By: Maria Swearingen, Associate University Chaplain
Over the course of this academic year, the Furman community has commemorated the 50th anniversary of racial desegregation on its campus. This university’s story is not a simple or sanitary one. It is painful, filled with moments of grave injustice and yet, even still, moments of profound transformation. This is true for Furman. It is true for every institution and system in this country and around the world.
Our story is bound, like all stories are bound, to histories and realities that have bolstered privilege, fostered systemic oppression, and ensured the demoralization of people based on the color of their skin, the religion they practice, their nation of origin, the gender with which they identify, their access to formal education, and the list goes on. It is painful work acknowledging past and present injustices.
Recently, the university invited consultants to assess the faculty climate particularly in reference to gender equity. President Davis has challenged us not to ignore, pass over, or deny the results of this study, but instead, to be attentive to how it might instruct us in our efforts to establish more equitable processes and policies, recruit and retain a diverse, vibrant, and exceptional faculty, and hopefully, more than anything, foster a community that invites, celebrates, and learns from the world’s diversity and complexity.
Furman’s Character and Values statement offers clarity about who Furman is and the expectations of the Furman community. In moments where our community is in any way fractured, this statement is instructive:
“Furman is a person-centered community, emphasizing the prime worth of persons and encouraging concern for others. Development of the proper regard for the rights and feelings of others is one of our primary values. The imperative to love our neighbors as ourselves is expressed in the Furman community through an appreciation for its diversity, a concern for the physical, emotional, intellectual and spiritual needs of each person, a continuing effort to strengthen community ties through open communication and mutual respect, the appropriate involvement of all members of the community in decision-making, the commitment to excellence at every level of our life together, and an appreciation for the university’s heritage and the contributions of those who have shaped the institution.”
As a chaplain here at Furman, I have the sacred task of listening with and walking alongside members of this community as they face what life brings their way.
I have seen the exhaustion, the frustration, and the fear that comes with being violated by others’ discriminatory behavior, and bearing the onus of explaining the violation.
Just this fall, a host of anonymous comments, at best, pitiable attempts at off-putting humor and at worst, insidious examples of humanity, popped up on YikYak. Furman’s NAACP sought to expose these comments to the wider campus community.
Many responses to their efforts went something like this. “It is just a few bad jokes, it does not mean most people around here are racist.” Or, “The more attention you give to it, the more fuel you add to the flame.” Or, “Free speech is an unalienable right and we must protect it at all costs.” In short, these responses are expressions of denial, diminishment, and derailment. I think we can do better.
What if instead we asked, “How do those comments make my peers who are minorities on this campus feel?” or, “Why do members of our community think it is ok to say things such unkind things to their neighbors?” or, “What can we do to support our peers who feel violated and unsafe right now?”
The work of the university is a wild, robust experiment. We have the unsettling, unwinding task of learning to live, relate, listen, learn, grow, share discomfort, and, ultimately, cherish one another amidst great and seemingly insurmountable differences.
Having everyone agree with me is not what makes me feel welcomed in a community. Having that community ensure my protection, my well-being, and my development as a human being and citizen of this world absolutely does. I am deeply grateful to this Furman community for that kind of space. I deeply grieve the ways in which not all of us at Furman have experienced that kind of space. I am committed, and I hope you are too, to ensuring that space be our standard and our legacy.
This university’s story is not a simple or sanitary one. My story is not a simple or sanitary one. In case I am not making my point too well, let me say that yours is not a simple or sanitrary story either. I am hopeful that each of us, while acknowledging the complexity of our stories and realities, can continue celebrating and enacting the heart of the university’s mission, character, and values.
Fifty years ago, Furman both challenged its identity and, perhaps, I would like to think, lived up to its truest identity. What will the next fifty years bring? Whether we like to think about it or not, we are the characters, the narrators, the heroes, villains, and bearers of that story. May we fill the blank pages well.