Race: A lie and idol?

An African, conservative philosopher and a white, liberal race and Christianity professor talking about race and racism: nothing else is more intriguing, am I right? The Saint Benedict Institute brought this event to Hope College to demonstrate what a healthy, respectful conversation looks like between two drastically opposed individuals. This comes at a time where I believe this civil discourse is rare but necessary. 

You can go on YouTube and listen to the full event with fast-paced Dr. Kevin Kambo, who brought laughter and humor into a hard and serious conversation. On the flip side, you can hear a powerful voice from Dr. Matt Jantzen, whose seminary training shines brightly with deliberate pauses and a preacher-type method of speaking. The way these two speakers presented themselves contrasted just as much as their opinions. 

President Matthew Scogin moderated the event, not only to serve as a middle man between both professors but to further advertise and draw attention to it. Scogin emphasized that this conversation only showed two perspectives and was not attempting to represent all perspectives on the issue of race. I, for one, loved this idea. While a non-moderated conversation might have provided a clearer picture of both side’s opinions, it is not feasible for an onstage type of event. I enjoyed Scogin’s preliminary comments on what this conversation is for and why it is important. He stated that “we have replaced the art of conversation with clicks and comments.” I cannot think of anything more true in this day and age. Instead of peers having conversations about race face-to-face, they resort to commenting or reposting tweets, sliding up on Instagram stories or sliding into people’s DMs. We at Hope College needed this conversation to happen.

Kambo and Jantzen are both relatively new professors at Hope, only in their fourth year of teaching. However, the similarities end there. Since Kambo grew up in Kenya, being “Black” was not a category. He didn’t have to think about his race until he came to America where he selected “other” instead of checking the box saying “Black” or “African.” In its place, he wrote in his Kenyan tribal name. On the flipside, Jantzen grew up in Vermont and Maine, two of the whitest states in America. He moved down to Durham, North Carolina — a blue city within a red state. Jantzen witnessed the war on terror, an escalating crisis of contemporary capitalism, the rise of dark money, backlash from a newly elected Black president, gerrymandering and more. All of these events and experiences shaped Jantzen’s progressive take on many issues. Kambo’s experience of being introduced to race once he came to the States and growing up in Africa supported his viewpoints. It is interesting that these two men had completely different backgrounds but somehow landed here at Hope College in western Michigan, where they met through becoming professors in the same year. 

Although all of this background information is great, I came to this event to hear these two discuss race and racism. Kambo dove first into the topic by dropping one hot take: race is a lie. As a young student surrounded by other young students, I’m guessing this idea is not everybody’s cup of tea. However, he went on to explain that the concept of race is really an idol. It is man-made, it has a resemblance to something in the real world and in the end it demands sacrifice. Now you may ask, how does race demand sacrifice? He supported his answer with an example from the COVID-19 pandemic when health officials didn’t want to privilege older adults in the timeline of vaccine availability since a large majority of the elderly are white. Their solution was to move them down in the order of demographic groups who would have access to the vaccine at the expense of these elderly people not getting the vaccine as fast as they probably should: sacrifice. 

After the mic was turned over to Jantzen, I surely thought that he would disagree right off the bat. Surprisingly, I was wrong and he agreed that race is a lie and an idol. Even so, the origin of race being a lie and an idol is where they disagree. Jantzen explained that race was produced by people who would be labeled “white” in order to justify their domination and ruling of others. He went on to say that race is idolatry as whiteness is idolatry since he believes white people redefined what it meant to be human using their own white standards.

Although I may lean towards Kambo’s ideology, I appreciate the arguments that Kambo and Jantzen threw down, and I see the logic in both sides. Logic is hard to come by nowadays. Kambo’s idea on sacrifice and Jantzen’s idea on the idolization of whiteness were both big concepts that could have filled the rest of the discussion. To be honest, I would’ve loved to have experienced a full discussion on one idea where the two could have gone back and forth, digging into each other’s philosophies with metaphorical picks. Alas, the conversation had to move on to the notion of antiracism. 

Kambo decided to take a humorous approach to this tough subject where he compared people of color (POC) with non-playable characters (NPCs) in role-playing games. The POC’s only job is to give white people quests, just like NPCs in these games are background characters who support quests for main characters. To put it in plain words, Kambo was pointing fun at the idea that many people, especially those of color, rely on white people to create the change or lead the charge, allowing them to sit back and enjoy the show. To bring it all back home, Kambo emphasized the idea of not aiming the spotlight on whiteness or outcomes, but to look up to those solving real problems and asking more questions relating to concrete issues and communities. Jantzen instead preached about the need for personal transformations and conversions to become more antiracist, which leads to truth, justice and community. He stressed that ordinary people can work together across lines to build a new world and transform society in a revolutionary way. 

Both these testimonies juxtapose each other so well in tone, mood and in actual content. Kambo based his philosophy on many of his own experiences as a Black man living in America. But should we instigate change based only on experiences instead of statistics? Coming from a STEM-based background, numbers are my friend. Jantzen took a different tactic, citing facts that I thought may or may not be questionable and circling the idea of whiteness over and over again. It seemed that Jantzen was going off on tangents instead of directly answering the question at hand. Through it all, I think many people — no matter what side they were on — resonated with both arguments. I myself have taken bits and pieces from Kambo and Jantzen to mull over and research. 

I have not even commented on half of the content that was discussed at this event. If you are keen to learn more, I would recommend reading our other article in the “Campus and Beyond” section or going straight to the recording itself. Overall, I thought this event was well done. We were able to understand what each man thinks on the subject of race and racism and why. What we weren’t able to hear is their reactions to what the other said about a particular issue. I fully believe that this act of listening is scarce in our modern world where noise pervades our every waking moment, and few people are willing to seriously ponder opinions that oppose theirs. Instead, they listen for faults in the opposing argument so they can immediately come back with a nasty curveball to the other’s rationale without actually hearing what they have to say. The most important part of conversation is learning what experiences or personal backgrounds molded that person’s belief system. That is where the core of listening resides. It is something that is not explored very often but isn’t too late to venture into.



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