Anti-racism On Campus – Annie Gonzalez Milliken

5 Feb

My partner and I went to see “Dear White People” a couple months ago when it first came out.  My partner Lucas had gone to college with the director, Justin Simien and in fact they were in the same Disciples of Christ campus ministry at Chapman University.  We were excited to see the film and had been thoroughly enjoying their short promo videos, passed around on social media, such as “The Lie of Black on Black Crime.”

And we did enjoy it.  We laughed, I cried, and we definitely found it thought provoking and entertaining.  As we left the theater, Lucas asked me what I thought of the movie.  The most pressing thing on my mind in that moment was “it hit so close to home.”  The movie, in case you aren’t familiar, is about the everyday kind of racism that black people face at predominantly white colleges and universities, especially more prestigious ones.  It was also about a deeply offensive racist party and the way the school reacted to it.  The movie was set at a fictional larger Ivy League type school, but it easily could have been set at my alma mater, a small liberal arts college in the midwest.

When I was a sophomore in college, I learned about systemic racism and white privilege for the first time.  And I learned about it precisely because my college campus was in tumult over two deeply offensive racist costumes that were worn to a party whose theme was “politically incorrect.”  A stereotypical white liberal, I thought of anti-black racism as something that was mostly in the past and came up in fairly isolated incidents, especially in the south.  I didn’t think of it as something that happened on my beloved incredibly progressive college campus.  I remember feeling totally caught off guard as people of color, including some of my friends, came up to the mic in our chapel during one of our open community dialogues and talked about the ways they felt marginalized, oppressed, erased and mocked in our small mostly white community.

It wasn’t until the following summer that I got to process racism and white privilege spiritually.  I was confused and afraid and I didn’t speak to anyone about my inner process until months later during a Summer of Spirituality and Service program hosted by the Unitarian Universalist Association.  The leader of our program was a white seminarian who spoke openly about issues of racism and felt like a “safe” person to talk to.  She helped me process my shame around my own naivete and complicity and helped me explore what spiritual wholeness looks like for a white person in a white supremacist country.

Confronting racism at college is hard work and it’s spiritual work.  We, as campus ministers, have such a crucial role to play in supporting students as they process events that happen on campus or the national news and especially the protests that have been happening lately in the #blacklivesmatter movement against police brutality and our racist criminal justice system.  Many students of color, and especially black students, need space to vent and share stories and rage and mourn where they can be free from push-back and interrogation.  Many white students need space to process and learn and unpack their experiences where they can do so without causing further harm to students of color.  And all students need space to come together in worship, in protest, in creative expression in response to the racism embedded in our systems.

I am confident that many of us have been creating just such spaces for years in our ministries and even more have likely been focusing on creating such spaces since the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson and the ensuing uprising.  I hope that all spiritual leaders working with students on campuses spend time to intentionally open up such spaces whether it’s through making ourselves available for one-on-one pastoral care, collaborating with student life staff on holding well supported support events, or focusing on issues of racism in our small group ministry or worship.  When people’s lives are at stake and tensions run high, as students are learning what identity means and processing a new worldviews, spiritual leaders and spiritual processing are needed more than ever.


Annie Gonzalez Milliken is is an ordained Unitarian Universalist minister and currently serves our faith as the Young Adult and Campus Ministry Associate for the Unitarian Universalist Association.

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