SWBTS Social Media Faux Pas: Why It’s Both Unwise But Not Racist

I had a post on limited atonement lined up for today, but a controversy hit my school recently and I wanted to address it.

Social Media Fail

Yesterday, I bought Dr. David Allen’s The Extent of the Atonement for Kindle and scanned through some of it.  I wholeheartedly encourage the reader to buy it also for a measly $10 (though the physical version is like $40).  Little did I know that later that night, Dr. Allen would be apologizing for something outside the scholarly world.  He and some professors posted this picture on Twitter:

swbts prof photo

Lol, wow.  Predictably, cries of racism flew around the internet, both from within and without Southern Baptists, and the pictures were taken down.  Everyone involved apologized.  Dr. Patterson, the school’s president, also wrote a lengthy apology.  Dr. Allen in particular gave an apology without qualification and said that “context is immaterial” for their joke picture.

And here is where I would disagree with Dr. Allen, though I understand his wish to give an unconditional apology.  Context is not immaterial.  We should always, always, look at context and also give charitable interpretations, even if we do still end up disagreeing with someone’s words or actions.

This picture was apparently given to a preaching professor here who recently got a job at a church and was therefore moving on.  Dr. Vern Charette evidently raps as a hobby and even had a section where he rapped in a chapel sermon, so some professors thought they would give him a silly picture as a going-away gift.  With this context in mind, does it make it wise to post a joke photo like that, knowing that the entire internet is not going to immediately know the context?  No, it doesn’t.  I’m actually very surprised none of those men thought, “Hey, this can easily get misinterpreted, so let’s either not do this in the first place or at least just keep it as a private joke among friends who know our intent and the context.”  Given our hyper-sensitive culture these days, where even stating bare facts like “There’s a very high rate of single-motherhood in the black community” can draw accusations of racism, it was foolish to post that online.  That’s not to excuse our hyper-sensitive culture, but surely a joke like that is not worth the controversy and potential damage to the witness of the professors as well as that of the seminary.  It also does not help that the Southern Baptist Convention started on the wrong side of American slavery back in the 19th century and had to repent of that many years ago.

Accusations of Racism Unfounded

However, does it make it racist?  Does this show secret, institutional racism at SWBTS?  No, it doesn’t do that either.  After a bit of context was explained, it was clearly a satirical jab at rap culture and a tongue-in-cheek photo for a good friend of theirs who raps.  They all looked ridiculous and they meant to look ridiculous, so I honestly laughed out loud when I saw the picture (it’s a bit jarring to not see them in suits, much less dressed like that).

Perhaps many will still have problems with the fact that it’s satirical because it “perpetuates stereotypes” and whatnot.  And of course not every single person who raps dresses like this or owns a gun.  However, it would be absolutely disingenuous to not admit that rap culture often glorifies guns and gold chains, among other things that I won’t mention here but I’ve also satirized.  I know this because, as my close friends can attest, I actually listen to rap music at times and make joke lyrics for songs because I find their lyrics and rhyming schemes to be hilariously absurd.  This culture is also not restricted to blacks either; many Asians, whites, and Hispanics who have adopted rap or hip-hop culture dress in similar ways (vaguely similar, at least, because the professors obviously failed to dress in a convincing hip-hop manner, nor did they care to because again, it’s satire and meant to be over the top).  Heck, many Koreans in Korea try to dress like this now.  So does this really prove that these men have secret racist beliefs because they made a joke photo to a friend that includes a jab at a culture that perpetuates this kind of dress all by itself and that has been adopted by a plethora of different races?  Are they somehow not allowed to satirize something that is real because they’re white?

This Washington Post article asserts that the picture points to “a history of dehumanization.”  It does no such thing; it points to a very current, very real, and very proud aspect of rap culture.  I challenge anyone to deny this with a straight face.

The author, Jemar Tisby, also asserts that if there was a minority in that group, they would have been far less likely to have made the picture.  Debatable; then again, if there was a minority in the group, the internet would have been far less likely to create this much of a firestorm because, as we have routinely seen these days, there is a double standard for what white people can do and say and what minorities can do and say, which is silly and doesn’t help solve race relations.  The fact that this was done by white (mostly older) men fueled this controversy further, but why should that matter?  I’m fairly sure that if our Korean professors did this instead, some people still would have gotten mad but the controversy would have been way less of a national story.  But darn those evil white men, right?

Tisby goes on to make very hasty and unjustified conclusions about institutional racism and the motivations of these professors:

As an African American, I look at that picture and wonder what these men are teaching in class. How are they compensating for the lack of racial and ethnic diversity among the faculty and staff? Are they responsive to the particular needs and concerns of minorities in their midst? How might their assumptions slip into their lectures, advising and preaching?

A joke picture makes you wonder what these people are teaching and not, you know, their actual public teachings and books?  You know their hearts and their assumptions from that?  Why don’t I do this: As a non-African American minority, I wonder if Tisby actually points people to the real issues of race relations, if he actually deals with race issues that aren’t African American, and if his “assumptions” slip into his preaching and talks.  But that would be a bit unfair, now would it?

