Last modified: Jun 17, 2020

Faux Pas

My money was on Kenneth Copeland being the first major White Evangelical pastor to say something obscenely immature and insensitive about racism in America. After all, he claims to have ended the COVID-19 pandemic merely by shouting gutturally at it — and much has been written about his aversion to flying commercial due to a worry about flying next to all the demons in the form of other people.

But when it comes to putting your foot in your mouth on matters of racism, Atlanta megachurch pastor Louie Giglio beat him to the punch. During a three-person panel on racism in America — featuring Giglio (a White Evangelical pastor), Dan Cathy (the White Evangelical CEO of Chik-fil-A), and Lecrae (a Black Christian recording artist) — he shared the faux pas heard ’round the world:

“We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do. And we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.”

He continued, suggesting a renaming of “White privilege” to “White blessing.” Understandably, the tone-deaf comments led to sharp rebukes across Christian circles. But it was the additional layer of Lecrae’s response — or lack thereof — that added a reasonable amount of extra fuel to the fire.

Being popular doesn’t make you an expert on race in America

Giglio’s Passion Conferences became popular as Christian millennials came of age and social media started to transform the internet into a viable marketing channel. And that’s perhaps the first big takeaway here: popularity gives you a platform. But popularity doesn’t mean you should use that platform without doing your due diligence.

Especially in historic moments like the one we’re living in now, there’s a tendency for those with platforms to try to get out in front of the noise and become the thought leaders in critical spaces. But being good at sharing kale chip recipes to your throngs of Instagram followers doesn’t make somebody equipped to talk about something as nuanced as racism. And, in Giglio’s case, being a pastor with soaring popularity among Christian millennials — and having ethnic friends — doesn’t necessarily make him equipped to do this either.

While I wouldn’t go so far as to presume Giglio’s major error here was some sort of over-confidence regarding this topic, I’d suggest he didn’t give his own biases and lack of education on the topic enough thought. His subsequent apology admitted as much: “White Privilege is real” and there’s still far more he has to learn about it.

Church leaders must not create opportunities for conversation just to hear their own voice; there are academics, educators, and experts who can provide depth and clarity on the ripples we wouldn’t typically see in conversations like these.

young black man resting while protesting racism

Being Black doesn’t make you an expert on explaining racism in America

Lecrae’s non-response to Giglio’s gaffe may have been shocking in the moment (something he’s admitted publicly afterward), but it points out something incredibly important: being Black doesn’t make you an expert on explaining racism in America.

Church leaders must not create opportunities for conversation just to hear their own voice.Click To Tweet

If that sounds controversial, let me present to you Exhibit A — also known as Dr. Ben Carson. Responding to the growing movement to rename or replace Confederate monuments, he said “we’re going to have to grow up as a society.” In fact, the ultimate White copout is to say you’re not racist — or you’re going to clear the air on racism in church — because you have this friend who’s Black. Neither that statement nor having friends who are either ill-equipped or misinformed like Carson does much to further real conversation.

Now, that doesn’t mean Lecrae can’t share eloquently on his experience with and understanding of racism and the church response to it; it is clear, however, he’s not necessarily equipped to handle the complexities of White fragility when his friends accidentally reveal their ignorance in a public forum. While expecting a public repudiation in the heat of the moment may be a bit excessive, a simple pushback would have been appropriate. This doesn’t mean Lecrae’s personal experiences are invalid or inauthentic or unimportant somehow; that couldn’t be further from the truth. Rather, maybe deeper conversations on racism require a deeper pool of Black voices, including those who are equipped with the vocabulary and history to teach us all a thing or two about racism.

Sweeping under the rug a White friend’s use of the term White blessing to soften the sting of the term White privilege is a colossal miscalculation by somebody who’s spoken eloquently on this topic in the past. This neither means Lecrae should stop talking about his experiences as a Black man in America nor that he needs to never discuss his thoughts on racism ever again. The bigger takeaway for him is that he can’t afford to be complicit in ignorance just to come off as the understanding Black friend.

