ACU Hosts Uncomfortable Conversations On Race
While a fresh wave of racial tensions sweeps across the U.S. in response to the deaths of suspects in traffic stops and police custody, one local university is making good on a promise to embrace difficult conversations between racial groups.
Members of the Abilene Christian University community filled the seats of Chapel on the Hill each evening last week for a series of panel discussions called "Uncomfortable Conversations.” Organizers say the event was the brainchild of ACU Junior Anthony Egbo, and was hosted by the Office of Multicultural Affairs. Each of the four sessions featured students and guest speakers on topics including the history of race and Christianity, racial tensions and the police, immigrant experiences for Hispanic and Latin American students, and the rise of racism against Asian-American and Pacific Islander populations, or AAPI. Office of Multicultural Affairs Director Ryan Bowman says the ACU community can’t shy away from these topics, "If you were uncomfortable at times, that's a good sign because it shows the possibility of growth."
Tuesday night's panel included local police officers Randy Motz and Bucky Wright, who answered questions about what it's like for police to go out on calls and never know what to expect. Motz described the situation like being dealt a hand of cards you can't see, and stressed the importance of showing respect to community members no matter what the situation entails.
ACU Senior Calvin Williams, who aspires to join a police force in the future, asked how to handle the situation if he sees a seasoned officer making a bad decision. In response, Wright emphasized the importance of integrity:
Williams: "Going into that field, how do you get over that power gap of saying this is not okay, as a rookie officer?"
Wright: “Times change. You've got to step up. Truly law enforcement is changing in a lot of ways too for the good, that I've seen in my time. And you don't get afraid. You do what's right and the outcome is going to turn out better for you."
The students and police officers shared a balanced exchange on how the public can better understand police work, and how officers can work harder to keep situations calm or de-escalate problems, especially with minorities who already feel the stress of police interaction. Last year while many protests across the nation turned violent, Black Lives Matter protests and marches in Abilene remained peaceful and were held with the support and attendance of local law enforcement officials.
Some of last week’s other difficult conversations included an examination of what has felt like a shift for many minority populations regarding cultural acceptance of people voicing their racism publicly in America. Wednesday's session, which focused on immigration issues and cultural stereotypes, was the most informative according to some attendees. ACU’s International Student Services Specialist Veronica Summers moderated a panel of students from Guatemala, Brazil, and Honduras about what it's like to be an international student. Local Social Worker Shannon Que shared historical information about AAPI experiences in America, as well as her own frustrations growing up in California from a Chinese and Filipino family. "That looks like the persistent questioning of 'where are you from?’ I know you want me to say some exotic country because I look exotic and I don't look like you. The underlying message of that question is you're different. And, again, it's veiled in that mindset of oh, this should be a compliment. Why is this such a big deal?” Que says it's important for people to be aware of assumptions that create boundaries between "us and them" in order to distinguish others, in a way that separates instead of connecting.
The week’s events began and ended with a focus on the intersection of race and Christianity. On Monday night ACU Professor Emeritus Doug Foster challenged Christians, especially White American Christians, to look beyond their own experiences and understand the history of what perpetuates racial injustice. Thursday night’s speakers appealed to that same mindset, as students gave testimonials of overcoming racial stereotypes, and led prayers calling for repentance and reform. Anthony Egbo prayed for more than just ideas, "My prayer tonight is that the stirring within us will not just stop at a stirring. My prayer is that the stirring will produce works of action. And that those actions will produce fruit. Fruit that will break generational strongholds. Fruit that will unyoke bonds of oppression. Fruit that will produce life."
ACU’s Chief Diversity Officer Stephanie Hamm and OMA Director Ryan Bowman said this is only the first event of its kind, and their two offices will continue to work with student leaders and the Diversity Council to continue these uncomfortable conversations next fall. The organizers are focused on the importance of the ACU community coming together to discuss these difficult subjects in order to be better influencers of culture as they prepare students to take what they’ve learned in the classroom and in their experiences at ACU out into the world.