“I fear, I am integrating my people into a burning house.”
— Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr
I was told that white people were not invited to this happy hour. They called it Black Sabbath, and it was exactly what it sounds like, a kickback exclusively for Black people at a swanky wine bar in Old Pasadena.
“Are we allowed to do that,” I thought to myself. I’d never heard of Black people deciding, intentionally, explicitly to get together without white people. It felt…out of bounds. But I didn’t know who I expected to reprimand or stop us.
We shared jokes over h’orderves, and talked about what we’ve been up to lately, and — of course — how exhausting it can be to be Black sometimes. And the best part about that last part was that there was no fight to be heard or believed. It was the type of gathering I never knew I’d always needed.
Over the past month, dozens of former Relevant Media Group employees have come forward to reveal the toxic work culture that was maintained at the company for the entirety of its existence, forcing the company’s CEO to announce a temporary leave of absence.
But the entire upheaval about RELEVANT’s culture began with a conversation about race — more specifically, the failure of the company to meaningfully address white supremacy and antiblackness within their walls and in society at large, a problem that exists in many institutions.
The refusal of so much of the white evangelical world — including megachurches, non-profits, conferences, and media platforms — to speak prophetically and act courageously in the face of a global resurgence of white nationalism has been a great betrayal to many Black Christians that were committed to multiculturalism and “racial reconciliation.”
This lack of moral courage among white evangelicals to fight racist progress, along with enthusiastic support for it, has stimulated what the New York Times once called A Quiet Black Exodus from “multiethnic” evangelical spaces.
Some may lament the exodus currently underway, because it betrays America’s favorite conception of racial justice: integration.
But the more I reflect on what has happened so far in the RELEVANT story, within the larger context of what is happening in white evangelicalism, the more I’ve become open to the possibility that an exodus may be a healthy thing, especially for Black people and People of Color.
But to understand why I’m saying that, one must get the race problem right, understand what “coming together” with white people can feel like for Black people, and be aware of what “unity” often means in white America.
Getting the Race Problem Right
White Americans generally seem to think the conversation about racial justice is about coming together. The lesson they seem to have taken from the Civil Rights Movement (1955–1970) is “racial separation bad, racial diversity good.” There are problems with this simplified understanding.
First, when people simplify racism to racial separation, they erase the real issue at the heart of racial injustice: power.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. explained that racial togetherness and racial justice are not the same when he said, “What good is having the right to sit at a lunch counter if you can’t afford to buy a hamburger?”
After participating in some of the most effective campaigns of the Civil Rights Movement, Chairman of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee Stokeley Carmichael declared in a speech:
“The one thing I learned from the Mississippi Freedom Democratic Party was that you don’t work for integration in this country — what you’ve got to work for is power. The mistake we made was that we went to the National Democratic Party begging them to come into their party. If we’re to do anything, we have to stop begging…
Integration is completely irrelevant to us: what we want is power for people who don’t have it.”
Like King, Carmichael also fleshed out this idea of power with an economic example:
It’s impossible for a man making $3 a day to vote for a man making $10,000 a year. It’s impossible for both of them to be in the same party. I’ve seen that clearly in Lowndes County [Georgia]. You just can’t do it.
What can really happen in Lowndes County: Once we take over the Board of Education, we can spend the same amount of money on the Negro schools as they do on the white school — make it a real school — then the problem of integration will become irrelevant.
Malcolm X’s words are also helpful on this subject:
“Segregation is that which is forced upon inferiors by superiors…In the white community, the white man controls the economy, his own economy, his own politics, his own everything. That’s his community. But at the same time while the Negro lives in a separate community, it’s a segregated community. Which means it’s regulated from the outside by outsiders. The white man has all of the businesses in the Negro community. He runs the politics of the Negro community. He controls all the civic organizations in the Negro community. This is a segregated community.”
Note that across the spectrum of perspectives above, all of these leaders are talking about segregation in terms of power arrangements.
They aren’t talking about just being among white people.
Although each of these leaders differed in their approaches to racial justice, they were aligned in their thinking that the race problem in America has to do with a caste system that systematically benefits or disempowers people based on race classifications. Black is the bottom-caste of that hierarchy; Some version of “white” is the top.
And that problem isn’t solved by dropping a Black person into a space that operates according to the rules of racial caste.
What Racial Diversity In Predominantly White Space Can Feel Like to a Black Person
Ruby Bridges recalls people yelling and throwing things as U.S. marshalls escorted her up the steps and to the doors of William Frantz Elementary School in New Orleans.
She was the first Black student to be enrolled at that all-white school. And the violent mob at the entrance that day was her unwelcome party.
Many white parents pulled their children out of the school in response to her enrollment. The white mob returned the next day to continue their protest. Inside, all but one teacher refused to work with her. And she spent an entire year as the only student in that teacher’s class.
Ruby Bridges’ story is a clear example of what happens when Black people are — in the name of diversity — inserted into white spaces, while the power arrangements of that space mirror those of American society at large.