Tisby also argues that SWBTS should commit to hiring more ethnic minority professors.  As a minority student at SWBTS, my response to that is twofold: 1. There are already some minority profs here and 2. I don’t care one bit about that.  I study philosophy and every one of my philosophy profs are white.  Who cares?  As long as they are good at what they do, love God and the Gospel, and want to teach truth, that’s all that should matter.  If they’re white, black, Asian, or purple, I don’t really care and don’t feel an ounce of sensitivity or insecurity over such nonsense.  Now, if the seminary was actually hiring white professors over minority ones of equal or better merit, then that would be a problem, but there isn’t much evidence that that’s going on.  I have my own criticisms of the seminary for a host of things, but the whiteness of the faculty is not even close to one of them; in fact, such a complaint may be seen as racist itself.  One wonders what the reaction would be if a school that had mostly minority professors was criticized for not having enough white professors.


Those professors did an unwise thing; sometimes it’s easy to forget that the internet is technically accessible to anyone on the planet with a connection and that inside jokes are not exactly going to go over well on social media.  They should apologize, and they have.  I know these are men that love Jesus and probably feel sickened that their ill-advised joke has hurt people and has given ammunition to critics who want to smear the Gospel.  They’ll learn from this, and that’s the end of the matter for me.

However, that doesn’t mean that the accusations of racism against them and the seminary are well-founded.  When context is considered, it’s obvious what they were doing, however unwise it was to post the thing on Twitter.  There’s no justification to jump to conclusions of secret institutionalized racism because the evidence just doesn’t support it.

This is not to say that people can’t become more knowledgeable and experienced about other races, and there are some people on this campus, due to their rather restricted experiences, who say ignorant though well-meaning things like, “Hey… you speak English really well!” to an American-born Asian.  However, that still isn’t “racist,” as if these people actually believe they’re better than other races.  Defaulting to the racist card when clear racism is not demonstrated is as damaging to race relations as anything, and the lack of desire to engage in dialogue and charitable interpretation is not going to help either.


9 thoughts on “SWBTS Social Media Faux Pas: Why It’s Both Unwise But Not Racist

  1. What about ‘unconscious’ institutionalized racism? Can all of us who grew up in a historically predominately Anglo neighborhood/school/church/community have a tendency to condescend/look down on/fear/hate other races because that’s what’s been passed down from generation to generation? It’s not blatant or even intended. It’s just unconscious. Knowing those men in the picture, I know they aren’t racist and knowing the context, I know it was a joke…but could they be a little bit racist without knowing through no fault of their own? I just know that for me, I know I have dispositions and tendencies that are offensive that I did not choose to have.

    I guess for me, I looked at the picture, laughed, and then felt uncomfortable. I knew what they meant to say so I laughed…but I also felt like I knew what they didn’t mean to say so I felt uncomfortable.

    • Hey Paul:

      I understand your discomfort. When I first saw the picture, it was after the controversy already hit. I laughed but immediately thought, “Wow, such a stupid idea to put that online.” However, I think the problem with talk of “institutionalized” racism these days is that it’s like a ghost or bogeyman; except for actual evidence that it’s there and permeates an alleged “system,” there are just assertions that there is some invisible hand that is out to screw minorities. True institutionalized racism would be something like Jim Crow laws, since they were actual laws instituted by state governments. I can see both the racist action as well as how it was institutionalized. Modern examples rarely fit and often resort to mind-reading and armchair psychoanalysis.

      I don’t deny that people can have misconceptions through ignorance, as I noted at the end of the post. And we of course all have sinful dispositions. Perhaps some professors could use some more experience with other cultures and ethnicities. However, in this case, they were not ignorantly mistaken or subconsciously racist about something; they understood very well how much of rap culture portrays itself, which is why they directed it at a white professor who raps, not some random black guy they were trying to insult. Nowhere in the picture is there an implication that all black people dress or pose like that and are therefore inferior. That has to be read into it.

  2. Hello.

    I believe you make some valid points here which merit attention. I absolutely agree with you that content was needed in order to understand the intentions or the reasons behind why our profs created the image. However, this where it ends for me and Iam going to respectfully disagree. What raises an eyebrow for me is that you state that our culture is “hyper-sensitive” and that the image should not be deemed as racist. However you must understand why one should become sensitive or even “hyper-sensitive” if you will, when they see an image such as the one in question. one can only know what qualifies as “racist” or has some imbedded racial undertones if they’ve been on the receiving end of import the subject of it. Racism comes in many different forms. It doesn’t have to be outright verbal for it to be racist, but it can also make its way into images.
    This is not to say that out profs had the intention of being racist, but the picture conveys a different message whether it was their intent or not. You see, images convey more then we think and have many different interpretations. For those of us who are of color or African American, we are sensitive to images like these because African Americans have spent years (and in most instances continue to be) negatively portrayed in images. We still are fighting to be seen in a positive light. So when an African-American sees an image like this,’they recognize what kind of connotation it can give off because they have been exposed to it before and recognize it In its varying forms.

