During a time in which egregious racism and hate are being more widely exposed in this nation, we write to express our lament and to bring awareness at a critical juncture.
As of recently, Oral Roberts University has made more serious commitments to prayer services and public announcements against the murders of Black humans by police officers. The university issued a statement on diversity that acknowledges the systemic racism in our nation, and says that “Black lives matter,” and racism will not be tolerated by those in the ORU community. President William Wilson’s words come across as sincere and heartfelt. However, ORU’s statement fails to own its complicity in racist practices that do not just happen across America, but occur on its campus.
During the summer, a group of ORU alumni came together and wrote Wilson a letter listing our hopes of future action to bring true equity and diversity to ORU’s campus. Wilson’s response was generic and broad, lacking in specific action steps leading to change.
The group moved forward to create a survey that sought to collect data about alumni experiences and to give voice to the inherent contradictions that we observed taking place on campus.
When a diverse group of over 200 alumni were surveyed, most agreed that attending ORU was a worthwhile investment. Despite these positive descriptions the survey results revealed many were still exposed to the destructive ways of whiteness that showed up in classrooms, chapel stages and outreach/mission opportunities.
The esteeming of particular parts of the U.S. culture and history of white supremacy was embedded in American Christian ideals that prove toxic. The way of whiteness is the imperialist way that seeks to minimize and marginalize people, cultures and practices that do not fit its ideals.
The hope is that ORU can improve in various areas in order to come into greater alignment with its mission, “To develop Holy Spirit-empowered leaders through whole person education to impact the world.” The failure to respond appropriately during recent months explains why many Black students report rather than leaving ORU feeling like a whole person they left feeling more like three-fifths of a person.
We attended ORU, where there has been a tradition of focusing on global and popular Christian justice issues at the expense of attention to hard and holy topics.
Fifty-eight percent of the alumni surveyed agreed that “ORU is known for being more likely to speak about global issues than those at home (in Tulsa and the USA).” When asked the extent to which they agreed or disagreed with the statement, “In the past, ORU has adequately addressed racial tensions and oppression in America,” over 100 alumni surveyed answered “strongly disagree.”
It is critical for students of color to have certain resources in order to celebrate and embrace their identity in white normative spaces — professors, staff, mentors, chapel speakers and safe spaces where this can happen. In over 80 chapel services archived on the university’s website since January 2019, only nine times is the preacher a Black male and only once a Black female.
This, at a university that boasts of a diverse student body of nearly 40% of people of color and faculty that is approximately 70% white, according to College Factual.
ORU prides itself on its diversity, but diversity is not enough. Dismantling long-standing traditions and practices that harm others must occur. The school claims 116 nations represented in its student body and students from all 50 states and multiple ethnicities, but the survey yielded various lamentable stories of the experiences of people of color being devalued. An African alumna who is a former international student reported:
“ORU supported or stayed silent about (President Donald Trump’s) anti-immigration policies and mistreatment of immigrants.... How do they expect us immigrant students to believe that they ‘love us’ when they visit our home countries, when they treat the plight of our citizens (who reside in their country) with indifference, disrespect and willful ignorance? It’s logically and morally inconsistent.”
The prayers and hopes of many alumni are that the university’s prayer services and statements will lead to repentance, transformation and liberation for those in the ORU community.
The Rev. Alexis Carter Thomas is a writer, researcher and professor who lives in South Carolina. Alexis Hinton is a Texas elementary educator who seeks to bring equitable education for all students.
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