Additionally, there appears to have been a level of over-confidence on both Giglio’s and Lecrae’s parts; they could have easily avoided this monumental error if they had properly prepared their talking points. One can assume that they either didn’t prepare or that they didn’t prepare adequately enough, either of which often follows from outright ignorance of the gravity of the moment or willful neglect of individual blind spots.

Maybe they did prepare. Maybe they did run through this.

That would just make Lecrae’s silence that much more irresponsible.

We need to call out biases and racism when it happens in our circles

Lecrae’s silence reflects a lot of what happens in our homes and our social circles every day: we let things slide. To be truly antiracist means we shouldn’t. (By we, I especially mean non-Black people of color and White people.)

I had a conversation with my parents the other day, a chat about whether or not I had eaten dinner (I’m 34, you guys) that devolved into a criticism of the nationwide protests. I challenged them on their steadfastness to the Model Minority myth that Asian-Americans were some sort of barometer against which all minorities in America must measure their progress. I reminded my mom she’s a doctor today because of the sacrifices of African-Americans in this country; I reminded my dad he supervises teams of White people because of the same.

And that… hit them. Like really hit them.

They hadn’t ever really thought about their positions of power coming from the climb on the shoulders of giants who rebelled, boycotted, and died before them. It doesn’t mean my parents didn’t struggle; their struggle just pales in comparison to the tragic collective history of Black Americans. And if it wasn’t for me calling them out for their implicit biases, they may not have had their eureka moment.

Like implicit bias, White privilege is an uncomfortable topic — doubly so because it’s hard to explain to a White person (who has undoubtedly struggled to make it where they are today) that their struggles still pale in comparison to those faced by their Black brothers, sisters, and neighbors. Sometimes, it’s not the obviously mean and overtly racist White people who are in the wrong about their own privilege; the good-intentioned can also miss the mark (Giglio falls into the latter group). It’s why sociologist and writer Robin DiAngelo considers “the most effective adaptation of racism over time is the idea that racism is conscious bias held by mean people.”

Sometimes, even the good people we know either don’t know enough or haven’t grappled enough to speak out against racism in ways that are both authentic and valid.

You don’t have to be an expert on race in America, but you should learn from those who are

I appreciate the remorse Giglio clearly expressed in his apology. It’s unfortunate he let his biases slip on such a public stage. While it’s unrealistic to expect any leader — from church circles to secular circles — to not make mistakes, I appreciate even more that he’s acknowledging he needs to continue to learn about racism in America. Frankly, we all do. There are amazing resources on racism that abound online — from Ted Talks to books to lectures to courses to interactive museums. There really is no excuse not to soak up information on the country’s racist history so we can make sure we’re not doomed to repeat it.

While it’s unfortunate he slipped up so publicly (for the PR ramifications and fallout), it’s perhaps a blessing — pun intended — in disguise for the steps he’s now aware he must take to solve for his blind spots.

And it’s, unfortunately, not just Giglio. It’s Rod Parsley, who brazenly claimed all the nation’s founding fathers released their slaves. It’s Sean Feucht with a fresh new Bethel Church controversy, co-opting grief and protest to play music instead of taking the time to lament with a torn and ravaged city.

Listening, learning, and lamenting are important steps in the journey to becoming better antiracists. And that’s admittedly tough in an uncomfortable political climate that practically forces church leaders to create room for conversations around these tough, necessary topics. Leaders can either respond in a contrived way or an authentic way. The former aims to create superficial conversations to elicit social media buzz and assuage concerns of silent complicity; the latter aims to answer tough questions with tougher truths from people who are equipped to discuss the social, political, and theological pains of racism.

Grace

Conversations around social justice and racism are tough, but necessary. Louie Giglio’s and Lecrae’s collective public failures around how to handle these public conversations should serve as a template for other leaders — don’t just create opportunities for these conversations, but really create opportunities to learn.

We do need to give each other grace as we learn about history and respond to our biases, but we also must have the audacity to call out ignorance and ill will. If racism is a poison, we all must work to drive it from our systems. And sometimes it takes public failures to remind us we’re still far from having this figured out. ■


Featured Image by Bill Whitt, used under CC BY / Desaturated from original