Commitment to Marginalized Communities

Recognizing that we are teaching on Tongva-Gabrieleño land, the Religious Studies Department is committed to fostering a classroom environment oriented toward advancing liberation and dismantling white supremacy and other systems of oppression.

We stand with our professional societies, including the American Academy of Religion and the Society for Biblical Literature, and with Oxy's Black Studies program in condemning police violence against Black People. We affirm that Black Lives Matter.

Scholars of religion have clearly demonstrated the long history and manifold ways in which religion has been used to justify dehumanization of and violence against people marginalized due to their race, ethnicity, sexuality, gender, ability, and religiosity. Scholars have also persuasively argued that religion has been integral to the production of difference, analyzing how, for example:

  • Christianity has been used to assert racial and ethnic difference, as well as to sanctify slavery and white supremacy, especially in the United States. Religious traditions have constructed gender and sexual norms that have denied folx' full human dignity, have limited their opportunities to live a good life, and have incited vitriol, violence, and death.
  • Religious privilege and supremacy have justified bigotry and brutality, as well as state-sponsored aggression, against other religious communities (e.g, anti-Semitism, Islamophobia).
  • Religions have interpreted individuals' access to economic security, housing, health, education, and social mobility as a function of god's favor and blessing, with the socially-disenfranchised, poor, sick, and impaired seen as disfavored or punished by god and the well-off as meritorious recipients of god's benevolence.

At the same time, a large body of scholarship—much of which has been produced by scholars of color and scholars from marginalized communities—has shown how religion has been a source of strength and resistance for marginalized groups.

  • Religious people—such as Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Sister Antona Ebo, Mahatma Gandhi, Malcolm X, Dorothy Day, Cesar Chavez, Sister Helen Prejean, James Cone, Gustavo Gutiérrez, Vine Deloria Jr., Archbishop Desmond Tutu, and Rev. Dr. William Barber II—have led movements, crafted theologies, and mobilized religious symbolism to battle racial, economic, and environmental injustice.
  • Stories embedded in religious traditions ground religious identity and serve as a touchstone that guides future liberation projects. For example, the Hebrew Bible narrative of liberation from enslavement in Egypt has been a source of strength and resistance for Jewish communities, as well as other oppressed groups like African Americans in the antebellum US and the Rastafari in Jamaica.
  • Religious communities and gatherings have been a source of renewal and strength in the face of oppression. For example, African-inspired religions like Regla de Ocha (Santería) and Candomblé helped foster community and identity among enslaved Africans and their descendants following the trauma of the Middle Passage, as did Buddhism and Christianity for Japanese-Americans incarcerated in concentration camps during World War II. Moreover, community action and social movements routinely grow out of religious communities.

Occidental College's Religious Studies Department takes seriously the complex relationship between religion, oppression, and liberation. Many of our courses center these themes and frames of analysis. Yet we also understand ourselves—our academic discipline, institutions of higher education, and ourselves as educators and people—to be entrenched in systems of power and attendant privilege.

In Fall 2019, we developed a 20-point action plan to guide RELS faculty and courses as we seek to confront inequity and advance justice. Our plan consists of class-level and department-level practices. Some of our class-level practices include:

  • Offering courses that focus explicit attention on power, race/ethnicity, socio-economic inequalities, gender, sexual identity, sexual assault, colonialism, and other structures of oppression and marginalization;
  • Assigning materials that represent a range of perspectives, including the perspectives of folks from historically-marginalized communities whose voices aren't often heard (e.g., racial/ethnic minorities, low-income, groups regarded as heretics or religious outsiders, women and gender non-binary, sexual minorities, people with impairments); and especially assigning scholarship from authors who belong to underrepresented communities;
  • Transparency with students regarding the history of our discipline, especially in terms of its complicity with colonialism, bias toward Judeo-Christian traditions, the intellectual deficiencies caused by an underrepresentation of non-white scholars, and the barriers and challenges faced by scholars from underrepresented communities); and
  • Offering students opportunities to convey feedback on what aspects of our courses best enable their learning and flourishing, as well as what aspects of our courses are introducing barriers to their learning; responding to their feedback; and, more broadly, treating students as whole people whose lives are sometimes complicated and difficult.

Our plan also consists of departmental-level practices such as:

  • Recognizing our own positionality, we will routinely audit the ways in which we personally benefit from existing power structures and status-quo exclusion of minoritized scholars, students, and community members; being willing to give up our privilege when it disadvantages others or when it takes up space that could empower others; being committed to challenging college policies and protocols that unevenly advantage white, straight, male people (and others with privilege); and leveraging our privilege to amplify the voices of those who are regularly silenced or ignored;
  • Understanding ourselves to be responsible to keep ourselves current by reading scholarship on challenges faced by underrepresented students and best practices their facilitate their personal flourishing and academic success; holding ourselves accountable to this responsibility by designating a schedule for discussing these readings as a departmental faculty, attending to comments in student evaluations about underrepresented students' experience of our classrooms, and, in our individual annual reports, strategizing how we must correct and develop our pedagogy in light of this feedback;
  • Mentoring students from historically-underrepresented communities in high-impact research opportunities (such as URC summer program), guiding students through the process of presenting their research at professional conferences, and helping with graduate school applications…all with the ultimate aim of intervening in the academic pipeline to broaden the diversity of scholars in our field;
  • Soliciting input from the Chief Diversity Officer (currently vacant), current students and alum, and student organizations regarding how the Department might better facilitate students' personal flourishing and the academic success of minoritized students; and
  • Evaluating our departmental progress on implementing these measures in our annual department self-assessment.