Seminary President: Professors ‘Made a Mistake’ Posting ‘Blackface’ Photos on Social Media

Five White professors who dressed as rappers for a campus photo shoot months ago are not racist and faced no disciplinary action, according to the president of the Texas seminary where they teach.

This is the photo posted online by staff of the Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary on Twitter Tuesday, April 25, 2017.
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This story appears in Faithfully Magazine No. 2, available for download here.

Five White professors who dressed as rappers for a campus photo shoot months ago are not racist and faced no disciplinary action, according to the president of the Texas seminary where they teach.

“The men teased a departing Native American (preacher) who happens to be a rapper. Then they made a mistake and put it on social media. Tragic mistake but not a one of these men has an ounce of racism in them anywhere. They feel worse about it than anyone. Our purpose is not to punish but to find a way to do good,” Paige Patterson, president of SWBTS, explained in a June 22 email.

In April, David L. Allen, dean of Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary’s School of Preaching, and other professors (Kyle Walker, Barry McCarty, Deron J. Biles and Matthew McKellar) published photos of themselves dressed as rappers on Twitter and Facebook. Eventually, Allen and the other men deleted the photos from their social networks. It appeared Allen was the only one to apologize for the photos, which he admitted were “offensive,” in the same manner he shared them—via his Twitter and Facebook accounts.

The controversial photos captured the professors wearing gold and silver chains, bandanas, hoodies and askew ball caps. One of the men holds a gun close to his chest in one photo. Critics and offended Black Christians likened the men’s costumes to blackface, the practice of non-Blacks donning makeup and clothing to mockingly portray Blacks.

SWBTS, located in Fort Worth, Texas, was founded in 1908. The four-year private school, segregated until the 1950s, is one of six seminaries affiliated with the Southern Baptist Convention, which was founded in 1845 to support slavery. The denomination has taken steps over the years to distance itself from its racist roots and foster racial unity among its diverse members.

However, the controversial rapper photo prompted questions about the Baptist school’s commitment to racial reconciliation.

“Racial justice and a love for all of God’s children has always been paramount in Southwestern’s DNA,” Patterson wrote in his email.

There were 1,000-plus ethnic minorities among the 3,000-member student body, including “196 Black students and a large number of Hispanic and Asian students,” he said, emphasizing the school’s diversity. The president also mentioned the seminary’s number of ethnic minority faculty (21) and female professors (13).

Patterson insisted that it was not racism, but bad judgment to blame for the professors’ actions. When asked what steps were taken to avoid any more racially-insensitive incidents like the one they created from occurring again on campus, Patterson pointed to three measures.

The seminary president first explained that “[10] new scholarships (were) made available to African Americans.”

Patterson then pointed to “[c]lear communication to all people of color on campus,” which he said had been in the form of a letter from his office. The letter “resulted in a number of personal conferences.”

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Lastly, Patterson said “anyone … on campus” using social media would do so only for “commendation
and encouragement.”

When Dean Allen tweeted his apology for the offensive photo, he expressed that the seminary’s “stance on race is clear as is mine,” and also tagged the @swbts Twitter account.

Hip-hop artist Lecrae asked in response to Allen’s tweet how the school planned “to grow from this.” The @swbts account suggested there would be on-campus dialogue, and asked Lecrae to “lead a dialogue on growth for our (SWBTS) community.” The rapper declined. He instead suggested the school turn to a handful of Black ministry leaders he tagged in his Twitter response.

However, any dialogue on growth for the school would involve “people from our student body, professors, supporting churches, conventions, etc.,” said Patterson, who is also a former president of the Southern Baptist Convention.

“That is the only kind of dialogue that will ultimately assist us in doing better. Also, we remain less interested in dialogue and more interested in action,” he wrote in the email.

In a public statement published on the school’s website a day after the controversial photos appeared on Twitter, Patterson wrote: “Sometimes, Anglo Americans do not recognize the degree that racism has crept into our lives.”

“My statement was meant to call attention of us all to the fact that we have to develop greater awareness to things that offend others especially when we do not share the particular background of these individuals,” he said when asked to comment on that part of his statement.

“While I hated that this happened, I was most concerned that we learn from what happened. One cannot recover the past but one can prepare to do better in the future. The statement is pretty self-explanatory.”

Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary, one of SWBTS’s sister schools, has a special advisor to the president for diversity on staff. But Patterson said his school does not “see the need for an advisor” of its own to assist on diversity issues.

“We do see a need to address this issue in our preaching and teaching and bend over backwards to meet the needs of all,” he added.

Patterson acknowledged that his words would have little effect on those who remain skeptical of his seminary’s intentions.

“Visit our campus, talk with our Black students, our Asian, and our Hispanic students, and see what they say about Southwestern, how they are treated and how they are treasured,” he said.

“Again I say, Southwestern made a tragic mistake. But it was a mistake without racial bias of any kind. A person cannot be a knowledgeable follower of Christ and harbor racial animus of any kind. We can and do learn from our mistakes. We wish the same for all,” Patterson added.

This story appears in Faithfully Magazine No. 2, available for download here.

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