    This is not at all to say that the professors in the image are racists, and let me make that abundantly clear. However, one must be extremely cautious prior to delegitimizing why one would be hyper-sensitive; especially when they’ve seen it before.
    Now I know this was done as a salute to Vern Charrette his departure, but one must be wise before something thought to be in good fun ends up being seen by hundreds even millions- even when the context is “immaterial”.

    • Hi Miriam:

      Thank you for your thoughtful comments. I actually do not think that we are that far apart on this issue. I have my own criticisms of the “hyper-sensitive” culture that we have right now, but my point here was not to give a critique of that. I agree that people who are not “hyper-sensitive” would be disturbed by this picture on face value; if that’s the case, then one can imagine how those who in the broader culture who are in fact too sensitive will react. It all comes together to show how unwise the decision was to post this picture on Twitter because it surely isn’t worth the miscommunication and offense.

      I think where we will disagree is in the idea that one can only know what is racist if one has been on the receiving end of it. First of all, I personally have been on the receiving end of racism growing up (more often from other minorities than white people). Secondly, I think you can objectively tell what is racist without necessarily being on the receiving end of it because racism has an objective definition. The intent of a message, picture, or whatever matters because obviously the author of a message determines its content. That of course, does not mean that he communicates that well.

      Thus, my problem with a lot of these accusations of racism is that there is often not a willingness to take into account the context after it was explained. It’s one thing to criticize them for being careless; it makes sense to say, “What you did can easily be construed as racist or offensive, even if we now know that it’s not after the context is explained and after some reflection about rap culture. It was a bad idea to post that on a public forum.” It’s another to keep the accusations of racism and make conclusions of institutional, secret racism without evidence even after the relevant facts are considered. This is what I mean when I criticized the lack of charitable interpretation and dialogue.

      • You are correct in saying the intent matters. However, the image itself- its immediate perception on the eyes is problematic for those who are affected by it. I believe it is unfair and not a right given to anyone to delegitimize or discredit anyone’s feelings just because it does not directly affect you.

  3. Miriam:

    As I have said, I understand how some can react immediately to a picture like that. However, it is actually unbiblical to believe that one’s feelings are automatically correct and cannot be criticized. I’ve written a post on that subject (https://leesomniac.wordpress.com/2014/01/24/regulating-the-passions-emotions-is-essential-for-christian-morals/), but in a nutshell, part of Christian ethics is the regulation of emotions. For example, God straight up asked Jonah, when he was angry because God spared the Ninevites, “Do you have the right to be angry?”, clearly implying that Jonah was not in fact right to feel that way. It’s very popular to believe these days that feelings are unassailable and always legitimate, but that is simply not true, and it unfortunately this philosophy has created an immature, emotionally selfish, and reactionary culture.

    So yes, if people overreact or persist in feelings that cease to be rational or mature when context is considered, that absolutely can be criticized.

    • Let’s talk about the context of Jonah, shall we?
      Why did God send Jonah to Ninevah? He was sent so he could be the bearer of God’s plan for reconciliation. Yes, Jonah was selfish and and emotions were sinful toward God- causing him to deliberately and literally move out of the will of God.
      Now, our emotions are from God. We are all created in His Image and he gave us emotions. He said, “Be angry, do not sin.” Moreover, “let not the sun set on your anger.”
      I do not see, sir , where I have sinned in my dialogue with you , or expressed a selfish, irrational “anger” (iam not angry in any way , only aware). You see, my only desire is to see the acknowledgement of people’s feelings whether you or anyone believes they are right or wrong, and to see steps taken toward gospel- centered reconciliation …

      • Hi Miriam:

        I think you misunderstood my post and also took things a bit too personally. I was talking abstractly about the issue of emotions and feelings, not directing any of that towards you. I’m not sure where I suggested that you sinned anywhere. I’m merely pointing out that the Bible does not support the idea that feelings are always legitimate.

        I’m well aware of the context of Jonah. None of that changes my point that Jonah’s feelings at the time were wrong and illegitimate (in fact, the context makes sure that we see that). Nor did I suggest that the very ability to have emotions is not from God (granted, those who hold to divine impassibility may be uncomfortable saying that our emotions are a product of us being made in God’s image, but since I reject divine impassibility, that’s not my problem). Furthermore, acknowledging people’s feelings is not the same as legitimizing them or agreeing with them. Feelings can be wrong. That truth does not somehow block the possibility of gospel reconciliation unless some elevates feelings over truth. Now if you want to make the case that, generally speaking, we should be gentle in our correction, I would wholeheartedly agree, but again, that has little to do with the fact itself that feelings can be illegitimate.

  4. Pingback: “Do You Have Good Reason to be Angry?” If Not, Your Emotions Don’t Matter That Much | leesomniac

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