Talking Race with Denise Shaver

Talking Race with Denise Shaver

Dr. Denise Shaver
Distance Education & International Partnerships
Lead Curriculum and Instructional Design Specialist
Interviewed by Scott Moncrieff


You mentioned in a recent faculty/staff meeting that you don't mind having race conversations with people you know. What kinds of race topics do you discuss?
All kinds—whatever is the issue of the day. If there was a riot or some disparaging remark that people are talking about in the office and they ask me what do you think about this or that, I share my opinion, and then I try to do some educating because a lot of people don't understand the backstory of “why?”

For example?
A lot of it is embedded in American history. Sometimes, if you're not African-American—or even if you are—you don't understand the historical origins of a lot of these things. Take the Ferguson riots. A professor I knew asked me what did I think about that, and I told him, “Well, it's a normal reaction by people who don't have a voice, who feel marginalized.” And another person walked in and joined the conversation, and they shared, “Why would those people respond in such a destructive manner? I mean they're destroying their own neighborhoods.” And I was able to say, “When people feel powerless, when they feel they can't go through the legal channels and anything is going to happen, and they're dehumanized, they're going to react violently, because they don't feel like there's any legal recourse for them.”

How do you feel about the issue of being Denise as an individual vs. Denise speaking for persons of color?
I struggle with that, even when I hear someone making a public statement on race. Sometimes I'm like “No, I don't agree with that. You can't speak for me." So when I speak I try to generalize it and couch it in history. I say, “These are the historical foundations for why people may have reacted that way.” Then people don't take it as personal. They realize “Oh, yeah, this is a problem, this is systemic," or, "Maybe if I was in that situation, I would react that way." But if I say, “All black people this or that,” that’s not accurate, it’s not fair. I don’t like to be lumped into “we all,” whatever that is, whether it’s race, or religion. You know how we feel as Adventists when we get lumped into some type of bizarre cultic activity and then they say, “The Adventists...” and we’re like, “No, that’s not us!”

Sometimes I might be talking about a racially sensitive topic in class, and I’ll have students of color in class and I want them to speak up, to share their perspective, but they don’t. I’m hesitant to say, “Hey, why don’t you share what you’re thinking?” because I don’t want to put them on the spot. What tips do you have for that situation? How do you encourage a good atmosphere where people can feel comfortable sharing?
That inclusiveness and that comfort level has to be established from the very beginning. It’s good to say, “Hey, we’re going to be discussing a sensitive topic, and I want to hear everybody.” Invite them before it starts, so that when it starts they don’t feel like, “Oh, now I have to be this spokesperson for my people.” “What do Asians feel like?” There are so many kinds of Asians, and even if I’m speaking for my country, I can’t speak for everybody, so if you maybe set the tone and you tell students, “I want you to talk, and you don’t have to represent your whole group, but what is your perspective as a member of that group?” I think that helps to lower the expectation. Already there’s this kind of environment of “I don’t want to hear anymore of that,” and “Oh, there they go again arguing and complaining,” so as a student you’re very sensitive to that.

Would you feel comfortable asking a white person, “What’s your perspective on this racial matter?”
I do it all the time. But that’s if I feel comfortable with them and they know me well enough to know that I’m open and I’m just going to be upfront. And that brings real dialogue. Not this guarded, politically-correct conversation that we often have, especially in professional environments, or even in academic environments where you don’t want to get sued or be taken to somebody’s board or you don’t want to be the secret discussion of somebody later. I’m not going to randomly walk up to just any white person and say, “What do you think about that?”

We’ve had a couple of interesting weeks lately. What observations or comments do you have on any of the race matters that have come across our radar, the student video, the administrative response, the chapels or the discussions around campus?
I am so excited. I’m really proud of Andrews and I’m so proud of the way the students presented. That took a tremendous amount of courage for all of those students and Chaplain Polite. I applaud them for their willingness to put themselves on the line and I stand behind them 100 percent. Likewise, I just am so I'm so floored and impressed by the gracious response by the administration. The President and Provost could have chosen to be defensive, they could have decided they weren't going to respond at all, but they didn't do that, and they took responsibility for the realities as they exist, even if they didn't fully understand them or agree with them, and challenged us to move on in the right way, in a Christian way. I was just so impressed and humbled at President Luxton’s humility and her willingness to be sensitive, to be sensitive to something that she herself cannot understand but is willing to try to understand—and to support and to respond to it was admirable and Christ-like.

