Black Christians Deserve Better Than Companies (And Churches) Like Relevant Media Group
They’re not against us, but not for us either. The difference between the two is clearer in the abstract.
These were angry tears. After only three months at what I’d imagined would be my dream job at the largest Christian media company serving millennials in the U.S., I’d determined, in tears, there was no way I could stay there indefinitely. I promised myself, after that meeting, I’d quit once I’d completed a year at the company.
Just a few hours before, the editorial team at RELEVANT Media Group gathered in the bullpen for our weekly content meeting.
The purpose of the content meeting is to discuss what articles will be published to the website the following week, and to collaborate on headlines. When I was hired as Managing Editor, the content schedule was dropped in my lap to fill. I was asked to present 20 new articles I’d chosen for publication at this weekly meeting.
I’d developed some mechanisms to make the task of reading, curating, and editing 80 articles per month more manageable. One of those mechanisms was to use the regular calendar to generate ideas.
I’d reached out to indigenous Christians to write for “Native American Heritage Month” in November, to therapists and counselors to write about navigating family conflict for the holiday season, and pastors about Advent articles, and so on.
The content wasn’t always serious. I published some fun articles as well, like The Definitive Ranking of Thanksgiving Sides.
This approach seemed copacetic until that day in January when the leadership realized that I’d be using the same approach for Black History Month.
“Wait,” said Publisher-Founder-CEO Cameron Strang. “We’re going to publish something every day for Black History Month?”
“Yes,” I answered.
“Well, no one talked to me about it,” the boss complained.
I’d been working in this position for three months. This was how I had been trained to do the job: “fill this calendar.” I had done exactly as I was asked to do. A protocol that I would ask for permission to post articles related to a national commemorative season had never been established.
I shared that I was unaware that a request for permission was needed to commemorate Black History Month with the rest of the country.
He scrolled through February’s 28 days on the computer screen, and his lip curled as he looked at placeholders on each day for an article related to Black History. “What about people who aren’t interested in that?” he asked.
I answered that we’d already been doing the same thing in previous weeks, and I figured we’d continue to be intentional about making content that was both timely and centered marginalized groups at the intersection of faith, culture, and justice.
“Oh! So you’re just making decisions now,” he asked.
All of my subordinates and the Brand Manager attend the content meeting. So when he asked about me “just making decisions” as though that was not exactly what I’d been hired to do, as though my authority to do so was questionable, it was awkward for everyone. I didn’t know how to respond.
I wanted to be respectful. And I couldn’t think of a respectful way to say “Well, that’s what you hired me to do, isn’t it?”
So I bit my tongue.
He went on — about how we would “need to be careful not to waste editorial energy” and complained that “now we’ll have to post 7 or 8 articles per day” to offset posting one related to race for Black History.
The boss eventually stormed out of the meeting when I began to push back a little. That was end of discussion, the Black History Month project, and the beginning of the end of my tenure as a RELEVANT employee.
I would not make it a year, as I promised myself in tears later that night. I would quit after six more months, largely because of race fatigue.
The exchange I’ve shared was just one of many occurrences of oblivious racial insensitivity. It would take a book I have no interest in writing to convey all the ones I observed (and commiserated about with other employees who experienced the same). But I believe this exchange is emblematic of many white evangelical (and evangelical-adjacent) spaces.
“So *You’re* Just Making Decisions Now?”
At that moment, a seed of ambiguity had been planted about what I’d actually been brought to RELEVANT to do. Was I brought there to lead, to use my taste to shape the kind of content they published, to use my voice, as I’d been told?
Soon after that meeting, I was stripped of all decision-making power. I remained Managing Editor in title, but oversight of web content was given to the Brand Manager, oversight of magazine content was delegated to our Contributing Editor, and final say on video content was assumed by Cameron.
My role became that of an individual contributor and on-camera/on-air talent without a direct conversation with me about what was happening and why.
I remember sitting with leadership, before that January meeting, where they spoke to me about my leadership: “Your taste,” they said. “Your vision,” they said. They stopped talking that way after the Black History Month project.
I eventually came to feel like a token. I tried to rationalize that access to the platform was an opportunity to amplify a truly antiracist message. Perhaps that was true to an extent, I could express antiracist values to an extent. But that extent was to a white sensibility. If people like [insert rich white evangelical male leader] have the final say on how to pursue racial progress, there will be little racial progress.
I know of Black people who work within such spaces, exerting a great amount of energy and care to push white institutions toward racial justice by the inch, all in the name of “progress.” I respect their faith in white institutions, although I can’t share it.
I’ve come to accept that many young-ish, white, evangelical leaders with large platforms — be they podcasts, megachurches, media organizations, conferences, or even social justice campaigns — are simply not committed to being antiracist, but only in appearing non-racist, and they’re using us as props for the show. That is their right, I guess, as these platforms are literally their businesses.
“What about people who aren’t interested in that?”
Again, I didn’t know what to say.
At the time, RELEVANT posted upwards of 15 pieces of content every weekday, including the 4 new articles I was responsible for curating. I’ve done no quantitative studies on the matter, but my intuition tells me that every RELEVANT subscriber is not interested in every single piece of content that’s published each day.
The boss himself had pontificated on several occasions about how the 3 main subject areas of the company (God, Life, and Culture) draw distinct crowds that tend to mainly engage with each specific subject.
Moreover, when our Senior Writer suggested that we post an article every day about animated movies for “Pixar Week” (which happened a few weeks after this meeting) there was no such protestation, not even from me. Because I love Pixar movies.
So, what was different about Black History Month? I can only hypothesize, based on my experience.
