“Did you personally experience racism at Duke?”

This was a conversation I didn’t really want to have initially—not because my friend’s question made me uncomfortable, but because I wasn’t sure either of us really had the energy to unpack the things that led her to ask it. After all, when Alice and I had initially met, I was a senior in college and an evangelical Christian. Now, ten years later, I was something of a prodigal. I had gradually—almost inadvertently—detached from the church as part of a lost herd (a term I’ve used tongue-in-cheek to describe a cluster of my closest friends, all of whom were initially drawn together by our shared Christianity, but now remained tightly bonded in its absence). For old friends with whom I had only kept in loose touch, I was always careful not to burden them with the weight of my misplaced salvation. So it was in this context that I hesitated. When the question arose, our conversation had already drifted away from the usual “hey, let’s catch up!” toward the less-traveled space of why I had fallen away. We were venturing into a decade’s worth of quiet reflection, much of which remained fluid and scattered across an expansive sea of introspection. The truth was that I joined a multi-ethnic, faith-based community in college to elevate my understanding of race and diversity. But instead, I found that my experiences left me woefully ill prepared to grapple with the realities of race and equity.

You see, I met a group of my best friends through Duke’s InterVarsity (IV) Christian Fellowship in 2004, the year I started as a freshman. I found the Duke IV community to be passionate, vibrant, and often precociously idealistic—all things you might expect from an overpriced, “elite” institution. InterVarsity, specifically, vocalized a mission for multiethnic inclusion and racial reconciliation. So as a freshman who openly kept a bible on my nightstand and wanted to expand my own social consciousness, I was drawn to this community that injected songs in Korean and Spanish into their contemporary worship sets.

In my four years at Duke, I invested a huge part of myself into this community; even joining the core leadership team by the time I was a senior. I was appointed coordinator for new student recruitment, and I was thrilled by the challenge of leading our chapter in community outreach and diversity. Now in retrospect, I literally giggle at the idea that anyone thought I was even remotely prepared to tackle such a mission. Despite wielding the pure intentions and passion of youth, I had no clue what I was venturing into—or that I was about to get crushed.

Our chapter faced an interesting challenge. In the years leading up to my senior year, the demographics of Duke IV had shifted to become more and more Asian. In fact, it was a conundrum that started even before my arrival. A couple years prior to my freshman year, InterVarsity had appointed an Asian man to staff and minister to the Duke chapter. When he first began leading the fellowship, Duke IV was approximately 75% white. Then two years into his tenure, this number had dropped to something like 25%. This sudden demographic shift left both the fellowship—and the man in charge of nurturing it—scrambling to understand and reverse the active exodus of white Christians. So by the time I entered this community, there was a certain desperation regarding the need to better “diversify.”

By my senior year, the Duke IV staff worker had again changed (this time, a white woman), but the demographics continued to shift with palpable momentum toward more Asian students (and fewer white ones). As coordinator of new student recruitment, I prayed, planned, and labored to better recruit white Christians. I internalized the unspoken understanding that Duke IV had become too Asian, that we were self-segregating, and that it was our lack of inclusivity that was deterring white membership. We placed whatever white students we could in visible leadership positions. We stopped singing songs in Korean and Mandarin Chinese. We held serious meetings on how we might become more diverse (read less Asian). I listened as white members of my fellowship—my friends and peers in faith—suggested, “we just need to stop acting so awkward” and “prove to people we are normal.” So on this beautiful neo-gothic campus in the heart of North Carolina, at a university built on tobacco and steeped in Southern tradition, we learned to more actively cater to white comfort in our blind pursuit for diversity.

I’m going to pause here because I know some might misinterpret this as me advocating against integration. I joined InterVarsity Christian fellowship as part of a commitment to promote equity and inclusion. And I continue on that journey today, not as an expert, but as a student. What has become apparent to me is that time and again, the burden of integration is shouldered by the already marginalized. By my senior year, I had emptied myself chasing this hollow mirage of diversity while overlooking the dynamics of power and privilege. Nobody seemed ready to point out how we might be paving the long road to a pyrrhic victory. What if we weren’t losing out on white Christian students because of any lack of inclusiveness on our part—what if we were simply losing to a wider systemic bias? Could it be that for a white majority, diversity is lauded so long as it remains a ceremonial sprinkling—and not an immersive baptism?

The truth is, minority groups are accustomed to belonging to majority-white communities because learning to belong is less of a choice. I have grown comfortable sitting in uncomfortable spaces. And I promise, it’s not to be awkward. It’s because I knew that to chase the dreams I hoped to chase, I would invariably need acceptance into those schools, jobs, neighborhoods, and churches where cultural norms are often dictated by a white majority. But more importantly, even if I could choose, I wouldn’t choose any different—because I have experienced the growth that happens when people immerse themselves in cultures and communities outside of their native comfort with good faith and humility.