Did the events on campus spark personal conversations?
Nonstop. Everywhere. In class, and definitely at work. It opened up a dialogue that helped people to get perspective. Everybody wanted to understand why that platform, why YouTube? Why this urgency? And it gave me a chance to explain this is not new, those four suggestions have been on the table from the student body and from administration for years. It might sound new but it’s not. Honestly, I was as surprised as everybody else by the video, but when I processed it I realized that yes, that was a good platform. If there had been no precedent of these conversations to previous administrations about these issues then it would not have been right for them to escalate to that level. I don't think it's always the best way and certainly I believe in going through the proper channels first, so I would not want to see every student going to YouTube because they didn't get a grievance addressed, but in this case this is not a new issue. And that's why the administration could respond so quickly, because this is something that was already being discussed, something that they knew they needed to address correctly. I think that had a lot to do with why it wasn't responded to in a negative light.

What should happen going forward?
Pressure and expectation have been raised to a level where we can no longer marginalize or diminish its importance. And because Andrews has always been known for its diversity, we have a responsibility. We should be a leader, and I like that the Provost said we're going to be a leader. The game has changed.

As a Korean student, a Brazilian student, a Latino student, maybe you’re hanging out a lot with your own group because that's where you feel most comfortable. How do you balance the need for being in your home group with launching out and making connections cross-culturally?
That's a human problem, right? Everyone feels more comfortable with people that are like them. There would have to be some incentive that would require that or encourage that kind of intercultural connection and experience. Many students don't look for those opportunities naturally. They don't have time. They're just trying to get their work done. They're just trying to survive. And the administration has so many other things that are so pressing. I think that's something where we have to pray and ask God and the Holy Spirit to give us direction about how to do it, but I think we have a unique opportunity as Christians and also those who are not Christians to maximize the closeness and proximity that we have to diverse people that we probably won't have outside this environment, not on a regular basis. We need student input on this, because as administrators, as faculty and staff, our perspective is totally different. Food is going to be a big one. Food brings everybody together.

I've already heard talk about looking forward to the International Food Fair.
But with the International Food Fair, people don’t interact with those people; they just get those people's food. So we have to find out what would motivate them to have a conversation. I often go to New Life, the black service on campus, and we're always a home to different groups of people, and they come because they want that black church experience. Same thing with Chinese New Year. Everybody goes to that.

Think back to when you were in college. Have your ideas about race matters changed since then?
I’ve changed in understanding that people who are different from you do not understand because they don't have the same experience. That helps to inform how I react. If I understand that they don't understand, then I can understand why they don't have that same reaction.

Give me an example of a potentially hurtful or offensive thing that a white person might say to a person of color.
“Can I touch your hair?” But I'm more into structural things that white people could just be oblivious to. For example, it's possible for children to go from Kindergarten through post-secondary school in this diverse, faith-based institution and never have an African-American teacher in a major content area. What message does that send?

An imaginary white person says, “What's the problem if the teacher is white, as long as they're a good teacher?”
If I never have a teacher who shares my cultural experience or a similar experience it makes me feel like maybe I can't make it. The fact that you made it and you look like me helps me understand that I can make it, I can overcome whatever odds. You came from another country, you have a second language, or you came from an urban setting, OK? So all of these challenges and obstacles that you overcame I can overcome, right? Someone from your cultural experience can talk to you and relate to you in a way that is more meaningful for you and they can actually connect with you in a better way and say, “Look, despite this and that and this and that you can make it and this is how, because experientially I know what you're going through and this is how I did it; maybe this will work for you.” But if you don't have that experience, then you're going to tell me to do it the way you did it and I might not have those resources, I don't have that perspective, I might not have had any of what you're telling me, and it's good advice—but may not work for me.


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