It’s the kind of image you see flash across twitter every once in a while. A group of white drunk undergraduates think it’s funny to take a picture of themselves acting racist. This image is different because the men in question are not drunk (presumably) and are not undergraduates. They are leading faculty and administrators at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. Nicola Menzie reports:
A White dean of a Texas seminary affiliated with a Christian denomination once known for its staunch defense of Black enslavement posted a controversial photo of himself and other White professors apparently dressed as gangsters on Twitter Tuesday.
Seen in the photo are the following Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary faculty: David L. Allen, dean of the School of Preaching; Kyle Walker, the seminary’s vice president for Student Services and a professor of preaching; Barry McCarty, a preaching professor and Chief Parliamentarian for the Southern Baptist Convention; Deron J Biles, a Dean Emeritus and a professor of Pastoral Ministries and Preaching; and Matthew McKellar, an associate preaching professor.
The participants in the photo and the President of the Seminary have since apologized. Amid the controversy, SWBTS even asked the Christian rapper Lecrae to “lead a dialogue on growth for our community.” Lecrae wisely declined to play the role of token Negro making white Christians feel better. Jemar Tisby of the Reformed African American Network explains why the photo is so problematic, and why pro forma apologies don’t go far enough:
Whatever their intentions, the photo is problematic for at least three main reasons. First, as a comparison, consider why blackface is so offensive. Starting in the early 19th century, white actors would apply black makeup to their faces and exaggerate their lips in a caricature of African American looks. Then they performed racist tropes on stage for laughs. Blackface denigrates people of African descent. It says that skin color can make someone intellectually and culturally inferior, so it’s not a problem to imitate their appearance for the sake of amusement.
In a similar way, putting on clothes typically associated with racial and ethnic minorities communicates that a person’s culture has value only as entertainment. That’s why you can’t dismiss this photo as “just a joke.” It harks back to a history of dehumanization.
Another problem with the picture includes how it appears the photo was carefully staged. Consider what probably happened before a camera even came out. These men took time to pick out certain clothes and put them on. They found a place with suitable background and lighting to take a picture. They chose poses. One of them even grabbed a gun. Then someone posted it on social media. This picture wasn’t randomly snapped in moment of poor judgment. These seminary professors had ample opportunity to consider potential offense. At no point in this elaborate set up did anyone veto the idea.
But the biggest problem doesn’t show up in the picture. The presence of any person of color would have reduced the chances of this photo ever happening. But a photo like this evolves in an environment that lacks meaningful interaction with people from other cultures, especially on the leadership level. The seminary’s website appears to picture all white men in an administration and an entire preaching faculty. Even if a school has diversity in the student body, if the decision-makers all come from a similar racial and cultural background, then they will remain oblivious to their own racial blind spots.
Unfortunately, racial homogeneity is a shortcoming within white evangelicalism as a whole. Looking across evangelical denominations and nondenominational networks, leaders tend to come from similar backgrounds. They are predominantly educated, middle-class white men. Racial uniformity in the leadership means blunders like this photo will probably keep taking place.
On Wednesday, the seminary’s president, Paige Patterson, issued a formal apology entitled “Racism IS a Tragic Sin.” He said, “As all members of the preaching faculty have acknowledged, this was a mistake, and one for which we deeply apologize. Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”
Patterson goes on to say, “Southwestern cannot make a moment of bad judgment disappear. But we can and will redouble our efforts to put an end to any form of racism on this campus and to return to a focus that is our priority — namely, getting the Gospel to every man and woman on the earth.”
His apology sounds biblical; For Christians, evangelism is certainly a critical priority. But he treats racism like a distraction from sharing the Gospel. When will white evangelicals realize, addressing racism is inherently a Gospel issue? Patterson also doesn’t provide any specific actions that would address the seminary’s deeper issues of racial awareness and diversity. Fixing this problem isn’t a matter of restating good intentions, it requires a restructuring of historic patterns of racism embedded in evangelical institutions.
Read the rest of Tisby’s article. Incidents such as these are some of the fruits of Christian colorblindness. Where this ideology flourishes, white-dominated spaces are often viewed as neutral or natural, and people of color are frequently silenced in the name of “Christian unity.” When an incident like this occurs and shatters the veneer of civility, colorblind Christians often fail to grapple with the broader context that made it possible. All too often, avowals of good intentions are substitutes for the hard work of institutional reform. Rather than wrestling with the possibility that Christian colorblindness is itself a perversion of the Gospel, leaders like Patterson describe confronting racism as a diversion from their main priority.
It’s probably going to take a long time for me to finish my dissertation. Unfortunately, when it’s finally done it’s likely to be as relevant as ever.