While white Americans fetishize the idea of living in racial harmony, they don’t think about the millions of instances of antiblack sentiment — overt and subtle — we encounter on a daily basis from the white world that has opened its doors to us but has done little remodeling.
I chose Ruby Bridges’ story because the antiBlack smog in white society — aggressive and passive — is much easier to see just after integration was written into law. But the air quality is still bad in white spaces today, just in subtler ways.
In her book I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, Austin Channing Brown describes the many ways she was othered as a Black woman in a typical workday in a predominantly white, faith-based institution. Everything from people being surprised she works at her office, to being reprimanded for refusing to let a colleague pet her hair, to having her ideas in a meeting dismissed until a white person repeated them for the group.
Funny thing is, I’ve experienced a version of every single one of those instances. And I know many other Black people have, because they’re not random occurrences. They’re patterns of everyday life for those navigating a world built for whiteness as Black people.
She writes: “It’s difficult to express how these incidents accumulate, making you feel undervalued, unappreciated, and ultimately expendable.”
Studies show that experiences like the ones I’m describing are psychologically harmful to Black people.
The Center for Health Journalism explains that these “brief and commonplace daily verbal, behavioral, or environmental indignities, whether intentional or unintentional, that communicate hostile, derogatory, or negative … slights and insults,” have been correlated to elevated levels of depression, trauma, suicidal ideation, heart attacks, and even early deaths in some communities of color.
In her article How Racism and Microaggressions Lead to Worse Health, Gina Torino writes:
While individuals may not openly discriminate against people of color, they may engage in acts such as avoiding eye contact on the street or making assumptions about someone’s intelligence or mental state. This subtler type of discrimination also negatively impacts health outcomes…described as “death by a thousand cuts.”
The Tests White People Give Us
The work of sociologist Glenn Bracey is crucial to understanding what happens when Black people are inserted into predominantly white space.
After conducting research at seven white, evangelical megachurches, Bracey concludes that white evangelical space is first and foremost white institutional space — that is, it’s space whose first priority is to serve the interests of whites.
White evangelicals are interested in preserving their space as white institutional space, he explains, non-white people are welcomed into these spaces insofar as they are willing to collaborate in that project.
White people in these spaces issue what he calls “race tests” to discern how willing people of color are to serve the interest of whites there.
The incident I described during my time at RELEVANT was an example of a race test. As managing editor, I decided we’d post an article every day in February for Black History Month.
The question “What about people who aren’t interested in that,” from the CEO, and his attack on my leadership (“So you’re just making decisions now?”) sound just like the stories I read in Bracey’s study. I failed the race test by pushing back on the CEO’s microaggressions and lost all decision-making authority as a consequence.
This is the problem that King, Carmichael, and Brother Malcolm were highlighting: that if you integrate into white society, but whites maintain the same societal arrangements that preexisted integration, then racial “unity” is really just assimilation into dominant white culture. It actually maintains white supremacy.
All definitions of harmony in such a context serve the interests of white dominance.
In white America, “unity” is a summons for Black Americans to collaborate with white Americans in fulfilling their interests. “Peace” is the demand that Black Americans shut up about existing power imbalances and injustices. And “love” is the demand that Black Americans adhere to the boundaries and excuse anti-Black violence. It’s a matrix of racial oppression built on the illusion of colorblind egalitarianism.
I’ve shared elsewhere that, while working at RELEVANT Media Group, I spent 8 weeks dealing with serious bouts of suicidal ideation every Sunday afternoon, because I didn’t want to go back to work on Monday and experience more antiblack slights and resistance.
I’d picked up my entire life, moved across the country, on the invitation to lead — only to be treated as a token Negro. For a while, I felt trapped.
I’d park my car in the lot by the office and pull out a book of Langston Hughes’ poetry, and read “I, too, am America.” I dressed in those words, like armor, then report for duty.
The picture I’m trying to paint is that being together isn’t automatically good. Where white people are not addressing the mundane antiblackness of Amerian society, togetherness is often violence.
Will It Ever Change?
The month that has passed since I posted Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group, I’ve had many conversations about what kind of hope is reasonable to have for white evangelical institutions and leaders.
In those conversations, it’s been said over and over again, “If RELEVANT gets this right, they could be an example to the entire white evangelical world.”
The subtext in that statement is thick.
First, it implicates the many institutions and leaders in the white evangelical ecosystem where the problems I highlighted at RELEVANT also exist.
You’d hate to know how many Black people would like to come forward about the antiblackness at some of the largest churches, non-profit organizations, and media platforms that are owned and led by white evangelicals, but are prevented from doing so by an NDA — or they’ve already tried but no one paid them any attention.
I’ve run out of room to tell you what it was like interviewing at Northpoint Church in Atlanta once they found out I was lugging a boulder around to protest racism (“We’re a large church, Andre. And the way we stay large is by avoiding topics that might offend people [like racism]”).
There’s no space to elaborate on the irony of Erwin McManus’ attempt to publicly intimidate me for critically engaging his comments about Black Panther.
I’ve run out of space to share the stories of my brothers and sisters of color who left Hillsong LA after an arduous struggle to get them to pay attention to the needs of Black and brown congregants — and the white rage they were met with from high leadership in the Hillsong franchise (see the screenshot below for the receipts on this).
