the lines of “Those Puerto Ricans really ruined our town.”

    Now I am here at Drew Theological Seminary and we have the conversations I hated so long ago and have grown to desire. I am able to articulate and discuss my very life now and learn that I was a part of the system and the issues as well. It is painful for all the right reasons and as much as I dislike pain, I like being healthy far more.

  8. You know Peter, it’s funny to see you say that you have struggled with the belief that you had to prove you are not racist. It’s funny to me because I feel like I’ve struggled with a belief that I had to prove that I’m not effected by race. Now we meet here and find ourselves able to engage in this discussion and see the roles we played in struggling with your beliefs. We have seen too much, learned too much, and heard too much to be blind to the world around us.

  9. In these United States of America, I find it difficult to stand united with the actualities of our country. I, as an African-American Christian male, find it difficult to live in the midst of a racist society and paint the picture of racial equality. It is hard! Race is not something that someone chooses before being born, and therefore it is something that should not be disrespected or disregarded. These are things that make us all different from each other. We do not live in a utopia-style world where we are all the same, gratefully we are different. I don’t think that our difference should be tools of dividing us from one another, but rather a tool for us explore different avenues to accomplish different things. This is not simply about race but all of the –isms. Dr. Westfield, I appreciate your willingness to expose the fact that it is hard to live (and survive) in a divided environment.

  10. Emmanuel, you state that you “find it difficult to live in the midst of a racist society and paint the picture of racial equality”. I am certainly not qualified to debate that point and I wouldn’t disrespect you by attempting to do so. But I would point out that in my 30+ years in the corporate world, almost one third of that time was spent working for two companies with African American CEOs. I can also tell you that I have never known a manager, myself included, that did not seek the most qualified candidate when hiring, regardless of race, gender, and so on. Am I professing that racism is dead? Certainly not. But I believe that it is dying, and people like you are only going to help it get into the grave once and for all. The work that has been going on for decades to combat racism is about the best work we can do. I only hope that we can finally bury it within our lifetimes!

  11. Peter I think you are right on that point, by saying that in your over thirty years experience in the corporate world, one third of that time, you did not see any of the CEOs hiring with racism. That is very profound and hopes it happens everywhere. In our quest to fight and eradicate racism from the system we allow ourselves to think that it cannot be done away with. But whatever has a beginning can also have an end. I see racism more of an individual attitude corrupting the moral fiber of the society. We may not be able to pray away racism because an attitude needs to be reformed. And such reformation happens through education. As a student of Drew University living on campus, I see how people are respected irrespective of race, color, language or class. I think that is a sign of progress.

Wabash Center