As I reflect on the reactions to Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary's "racially insensitive photo" and subsequent apology, I am reminded of a passage from Drew G.I. Hart's Trouble I've Seen: Changing the Way the Church Views Racism.
Near the end of the second chapter, he remarks on the way in which many responded to the news that Paula Deen had made some ugly, racist comments and had at one point in her life considered having a southern plantation-style wedding with all black servers. Paula Deen ended up apologizing and doing the "look, I have a black friend, so I can't be racist" dance. Hart writes:
America was not buying it. Deen's racism was too overt, and she broke all the rules. She used what we could call "old-school racism," which is no longer acceptable in the public square, instead of "new school racism," which has shifted its rhetoric to fit the times. Americans of almost all backgrounds and classes wagged their fingers at this woman in disgust. You could almost hear everyone thinking, "Bad Paula Deen!" Well, guess what? Pointing to Deen's racially offensive words was not particularly spectacular or courageous. Rather, it was the expected response within America's twenty-first century context. Don't get me wrong. I am not going to defend Paula Deen in the slightest. That would be absurd! I am not suggesting that we consider her comments anything other than racist ideology and speech. All I am suggesting is this: the scapegoating of Paula Deen is the sophisticated cultural reflex of a highly racialized society that doesn't want to own up to how racism works systemically. (p. 53)
As Hart has said in other contexts, Paula Deen didn't invent racism. Neither did the professors at Southwestern Baptist who staged and posted the photo. What is more troubling to me than the photo itself is the fact that the professors were unaware that this was even problematic. The staging and posting of the original photo, along with the subsequent statement from the seminary's president, tell me that these representatives of SWBTS lack awareness of the very fact that we are all swimming in the waters of a racialized society.
The photo is not the primary problem. The problem is not that it happened, but why it happened. It is evidence of a racialized environment, and one which both the president and the professors who posted the photo seem to be unaware of. This wasn't just a "mistake" or a one-off time where professors exercised a lack of judgement. It was a moment when a specific group of white people was caught (in a very public way) perpetuating systemic racism and failing to acknowledge this or live in resistance to it.
If there is a "mistake," it is that we showed our hand to the world, that we don't just lack an understanding of the "nuances of the racist past of our own country," but that we're blithely unaware of the part we play in our country's racist past and present.
And I say "we" because I think it is important for me as a white person not to wag my finger and say, "Bad seminary professors!" It won't do for white people to scapegoat SWBTS and think, "Gee whiz. Glad I'm not like those guys over there." Systemic racism isn't something you have or don't have, it's a world you inhabit. You can go along with the flow or you can begin to cultivate a life of resistance to it in order to dismantle it, to change the shape of the world. But you can't resist if you are unaware of it, which is why we need more than apologies. We need plans and actions.
Self-flagellation won't do. When I first started to become aware of systemic racism, some of my first responses were disorientation and guilt. I knew there was a problem, but I still wasn't quite clear on what my role was, what I'd done, or how to work toward making things right. So my white evangelical reflexes kicked in and I performed that narrative: feel guilty and say, "I'm sorry. I'll do better next time."
But this "I'm sorry, I'll do better next time" mentality is an example of the kind of "cheap grace" on which white American evangelicalism so often feeds. The theological underpinnings of this are the belief that not only is it okay to mess up, but that we are doomed to mess up because we're "sinners"--that's who we are. We don't actually believe that we can "do better next time." In this framework, forgiveness will and must always be available because we won't be able to make significant change. We will mess up again. No matter how hard we try, we will always fail.
This leaves the door wide open for us to commit perpetual wrongs without every repenting (except in word) or making plans to work toward change. It ends up scapegoating the "sin" so that the "sinner" doesn't have to live any differently. We assume the identity of a "sinner," but a "sinless-sinner" because Jesus has washed all that sin away. We find ourselves not only living in a mode of perpetual failure, but perpetual complicity. We can do no right, but we can also do no wrong. This mode of perpetual guilty/clean also leads us to be unspecific in our "confessions," not really articulating an understanding of what we've even done because it doesn't seem to matter. We can't change the details will be wiped away anyway.
If we want to confront this bad theology, we need to recognize that apologies are not enough. We can apologize up the wazoo and even feel bad about ourselves, but that won't help us become good allies or necessarily help us take practical steps toward dismantling white supremacy. We can feel sincere and contrite, but without understanding and action, this ends up compounding the problem because this cycle excuses us from doing the real work of educating ourselves and moving.
I'm no expert on what practical steps to take to end white supremacy, but I do know that the movement must be led by people of color (and actually is being led by POC and has been for years, whether or not white people have been paying attention). White people have been trying to decide "what's best" for POC for ages, and it hasn't worked out so well. And it can't be a matter of white people "having a conversation about race," but choosing to pay attention to what POC are saying and have been saying.
To that end, I have some suggestions both for individuals and Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary.
Individuals: start doing some homework. Read. Find blogs and books by POC. Don't get bogged down by your own sense of ignorance or feeling like you don't know what to say or do. You will learn, you will start to do better. Don't be paralyzed by your discomfort or petrified by indifference. We must move. The more you study under POC, the more you will get a sense of what you should and should not do, how you have hurt/hindered the movement and how you can help.
To SWBTS: make a public commitment to listening to POC with an aim toward cultivating change, and make a plan. Invite faith leaders, educators, and activists of color to be the primary contributors on panel discussions for students, faculty, and staff on race, racism, and white supremacy. Invite these contributors to smaller, more intimate meetings with college administrators to discuss how best to construct and implement mandatory courses on race and racism into the seminary's curriculum. Create committees (led by POC) to review the seminary's policies and structures to identify any procedures or approaches that contribute to structural racism. Invite POC to help you make a more detailed and specific plan of action.
These are just a few ideas that came to mind this week. What's most important is not for you to listen to me, but to go study under POC. So go. Read. Listen. Go and scapegoat no more.