I hope there’s no need to unpack why Bethel’s Bill Johnson doubling down on the noose graphic — after seeing how many Black people it upset — was harmful.
I’m just trying to illustrate that this problem is pervasive.
You’d hate to know the way so many white evangelical leaders talk about Black people when they think they’re in closed quarters. You’d hate to know how these institutions dismiss the lament and needs of Black people on a regular basis, with the exact same rhetoric you’d hear in any other secular institution.
Because we’re not just talking about the Robert Jeffries of the world. We’re talking about your favs. And many of your favs don’t want to hear it.
The second implication in the statement above conveys — yet again — Black America’s willingness to believe in white America, to give it the benefit of the doubt, to dream redemptive futures for it.
Black Americans have been doing this for generations. The most famous of them being Dr. King, who dreamed of the day when “little black boys and little black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers.”
But as King continued to fight for racial justice, his high hopes for white America’s transformation seem to have waned. In a 1967 interview, King says some of his “old optimism” was a “little superficial” and says he fears that his famous “dream has become a nightmare.”
King emphasized that he hadn’t given up hope, but that his hopes were tempered by realism about white America’s apparent lack of interest in rearranging American society required for racial justice.
I’ve heard many people express hope that RELEVANT will navigate this whole upheaval well — that the CEO will make amends with those he’s harmed, that they’ll establish structures and systems to protect workers in the future, and that they’ll restructure the company to share leadership — that is, power — with people of color.
And I’ve heard from people who’ve known him much longer than I, and who’ve interacted with him over the past month, who have expressed just how unlikely that type of fundamental change is.
Writing a public statement of apology, for no particular instances of racial insensitivity to no particular people, is easy. But restructuring one’s business to be accountable to marginalized people is a different thing altogether.
Reports of how seriously recent events are being taken by the leader in question vary depending on the source.
I prefer to listen to those who he doesn’t feel the pressure to impress, and they describe the boss as “unrepentant,” not taking this seriously, and still expecting it to “blow over.”
I believe them.
One of these people, whose identity I must protect, recently asked me “How far are you willing to take this? Are you willing to let this blow over?”
Initially, I said I’m not willing to that happen. But after more thought, I realize that it already hasn’t. This protest has been more costly to RELEVANT than the public knows.
More importantly, I’ve realized that trying to twist white America’s arm has often been a recipe for burnout. Some people may be called to snatch reluctant whites from the fires of antiblackness. Not me.
I feel it’s my role here to simply tell the truth. If Mr. Strang wants to skate by, by doing the bare minimum to alleviate bad press, then that’s his business. I’m not going to police this entire process for him.
I’m just going to name what we already knew: many white evangelical leaders and institutions don’t want to do what is required for true racial justice.
Endless conversations and panel discussions — led by white men — aren’t what’s required. Token Black guest speakers and worship leaders aren’t what’s required. Diversity in marketing videos and public-facing media isn’t what’s required.
What’s required is a revolution. An actual revolution, where power arrangements change, not the kind of “revolution” that is only a synonym for “excitement.”
Those who aren’t interested in such a revolution should be honest about it. But that kind of honesty would be damaging to their brands. They must at least appear to be not-against racial progress.
It’s time for us to be clear about who these organizations and leaders are so that Black people and people of color can make informed decisions about who they work with.
The Ongoing Black Exodus
With all of these things considered, it makes sense that I’m encountering more spaces like the Black Sabbath I described at the top of this piece.
I used to think that separation was a hateful idea, but living through the Black Lives Matter era has me thinking differently about Malcolm X’s words when he said:
“The Black people in this country have been like a misfit wife married to the white man here who hasn’t treated us right. And today, since we have given up all hope of him ever-changing, we want a divorce.”
If integrating into white spaces is hurting us, and white people won’t listen to us and adjust, leaving those spaces is common sense. The more I think about the problem I’ve expressed here, the more I’m convinced that an exodus is a legitimate — even healthy — solution.
By an exodus, I mean a walkout on white institutions that express more commitment to tiptoeing around white America’s antiblack sensibilities than to pursuing equity for all people. I mean a walkout on white institutions that always find some excuse to not go hard for Black lives.
This is not about shunning white people. In the biblical Exodus story, a “mixed multitude” leaves the oppressive imperial state of ancient Egypt. I believe a mixed multitude, including white people, must also leave the structures and ideologies of whiteness behind. The hope for white leaders and institutions is to walk away from whiteness — join the exodus.
To be sure, all the problems of community aren’t resolved just by creating all-Black or POC-only spaces. Even Wakanda has it’s problems. But it’s much easier to be heard there.
Every Black person already has to decide how they will navigate this antiblack society. There are many possible routes to choose through this terrain. Fighting to transform white spaces into truly equitable, integrated spaces is one.
But there is also the option to build more spaces where Black people and People of Color can imagine and build organizational models that are different from the ones that have harmed us, where we can have real decision-making power, and where whiteness doesn’t have the final say.
I’m going to build one.