A not-so-simple discourse: Drs. Jantzen and Kambo on race, racism and anti-racism

The Jack Miller Center was especially bustling last Wednesday, September 8, as students and faculty piled into the auditorium to hear a much-anticipated collaboration between two respected Hope professors. Moderated by President Matt Scogin, Philosophy Professor Kevin Kambo and Center for Ministry Studies Professor Matt Jantzen sat anxiously on the stage, awaiting the event to begin. The lights dimmed, chatter subsided, and Scogin began his welcome, signaling the start of “Race, Racism, and Anti-Racism: A Dialogue on How Christians Should Think about Race.”

Given the growing tension and debate on race and Christianity on our campus and throughout the country, it would be unfair to not acknowledge both Kambo and Jantzen for engaging in a long-overdue conversation on the serious matter. As put by Scogin, “Having a healthy, difficult conversation is [still] doing something.”

To preface the topic, the two deemed it necessary to share their own personal definitions of what race and racism are, essentially. Kambo, who was born and raised in Kenya, only leaving to come to college in America, made the point that he never thought of himself as “Black” until he arrived in America — and was forced only then to adapt to the cultural and social differences and discrepancies. Kambo went on to explain that, in his opinion, racism is any form of prejudice, actions, and/or outcomes that “produce social inequality.” Likewise, Jantzen’s definition of racism is the “application of social or civic circumstances against people.” With a solid foundation for discussion and a consistent idea of what racism innately is, the two were able to develop the conversation further, transitioning into how racism came to be.

Shifting to the question of the distorted history of racism, Jantzen stated, “In the fifteenth century, the people who lived in what they would come to call ‘Europe,’ came to think of themselves as ‘white’, and gained extraordinary power to travel the globe. And overnight, the world was transformed.” Explaining the history of European colonization, Jantzen continued to talk about how race was created as a distorted way of dividing classes, which is essentially a civilization built on a lie, and contrary to the way Christians are asked to live in their faith. Early European Christians used race to “remake a world in their own image… making themselves the creators.” 

The conversation further evolved, as Scogin posed the alternative counter-question, “What is anti-racism?” to which Jantzen replied, “It’s about deep-seated personal transformation… It’s about conversion, both personal and structural. A fundamental turning from death to life.” This, according to Jantzen, is what must happen in our hearts and minds in order to change the broken and divided ways of the world. A pause was felt in the audience when Jantzen stated, “Race is idolatry because whiteness is idolatry.”

In addition to Jantzen’s thoughts, Kambo elaborated on the idea of how Europeans became “white,” which he believes originates from the need for justification and rationalization of oppression. Kambo asked the question (in relation to race and racism specifically), “Which one causes the other?” to which he expressed that, rather than race producing racism, we have to think of racism as creating the need for race. 

To finalize their thoughts and bring the conversation to a close, students were given the opportunity to have some of their questions answered. In response to one question, Jantzen made the interesting point that, before we are “…able to reach reconciliation and unity, we must first reckon with why we are not unified. To achieve healing, we must first clean the wound caused by our ancestors, for if we don’t, it will fester and spread deeper into the body that is society.” Another student asked, “Who created skin? [The color of skin is a gift,] why can’t we see it?” Kambo replied, “God created skin; it’s obvious that we do see it, the problem is our reactions to it — the reason we respond in an unhealthy way, for example, historically renditioned, cultural and political reasons… that we can’t just wish away.’’ 

The general concluding consensus between the two, despite having varying thoughts on certain matters, is that 1) race blinds us, 2) our faith tells us that we are all created in God’s image, and 3) in order to reach unity, we must begin first by opening conversation, cautious not to turn our heads when things get uncomfortable. As Kambo put it, “We develop our tolerance for disagreement and for error when engaging in conversations like these.” It is also crucial to note, that regardless of who you are, or what your background is, racism has an impact on everyone, meaning that we each hold a responsibility — whether a victim, an initiator, or even a bystander. This discussion about race and racism applies to us all, as without the collaboration of each individual, a society in desperate need of restoration and reformation will never be achieved. As Kambo and Jantzen stated to a question asked by the Anchor after the discussion, “[students] are really the ones that are on the front lines of these questions that affect our college.” 

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