Culture | Jenny Hudalla
Students and faculty explore diversity at Bethel.
When Gorpu Sumo left her war-torn home in Liberia to build a life in the United States, she didn’t know she would be asked to abandon her old way of life. She didn’t know people would make fun of the sound of her name, the lilt of her accent and the smell of her food. As it turns out, Bethel’s cozy campus and agreeable atmosphere are not always as welcoming as she expected.
“I know people don’t intentionally want to hurt me,” Sumo said. “But they say things out of ignorance. They’ve heard stereotypes, and they treat me based on that.”
Like Sumo, many minority students struggle to maintain their cultural identity without assimilating to Bethel’s overwhelmingly white culture. In its effort to improve race relations, the university sponsors several groups that aim to both make the school friendlier to minorities and educate the majority on issues of reconciliation.
Through the Navigators program, minority students have the option to move in early and meet other students with similar backgrounds. Many go on to join the United Cultures of Bethel, a group open to all Bethel students seeking dialogue with their peers about issues of race, gender and class.
Many white students expressed frustration with groups like Navigators and UCB. Some view the programs as divisive, unnecessary and a form of reverse racism.
Sophomore Sam Twetan said he thinks Navigators is counter-productive. “You’re already getting enough community on your freshman floor,” he said. “To have [minorities] come early to meet all the other minority students doesn’t integrate them into the culture. If I were a minority, I would find that offensive.”
Minority students who consider these programs a safe space are upset by the subtle growth of opposition, especially because the majority of the criticism comes from white students.
“As a Hmong woman, I would never speak for a white person or a black person,” said Baolue Vang, executive director of intercultural programs. “That would be ignorant on my part and selfish. You have to ask yourself if you’ve asked people of color if this something [they] like and need instead of assuming the negatives about it.”
Josh Phenow, director of the white subgroup within UCB, said resistance to these programs often stems from a place of privilege. Because most white students aren’t faced with the same social challenges as students of color, they struggle to understand why Bethel’s homogeneity can be suffocating.
“Minorities face the reality [of white culture] daily, and these programs are one place where they get to be safe,” Phenow said. “If you see these programs as catering to the minority community, you have to view every other aspect of Bethel as catering to white students.”
According to Chief Diversity Officer Leon Rodrigues, most students and faculty don’t notice Bethel’s whiteness because it suits their cultural norms. But white culture permeates the institution’s theology, the chapel music, the food in the Dining Center and the academic curriculum. Many minority students find themselves stuck in a difficult situation, forced to choose between assimilation and separation.
“I was so excited to have white friends and speak like I’m white, and now my [black] friends make fun of me,” Sumo said. “We feel this pressure to act white and do the things white people do. But it’s not me; it’s not how I want to sound.”
According to Leah Fulton, associate dean of intercultural student programs, the university needs to bring in more students and faculty of color so that Bethel isn’t defined by one dominant culture, but enriched by many cultures that are equally important.
Many students, regardless of their ethnicity, believe Bethel specifically markets to white suburbia because of Minnesota’s demographics. Some, like Twetan, believe there is nothing wrong with Bethel’s lack of racial diversity.
“I don’t think we need to fix something that isn’t broken,” he said. “Minnesota is a primarily white state. There’s nothing wrong with the student body being mostly white. It’s demographics.”
Although he doesn't think that Bethel explicitly markets to white, middle-class people, President Jay Barnes agrees that population distribution is partly responsible for Bethel’s whiteness.
“If you take students from Minnesota, the Dakotas, Iowa and Wisconsin, that’s almost 90 percent of our students in the College of Arts and Sciences,” he said. “If you look at the demographics of those states, they are strongly white. We’re becoming more diverse, but we’re not California or New York.”
Others insist that demographics cannot be used as an excuse for Bethel’s homogenous student body, which they believe is the culprit behind the growing trend of intolerance for minority programs and the general lack of race-related education.
“The nature of the culture here is going to perpetuate blindness and numbness to realities and issues like these,” Phenow said. “Bethel desires and markets to white, middle-class suburbia, so of course that’s going to get perpetuated by who you’re bringing in.”
