On October 26 and 27, I was fortunate enough to attend the “Race and Secularism in America” conference, hosted by Syracuse University and Vassar College. Looking back on my experience at the conference, I am struck by two things: the first is how little I had ever thought about race, not only in my studies at Vassar, but as someone primarily interested in the seemingly paradoxical yet dependent relationship between American “secularism” and American Christianity. The second is how the conference participants largely framed race dichotomously in terms of black and white. Other racial constructions—whether multi-racial or racialized others—were neglected, or at least weren’t as central to the predominant conversation.
Thus, at the very beginning of the conference, William Hart’s “Secularizing Race, Decolonizing the Secular,” and George Shulman’s subsequent, “Schmittian Sovereignty in Racial Drag: White Supremacy and Black Insurgency on Political Theology,” both presented a racial framework for thinking about secularism that would prove axiomatic for the rest of the conference: the black-white axis. Though both scholars acknowledged the need “to think about the category of race much more expansively,” their insistence on a bi-racial framework nevertheless points to a real challenge in attempting to interpellate the category of race in the conversation on secularism: These interpellations tend to resist a more expansive and diverse understanding of the category itself. While the presentations of Ian Ward, Derek Chang, and Su-ad Khabeer all asked questions about race and a variety of “Eastern” racialized identities, the other ten papers, all presented by scholars who on their own would claim to want to subvert this simple paradigm, did not actually escape it.
Though I cannot deny that America’s violent history of slavery has influenced our focus on black-white issues, I feel that this is an unsatisfactory answer to the question of introducing race into the conversation on secularism, and confronting a wider range of racial constructions. In today’s world, we should be examining race through a multivalent lens, rather than merely a bi-racial axis.
Despite these criticisms, conversations like “Race and Secularism in America” remind me that, in fact, we do not live in a “post-racial” society, where the concerns of race have quietly evaporated. For me, this is important. Though it has taken me longer than I would like, I can finally admit that Vassar, and other schools like it, perpetuate the view that we now live in a “post-racial society,” in which racial prejudice and discrimination no longer exist. This view has now become incorporated into the story that we at Vassar tell about ourselves as a secular institution. It is a point of pride to many that we are given high-ranking as one of American’s most “non-religious” colleges. Is it possibly the case that today the resistance to religion in secular institutions is now being matched by a “post-racial” resistance to race? Moreover, our high-ranking as one of America’s most “non-religious” colleges lends itself to the view that we are a secular school where students will receive a “secular” education. Undoubtedly, Vassar has been invaluable in shaping how I think about the world, but I cannot help but think that the disconnect created when we separate our “religious” beliefs (if we hold any) from academic discourse parallels withholding or disregarding our own unique racial experiences or viewpoints from academic discussions. This is actually hindering the ability of students to connect their own lives to what they are learning. When college administrations deny that discrimination exists on campus, racial or otherwise, or when professors ignore or refuse to raise issues of race, what sort of space are we creating for students to critically examine the assumptions they are making about these issues? What does it say about me, as a student and a person of color, that I have gone through three years at a well-regarded institution like Vassar and managed to ignore or bypass issues of racial (and religious) discrimination?
If the “Race and Secularism in America” conference has taught me anything, it is that so-called secular institutions, despite their best efforts at times, resist allowing students to introduce their varied and variable perspectives into the classroom. Those perspectives are, at times, racial and religious. An education devoid of these real experiences denies their importance, and denies the notion that learning happens through dialogical exchange, something that a liberal arts education purports to be committed to. “Race and Secularism in America” clearly introduced a necessary conversation. But the conversation needs to continue to think critically about its own terms to open up space for an even wider range of raced-experience.
Lisa Nakashima, Vassar College ’13, is a religion major. She’s writing her senior thesis on the theopolitical work of post-9/11 uses of the concept of “freedom.”