Yet this exchange is too often one-sided. If integration and inclusion are shared decisions, white flight is a unilateral one. And this is something we see over and again in our communities, our schools, our places of worship, and even in entire professions. When spaces reach a critical mass of non-whiteness, white members too often tend toward retreat because withdrawal into spaces that harbor more familiarity and comfort—where diversity remains a token rather than an underpinning—is both easy and readily available. And for the “pocket” communities left behind by white flight, the message is clear: there were too many of you.

This then begs the question, when we liberally use terms like “self-segregation,” are we absolving those who actually have the most choice in the matter?

This happened to Cupertino, California; and communities all around Silicon Valley. This happened to neighborhoods inside Los Angeles and outside Atlanta; to Detroit and D.C; and in Ferguson, Missouri. It’s happening in math, science, software, and engineering. And sadly, white flight is not only occurring in America, you could argue that it’s permeating it. If you turn on the news, or just google “American immigration,” you might notice that with the shifting demographics of our country, there are perhaps fewer and fewer places for white people to retreat. And so the all-too-familiar message is now reconstituted on a broader platform: there are too many of us.

So did I experience racism at Duke? By now, Alice and I had finished an entire meal and were sipping on milk tea at a shop in Seattle’s University District. We were hours deep into this conversation that had strangely spawned from a chance reunion. I shared with her that it was only years after graduating that I began shedding much of the shame I had internalized during my time in Duke IV. It was only then that I began to understand that integration is a demand thrust on those who don’t look and behave in accordance with a predominant culture; inclusion is a privilege extended by those who are the predominant culture. Maybe, if we are to ever build communities where diversity fosters an honest and humble exchange of our stories—if we are to ever share this burden of integration equitably—our white neighbors need to be a bit more willing to enter and sit in those spaces where they don’t initially feel so comfortable. Yes, it might be a bit awkward, at first. But, welcome to America.

3 replies on “Duke InterVarsity: A Story of Race, Religion, and White Retreat

  1. What an interesting post. It’s a shame that being more ‘inclusive’ to white-Christians meant having to get rid of features (such as singing songs in Korean and Mandarin) that would make Asian-Christians feel more included.

    As a white person I had an experience that may be a counter-point to yours. I joined a university group that helped place university students in internships overseas. The vast majority of members were Asian-Australian. Students who’s families were from Indian or Chinese descent mainly. You had to interview for membership. Being from the country it was a two hour trip for me to get to the offices where they were interviewing, I arrived early and sat chatting with the guys that were going to interview me and then the interview began.

    As I wanted to intern in Indonesia (I studied and spoke the language) they asked me for an example of how I coped with cultural difference and I said I worked in a bakery run by a Filipino woman and her husband. I explained that she had a high staff turn-over because she was quite strict with her staff, but that I got on with her very well (which I did) because I respected her work ethic. They asked me why I thought she had such a good work ethic and I was about to say, “Because Asian people work really hard”. I pulled myself up and finished lamely, “Just…because”. I realised in that moment that I had never been the only white person in the room.

    I wasn’t trying to be rude but what I did was almost voice a generalisation held by much of the white community and which I had never been in a position to consider. That’s the danger of always being surrounded by people like yourself, your pre-conceptions are often mirrored back to you without dissent. It was a learning moment that I have always held on to.

    I think as non-white communities grow in traditionally white areas, we will continue see white people become uncomfortable. What’s important is that we acknowledge our discomfort and then move on from it. It’s normal to feel on the outside when you stand-out, but there’s no need to stay on the outside when, with respect and patience on both sides, we can all be ‘in’.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for sharing this! Love hearing about your own personal experience. I think it reflects exactly what we all experience when we allow ourselves to sit in places that seem culturally “new” or “foreign” with a willingness to learn and grow. There will be the inevitable blunders, and we will stumble over many a faux pas along the way. There will be friction. But as you put it nicely, the important thing is that we acknowledge our discomfort (and not retreat from it). As I mention in the article, for minorities, this experience is often integrated into our daily existence. For those who are part of a majority group, seeking out (and staying in) spaces where you are a minority requires a greater level of intention. But I really believe the reciprocity of this exchange is what will allow us to elevate diversity in a meaningful way. It’s why people’s perspectives change when they travel and live somewhere new (spend time in places where you can’t retreat from cultural discomfort!).

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