Fulton said that because the Kingdom of God comprises every nation, tribe and tongue, Bethel shouldn’t be complacent with its 6.3 percent faculty of color and 14.9 percent students of color.
“What do we want to be a reflection of?” she asked. “Minnesota? Or the body of Christ?”
Fulton believes Bethel’s Christian roots often encourage students to define themselves only as children of God, diminishing their unique and individual creation. According to her, students and faculty alike use Galatians 3:28 to promote the concept of a colorblind Jesus, asserting that we should not see color.
“It’s not about race or the color of your skin; it’s about being children of God,” Twetan said. “There aren’t white Christians and black Christians. We’re all Christians, and we all have the same job: to further the Kingdom of God.”
Although many students agree with Twetan, others point out the danger in affirming the idea of colorblindness. Sumo, who bought into the concept when she first came to Bethel, later realized that it forced her to deny part of her identity.
“If we don’t see culture, we don’t see the person,” she said. “I feel like my culture is attached to my color. If you don’t see my color, then I have to conform and pretend that I’m white.”
Fulton said the university must do more to educate students about cultural acceptance and unity. Because the faculty and staff are role models, she believes their engagement – or lack thereof – with race-related issues communicates what is important.
Edwin Gonzalez, director of Voz Latina within UCB, said neither faculty nor students are doing enough to challenge the preconceived notions of the majority.
“Anyone who comes here with a different background is pointed out as ‘the other,’” he said. “That’s colonization – seeing your culture as a dominant culture that others have to be a part of and conform to. [UCB’s] intention is to create conversation and say, ‘No. We can all be diverse and unified.’”
Sumo agreed, expressing her belief that Bethel students need to learn more about not just tolerating but also celebrating cultural differences within the community.
“They put all of us in one category,” she said. “That bothers me. There’s [a difference between] African American and African. My identity and who I am matters to me. I hate when people put us all in a box.”
According to Phenow, the recent push for reconciliation at Bethel might cause white students to feel guilty and attacked. While he said it’s justifiable for white students to mourn the fact that they’ve inherited a privilege they didn’t ask for, he also believes they have to take responsibility for reaping the benefits of an unjust system.
“Coming to realize that is tough, and it’s hard to know what to do with it,” Phenow said. “You have to use that privilege in the right way to change things. White people need to kick other white people in the butt to see these realities and use it to deny their own privilege.”
Like Phenow, President Barnes acknowledges he benefits from an unjust social system that makes whiteness the norm. Even if he hasn’t done anything wrong, he knows it is still his responsibility to reverse the historical damages still affecting society today.
“I’m a stakeholder in trying to make Bethel more like the Kingdom of God, which will include people from every tribe and tongue,” he said. “It’s my obligation as a person who has multiple privileges to use my privilege for the benefit of others who don’t have them.”
Although many people might be tempted to dismiss reconciliation as a tired and unnecessary topic, Barnes encourages the Bethel community to persevere.
“I can get tired of it and decide to opt out, but if I were [a person of color], I wouldn’t be able to opt out," Barnes said. “If I’m serious about faith and leadership, then I have an obligation to keep trying to make it better.”
Issues of race, ethnicity and culture are difficult topics to breach, especially in a predominantly white setting. Many people refrain from engaging with sensitive issues altogether, but as Vang pointed out, the Christian life is not supposed to be easy.
“It’s uncomfortable, but it’s something we need to engage in to understand the reality of our world and change ourselves,” she said. “We can’t run away just because we feel uncomfortable.”
The Barnes administration is working to prepare students to live in a multicultural society and interact with the global church. While many students come to Bethel unaware of the need for reconciliation, Rodrigues hopes they will graduate with the desire to engage in relevant issues of race and culture, no matter how difficult it might be.
“We’re initially uncomfortable with any new skill that we learn,” Rodrigues said. “Never having learned to ride a bike is scary without the training wheels or someone holding it for you. We try to hold people and get them to pedal on their own.”
For Sumo, the first step is always dialogue. The ability to talk openly and honestly about taboo issues is crucial to the reconciliation process.
“We need to not be so afraid of the word racism,” Sumo said. “We need to acknowledge that it exists and find ways to eliminate it instead of defending acts of racism and trying to diminish the word. Something that powerful just can’t be diminished.”