Remixing the Landscape: Religion, Race & Higher Ed

Headshot of J.T. Snipes

J.T. Snipes has spent his career studying, researching, and thinking about intersections. An assistant professor of Educational Leadership at Southern Illinois, Dr. Snipes’ scholarly work brings together the study of higher education, worldview identity, and spiritual development. He and Sable Manso recently co-edited, Remixed and Reimagined: Innovations in Religion, Spirituality, and (Inter)Faith in Higher Education, a new text that offers challenges to contemporary conversations around interfaith engagement.

He will be the moderator for the closing plenary session at the Virtual Interfaith Leadership Institute on September 17. I chatted with him to talk about his new book and his own work regarding Black secular college students. An edited transcript is below.

Carr: In your book’s introduction you say that the thinking and the theorizing around spirituality, religion and higher education needs to be reimagined. What should be reimagined and remixed, as the title says.

J.T.: I start from a disciplinary perspective. I am a scholar of Higher Education and Student Affairs and inherently our area of study prides itself on being interdisciplinary. But when we think about religion and spirituality, particularly in higher ed we draw mainly from the scholarship within our area. So, you have very few big name scholars that I love. Matt Mayhew and Alyssa Rockenbach’s work is one of those. I appreciate that they're following in a tradition and lineage of work in constructing religion and spirituality and higher ed. But that tradition is largely rooted in what I would argue is a positivistic worldview and that's often associated with quantitative work. The whole notion of quantitative work is predicting and being able to measure, and therefore we create constructs and ideas around religion and spirituality that are deeply rooted in positivistic framing. And one of the limitations of positivistic framing is the lived experience. So, when I look at quantitative work, the goal of these numbers is to extrapolate things about a larger population.

We talk about the mean or average. But the mean isn't an actual person, right? It's a conglomeration of different attributes, and in some of my writing I talk about the mean as sort of a Frankenstein. It's a part of a bunch of different things together into a single construct. And what we often think about in religion and spirituality, and even interfaith, it's driven by some of these on assumptions.

 

When we're looking at big data, we're thinking about Frankenstein. And I want us to think about, you know, Carr, or J.T., right? I want that particularity. And that's a part of the process for us of reimagining. So when you look at the structure of the book, theoretically, we're drawing off of scholars who have centered the human narrative.

The first part of the book, I would argue, is a theoretical reimagining of the humanity that is inherent in various traditions, and in scholarship outside of higher ed—I’m thinking specifically about religious studies here, where folks have been doing that for a long time: thinking about the human component of religion and spirituality in interfaith. So how do we bring that to bear in this conversation?

And we [the editors of this volume] speak specifically about remixes as a child of hip hop. My job is not to throw away what has already been done, because the essence of hip hop is sampling. I take you to a beat. You take a sound, and you recreate it into something new that both pays homage and tribute to what came before it, and lift it up to create something new.

 

So for us when we're are remixing this work we're honoring the foundation from scholars like Matt Mayhew and Alyssa Rockenbach, Sandy Astin, and other scholars; a tradition of folks who've done really good work. So we want to take a minute to say this has gotten us to a good space, but where can we go now? What does this moment call for?

And I think in an era of increasing pluralism, this moment calls for us rethinking who we've centered and how we structured, what I call the monster Frankenstein through quantitative data.

 

Carr: You reference a lot of scholars in the book. One of my favorite references is a quote from Quest Love. I'm not a scholar myself, so one thing I loved about the book is that I can read it as someone trying to understand higher ed spirituality today. It sounds like your human centered approach is different than what’s been done before. Did you go into the book thinking about the human centered part?

J.T.: The book for us, it's still landed in a space that is heavily academic and it is [LAUGHS] because I’m a graduate of the doctoral program. It is very hard to unlearn the skills that you spent several decades learning. You are socialized to speak a certain way and to write a certain way. And I think that creates tension in the aims of even this book, because it was heavily rooted in practice. Sable is very practical thinking, and I was grateful to have her as a co-editor because I could come through and say “hey, you know I've given these authors feedback. But what can someone as a practitioner take away from this text.” And I think that's how we've divided it.

The first half of the book, the first section is really geared for an academic audience to think about it conceptually, and in the second half of the book we tried our best to have it be narratives and stories that folks could pick up and just read, like, oh, here's an experience I can relate to.

One of my favorite chapters is Mary Ann Bodine Al-Sharif’s chapter on religious conversion. That's one of my favorites because it's largely taboo, right, especially in interfaith circles to lead with a question of conversion. And I love the idea of transgressing that. What does it look like for us to lean in? What can we understand from this process of religious conversion?

 

Their narrative is so rich because it brings in global questions of religious practice. Mary Ann went from being Baptist and Christian to Muslim. And, she identifies as white. So there was a way in which she experienced being Muslim not as a brown person, right, like I think we often link Muslim with this proudness, if you will. It's interesting to just sit with her writing. Here's what living in America, and in a post 9-11 world - like people don't even say that anymore, right, they used to be the same. People say all the time in a post 9-11 world, right, but in the moment of her conversion there's this backdrop of Muslim folks as terrorists and to choose in a southern space to choose to identify in this way, brought up some really interesting things and notions of community. I think she writes beautifully about how, in some ways, her religious community abandoned -her Christian religious community- abandoned her. And this Muslim community loved and embraced her and showed her some of the tenets of her faith in a way that she hadn't seen previously. So, I'm already spoiling the chapter, but it's totally worth reading, because it opens up a new conversation, and a new way for us to talk about the thing which I think interfaith struggles with like what do we do with this notion of conversion, and the invitation to different perspectives.

