Earlier this month, protests about race erupted at several American colleges. The uproar began at the University of Missouri, where the chancellor and president resigned over their responses to racially charged harassment.

Meanwhile at Yale, an official email about avoiding racist Halloween costumes, such as blackface, inspired one faculty member’s response asking for “free speech and the ability to tolerate offense.”

The initial upheaval in Columbia and New Haven sparked tensions elsewhere. Someone posted anonymous online threats towards students at historically black Howard University, and protests followed last week on campuses at Harvard, Princeton, Stanford, and nearly two dozen others.

These protests reflect the recent grassroots activism around the #BlackLivesMatter movement, but the racial tensions they attempt to address are nothing new. For decades, white administrators and students themselves have ignored or downplayed the concerns of people of color regarding the racial climate on campus.

I know because I was one of them.

Like many white students, I hadn’t experienced real diversity until I went to college. The idea of diversity seemed nice before I arrived on campus. But once I started my freshman year at Rice University back in 1996, I found myself poorly prepared to live in community with black students, even fellow Christians.

When I began looking for a church in the area, I asked Tanisha, the only Christian upperclassman I knew, if I could go with her. We pulled up in front of Tanisha’s church, and I realized I’d be the only white person there. I thought I was being “colorblind” by overlooking race, when really I blithely assumed she’d attend a white church like the ones I knew back home in suburban San Diego.

My naiveté appalled me. It was a painful lesson that my careful “colorblindness” was self-delusion. I noticed race a lot once I became aware of my own whiteness, and I felt ashamed of my reaction. Tanisha had welcomed me warmly, so why had I felt so alienated in her church? Instead of thinking through this experience, though, I shoved my questions down. Worse, I barely looked Tanisha in the eye again.

Years later, as a junior, I met a girl at a conference for Cru, where I served as a student leader. I wondered why she’d never shown up at Cru before and assumed she was just now getting serious about her faith. (Even more unconsciously, I thought perhaps all the African American students on campus were nominal Christians—otherwise, why didn’t they join the mostly white parachurch ministries?)

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After a few days, she revealed how she’d tried getting involved in Cru before. She’d been actively recruited by our only black staff member. But she had not felt welcome. Beyond the weird feeling of being one of the only people of her race (something I’d experienced for just an hour at Tanisha’s church), she encountered subtle hostility when she made suggestions to help make our fellowship more welcoming for African Americans.

But unlike me, she didn’t back away; she returned. I listened to her story, my heart sinking. I’d judged her—and, ridiculously, the whole population of African American Christians—for being lukewarm, even as they were being Christ to me and bridging the dividing wall of hostility that separated us.

When I think about the college administrators coming under fire across the United States, I see my own reflection. If you’ve never experienced being in the minority, it’s easy to assume it’s no big deal. We see superficial markers of diversity as indicators that the racial climate is friendly and healthy, when really it might be anything but. And when people of color speak up to tell us otherwise, we get defensive. It’s shockingly easy to judge the anger people of color feel when you’ve never actively engaged with their pain.

What I learned in college was that when it came to serious engagement with questions of race, I was way more fragile, unmotivated, and self-deluded than my African American brothers and sisters in Christ. I needed to learn from them, and other minorities, how to do better.

Research has shown that the more diverse the campus, the more likely its students have diverse groups of friends. White students who may have had all-white friend groups in high school become more likely to befriend students of color in college. If we want to live into the promise of a church of every nation, tribe, people and language, college fellowships are an excellent place to start.

But—as I found with my chapter of Cru—religious organizations dominated by a single racial group often work against integration instead. According to an analysis of student survey data, those who say religion is important to them, and who belong to religious organizations on campus, are less likely to have friends from another race. It takes intentional engagement to counteract that trend.

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It took more than a decade after college for me to work up the courage to do so. Three years ago, I started regularly attending a Spanish-language church close to me where I’m regularly the only white person. I also started reading authors of color (like Brenda Salter McNiel, Soong-Chan Rah, Kathy Khang, Christena Cleveland, Natasha Sistrunk Robinson, and Austin Channing Brown). Even after years of engagement, I still find myself caught off guard by my own faulty assumptions and unexamined racism.

Instead of being shocked, though, I have come to realize discomfort is a sign of progress. Just like training for a marathon, working past discomfort means I’m actually trying.

Also, this kind of engagement has led me to a deeper understanding of God, a new experience of worship, and new relationships. A little discomfort is a small price to pay.

From what I’ve seen, many Christians of color are already doing their part to unify the Body of Christ. It’s people like me—nervous about entering a space where I might be a minority—who need to step up.

Heather Caliri is a writer from San Diego and Redbud Writer’s Guild member whose work has been featured at Relevant.com, (in)courage, and SheLoves Magazine. Her free ebook, “Five Ways to Hack Your Bible Hangups” is available here.

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