The other day I watched Twitter have a passionate discussion about a photograph the senior faculty members of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary shared online. What was meant to be to be a silly photo of a bunch of old white men acting like “rappers” quickly became a dialogue about race. Social media users began to call out the photo for its insensitivity and its use of common harmful stereotypes of black people. I watched the fallout as Lecrae and Shaun King brought the issue to the spotlight; as the seminary apologized and asked for a black man to come and have a dialogue with a seemingly all white leadership that claimed their “stance on race was clear.”
Usually this is the very issue I would be eager to call out. Its ignorance is clear as day and it is a perfect example of the blindness still chained to much of the Evangelical churches in the United States. In the fallout of the election, where 81% of white evangelicals seemingly did not vote for their neighbors of color, this photograph was the easy target of all that I’ve been trying to explain to many of my white friends who still fail to understand the issues people of color are facing in our nation.
But I, a white man who has spent the last few years trying to learn and create a dialogue with my peers about racial injustice in our nation, had no right to criticize this ignorance, because I have not yet repented of my own.
This morning, a friend had noticed that I hadn’t brought this up and sent me an article asking if they could post it to my Facebook page to see what kind of discussion would come from it. Would people minimize the severity of it? Would they claim it was just a joke? Or would they call it out? She forced me to reveal what I realized the second this conversation began. When I saw this picture tweeted out by Shaun King, I was immediately humbled, because I too have taken this picture.
Romans 2:3 So when you, a mere human being, pass judgment on them and yet do the same things, do you think you will escape God’s judgment?
I started to think about that Devon in the photograph. What he didn’t know yet; what he hadn’t experienced. That Devon had been sheltered by White Christian circles his whole life. He’d never really seen racism outside of a joke from his High School friends. In fact the racism he shouted about was how the only reason Barack Obama was elected was because he was black. That’s the racism he believed. It wasn’t until Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown and the Ferguson riots that he began to change. In fact when the riots started he thought the looters and the protesters were just a bunch of racist thugs. “Clearly that kid was a bad guy. Cops don’t just kill people because they are black. Trayvon was high. Michael Brown apparently robbed a store earlier.” That was the Devon in the photograph.
In fact it was an odd story that changed me. Not the testimony of black families. Not the words of a black president. Nor any vocal Christians of color. No, it was a white girl with a bow and arrow. The week of the Ferguson riots, I went and watched The Hunger Games. I’m not sure how I made the connection, but at some point I quit watching the movie and found myself trapped in my head. On the screen, a bunch of white characters rebelled against their oppressive government for treating them unjustly. Somehow it clicked and I began to understand what was happening in the news. I had never been treated by my government this way. I had never had a bad experience with an officer. I had never been treated unjustly for the color of my skin. I had never been given an opportunity to even see this happen to someone else. I was ignorant. I was blind, but now I’m beginning to see.
I remember exactly what was going through my head leading up to this photograph. My team members and I were ministering to the only urban school in the reach of our ministry. (“Urban” is White-Christian code for “black kids come to our events.”) We knew our reputation was one of reaching a diverse group of people and we thought it would be funny to play that up by dressing the stereotype of a person from an urban community. There was nothing ill-intentioned by our sense of humor. Nor was there any conscious racism. We all actively loved every kid in our program and would have fought for any one of them if we were aware of their stories. But we weren’t aware. We obviously were not trying to be racist. But whether the racism was unconscious or unintentional, our actions were still deeply insensitive.
Unconscious racism is still racism. The question my humility towards this photograph raises is how would I have communicated that to the Devon in the picture? How would I have led my team to see that this picture could have hurt leaders of color in our room (if there even were any, honestly I doubt it)?
There is no question that these kinds of photographs should be condemned. We should call people to see that no matter how funny we may think they are, they have the power to alienate and demean our friends of color. But how do we respond and heal these moments of ignorance.
The problem with using the word “racist” towards (sorry for the frankness) ignorant white people, is that often you are using the word in a different way than we usually do. For the Devon in that photograph, racism is what happened in the sixties. It’s a genuine belief that I am superior to another race. That I put down other people because of the color of their skin. Today “racism” is commonly used to describe an ignorance or inability to understand the plights of another race. It’s used to describe people who don’t seem interested in the struggles of people of color. Many white evangelicals are fed up with the fact that that they have been called racists for voting for Donald Trump because they don’t feel like they’ve harmed or insulted people of color by voting for Trump. Again, it’s because of how they use the word “racist.”
Racism at its core is ignorance. It can manifest itself as hatred. But often it’s simply a blindness that is the result of a continued segregation in our communities, schools and churches. In other words, “I can’t know your struggle because I’ve never seen your struggle.” I can only hear testimonies and stories and compare them to my reality. I can look at myself in that photograph and can say with certainty there is nothing that was consciously ill-willed or superior-minded about us wearing those clothes and holding up those signs. It’s just absurd ignorance. It’s something that cannot be healed without exposure towards the issues and stories of another.
The problem with progressives and liberals is how we often attack the ignorance instead of heal the ignorance. It’s like yelling at a color-blind person for never seeing red. How can they know what red is? This is why liberals fail all the time and how things like President Trump happen. We have lent towards the assumption that White Evangelicals simply don’t care about black people and we’ve called it racism. When we respond to ignorance with insults we fail to create space for transcendence. Because calling such a person a “racist” communicates to that person that you are the ignorant and blind one because they believe in their heart that they don’t treat you differently because of your skin color. They don’t realize that you are addressing their ignorance because they think you are addressing their heart. It’s why Paul’s words in Colossians are so deeply needed today: “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.” White Christian America is so profoundly ignorant of the plights of people of color because we are still deeply segregated from each other. The men in this photograph immediately asked for help from Lecrae before realizing how insensitive that was.
Lecrae tweeted out this powerful statement. “Evangelical leaders don’t ask me to use my voice to speak on racial unity if you you don’t use yours to talk about racism.”
I couldn’t agree with it more, but I’ve sat across from so many pastors in my area asking them why their churches are exclusively white and they all give me the same answers, “Well, we’d love to have a more diverse church but we don’t know how.” They don’t know how to talk about these issues. They aren’t educated in them. In most cases they don’t know how to be sensitive because they are blind.
Yes, actions like this should be condemned, but not by destroying the other which is all too common in more progressive flavors of Christianity. And how White Christians can be led to believe they are the misunderstood oppressed group in America. I believe the justice of God is restorative. Condemn these actions by helping them see why it is racist rather than calling them a bunch of ignorant racists. Justice is in the excruciating patience of education, not in verbal attacks. It may be infuriating to walk through this with others who seemingly are incapable of learning, but as Paul so perfectly began his poem on love: “Love is patient.”
White America doesn’t deserve the patience of black men and women. Reconciliation is long overdue. But may we continue to have faith to move mountains. May we debate the worthiness of our humanity without infringing the worth of anothers. And may we have grace seasoned with a revelatory salt.
It may seem unnecessary to apologize for ignorance. But our ignorance often creates wounds for others and for this I will always be sorry and ask for your forgiveness.
I’m thankful for leaders like Lecrae who model and carry the patience and grace to be a voice towards issues I deeply desire to reconcile in my own life. May we all find the angry passion to heal and forgive others who do not know what they are doing.