Carr: That's one of the things I actually love about the book are the chapters like that, because it's clear that you all were not afraid about engaging both thorny topics and often underrepresented voices. You’ve got a chapter on black femme students and white institutions and then you have your chapter on black secular students. Tell us a little bit about the Black Secular Student perspective right now.

J.T.: When I wrote the book, I was trying to run away from my dissertation [on Black secular students]. Like, I'm done writing and thinking about that. And I'm gonna let it go. But Gordon, who is the co-author of that chapter, said, you know, I'm interested in contributing to the book, I'm thinking about writing about Black secular students. … I said, you know, you have my dissertation. Take a look at it.  A second set of eyes helped me see what's there. And he took one of my findings. So, this chapter represents one of my findings from the dissertation, particularly about the ways in which Black secular students navigate educational spaces, and the construct that I was working towards in the chapter is this notion of Black or religious and racial microaggressions.

To be a Black atheist, you, in secular communities, are constantly grappling with racism. And in Black communities, you are consistently grappling with what I examined in my dissertation, hyper-religiosity in the community.

 

I'm sure you are well aware over 80% of African Americans, identify not only as religious, not only as Christian, but Protestant Christian. So there's a particular type of religious expression within Black communities. This chapter is really getting at that intersection. What does it look like to live in the space of what my colleague, Jasmine Howard would call a triple consciousness, because I had participants that were Black that were atheist, and that were also women, so they sat in a triply marginalized space. How do they make meaning of that? How they navigate that is really the crux of the chapter.

Carr: I know that many campus educators reading this will think about how those students are developing while reading that chapter. What could an interfaith leader on a campus or someone that is simply concerned about religious diversity in general do to support these students?

J.T.: Really great question. I’m often worried about putting these things out because I don't have a real clear answer to what is the best way of approaching this.

But I know for sure we're not going to answer the question if it's never asked. So for me it's putting this question out there. I think there are some interesting things we have to grapple with when I did my dissertation work this didn't make it into the chapter. But one of the things that literally broke my heart is there was a student who worked in the Student Affairs Office, helping organize different groups on campus. And she would drive 60 miles to be a part of a Black secular community, not on campus, because it just wasn't present there.

 

I still grapple with that. What are the ways in which we could engineer spaces on campus, or at least be cognizant of an experience like hers?

I spoke with the Secular Student Alliance a couple months ago at their national conference. And in a moment of heightened racial consciousness there are people there thinking now about Black folks’ experiences.

My challenge to the secular organizing that is happening on campuses around the nation is to ask themselves the question: if you are predominantly white, how do Black students know that this is a space where you are at least somewhat conscious of the different racial differences within that community? What does it look like for you to organize for Black lives?

 

I would love to see a “secular students for Black lives” movement. That can be really powerful. In signaling and forcing some folks to do the necessary work around racial consciousness, even if there are no Black students present, because I think within organizations in general, if you desire racial diversity you have to begin to do some tilling of the soil, if you will, to prepare for Black folks to be in that space with you. Because if you bring them to a space that isn't prepared, that is continually operating around harmful and hurtful norms around Blackness, then they will exit the organization. So really pushing on these monocultural spaces to do the necessary reflective work to accept folks from different racial backgrounds, preparing themselves for it.

Carr: We hear that question regularly from our partners at HBCUs - how can we do better supporting Black secular students like atheist students? Some of those practitioners that are out there in the field can start offering some of the answers to the questions that you're posing and that we're all thinking about.

J.T.: Solving any problem begins with listening.  And I said this in the opening of my dissertation. There's a way in which we conflate Blackness and Christian -

the work of this chapter and the work of my dissertation is beginning to disentangle Blackness from a single religion. And I think if HBCUs can begin to do some of that work, then it becomes easier to open up conversations around folks not believing in God,

 

because largely that's something that we Black folk don’t do. My mom told me when I started my dissertation: “you ain't gonna find a Black atheist!” [LAUGHS] “That’s not what Black folks do. That's white stuff.” She said all that in jest but there's some truth, like how do we disentangle these sort of master narratives about what Black communities are and what black communities are not. So bringing in the work of a Philip Randolph, or, Pauli Murray, someone that relates differently to traditional understandings of Christianity and Blackness. I think that's a start for us to shift the experience of Black secular students on campus.

If you are looking for a way to become an interfaith leader, work for racial equity and build bridges, please check out our free curriculum "We Are Each Other's" and start your interfaith leadership today

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The opinions contained in this piece are solely the author’s and do not necessarily reflect the views of Interfaith Youth Core. Interfaith America encourages a wide range of views and strives to maintain a respectful tone with a goal of greater understanding and cooperation between people of different faiths, worldviews, and traditions.