When I began working there, I quickly discovered the organization wanted to avoid taking any strong stances that may be polarizing. “No D.C. stuff,” leadership messaged the editorial team, “We want to stay above the fray,” they said. It’s an understandable position. You don’t want to be labeled partisan if you’re not. There are times, however, when staying above the fray is still choosing a side.
In my experience, white evangelical organizations (including megachurches) suffer from the same unity fetish as the rest of America. They often employ centrist rhetoric about the alleged virtues of playing the middle.
Those in historically persecuted groups have no middle to speak of. There are people fighting for black freedom, and those who are fighting against it. Those who are staying “above the fray” are like someone patting themselves on the back for doing nothing to stop a lynching. Only one side of the fray appreciates this lack of moral courage, which raises the question, which side is RELEVANT playing to?
The answer is obviously their mostly white, male, conservative-leaning base.
For me, that explains the numerous occasions I watched the leadership refuse to take opportunities to serve their non-white audiences. It’s just not for us. We’re welcome to partake, but this is white content for white people.
That year, a brilliant and charismatic Black woman released a top-selling book about race that is changing the conversation about racism for many white Christians as we speak. As soon as I read the first line of her book, it was obvious that she’s an emerging voice on her way to much bigger platforms than RELEVANT. I pushed to have her as our featured author in the magazine. At first, it seemed like she was in. We told her people it was a go, only to have her bumped to the back of the issue in a 60-word blurb.
As the 50th year anniversary of Dr. Martin Luther King’s assassination approached, I pushed to write a story to show how racial progress has stalled, and how we could build a real movement to push Dr. King’s dream forward. I interviewed Bryan Stevenson, Melina Abdullah, and movement leaders. The story was turned into a 2-page spread that could never hold the story that needed to be told.
On the morning Trump had the gall to utter the phrase “shithole countries,” I had to twist the arm of the leadership to get the company to respond.
Are these the most egregious and hatefully racist actions you’ve ever heard of? No.
But an organization that chooses to miss key opportunities to amplify black voices, to risk losing white support for a principled praxis of antiracism, or that has to be dragged kicking and screaming to respond directly to white supremacy has told you where their priorities are. They’re not against us; Neither are they for us. The difference between those postures is just not corporeal in the bullpen.
The people who aren’t interested in black issues are irrelevant to a company truly interested in racial justice (unless that company is trying to interest those opposers in antiracism).
In the types of decisions I’ve listed, the boss made it clear that the company is content to settle for “a good mix of faces” in their content rather than to play a significant role in addressing the white nationalism with which 81% of evangelicals has aligned itself.
“We’re going to waste editorial energy!”
I started working on gathering pitches for Black History Month in October because Black History Month hits at such an awkward time of the year.
Waiting until after the holiday season, leaving only the month of January to prepare, often makes Black History projects feel thrown together. I wanted to avoid that thrown-together feeling, so I started collecting and developing pitches before Christmas.
But curating the web content was only a quarter of my job. I was also responsible for editing and writing for the magazine and video, appearing on the podcast, developing a new product for church leaders, and running the Instagram account. I loved all of that though, especially developing web content. So I’d sometimes gladly commute to the office 2 hours early to start working. I wanted to execute all of my duties with the utmost quality.
It was ironic, then, that the boss “feared” we’d “waste editorial energy.” This was an excuse.
As I said, we already posted about 15 pieces of content every day — including small “slices,” four new articles, and several reposts of older content throughout the day. RELEVANT has 3 main content areas, meaning that the 4th slot for new articles was a wild card.
There was plenty of space in the schedule to simply insert the race article in that wild card spot without affecting the lineup. But the boss was seemingly in a panic, as though there was some kind of digital one-drop rule that could ruin the entire brand in just one month.
How could it ever be wasteful for the most influential media platform reaching young evangelicals to address the white nationalist revival that most American evangelicals have enthusiastically embraced during the Trump era?
It’s only wasteful if one underestimates the scope of the problem and undervalues efforts to address it.
Black Christians Deserve Better
I wrote this piece because some RELEVANT subscribers saw the company post their intention to release a podcast episode that will address racism in the Church. My initial thought was that it couldn’t possibly be a meaningful piece of content, based on my experience there.
After sitting with my thoughts and feelings about it, I disagree with my initial reaction. RELEVANT actually does publish quality content on a number of justice issues and has for many years, but it’s because the people they interview are brilliant.
Example: A Twitter-user replied to one of my comments about the upcoming podcast saying he recently heard a podcast where author Lisa Sharon Harper talked about “Jesus as an oppressed, indigenous person of color…” That’s a wonderful and needed message. But what else would we expect from Lisa Sharon Harper?
Likewise, if they interview Jemar Tisby, Ally Henny, Ekemini Uwan, Christina Edmundson, Michelle Higgins, Propaganda, Michael McBride, Bree Newsome, Otis Moss III, Austin Channing, and more it could be amazing. And they’re positioned to get that kind of caliber of guests.
But what does it mean for the same white people who are afraid to appear too supportive of black freedom, to overdo it for “people who aren’t interested in that,” to also use our Black abundance for brand credibility and profit?
It’s my opinion that RELEVANT should take responsibility for the way it has failed non-white Christians before it touches the race conversation again. Until they commit to being an antiracist organization, any attempts to address race are thin. The company is in need of the very information they wish to publish for others.
I don’t believe RELEVANT has malintent toward Black people. Many of the people I worked with are sincere and mean well. But Dr. King once said, about white America, “There is nothing more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity.” It’s possible to be both underinformed and harmful. So while I appreciate many of the people I worked with, I also have to identify some of them as part of the very problem they’re going to interview my colleagues about.
RELEVANT remains without excuse for the patterns of tokenization of black people and fetishization of racial justice efforts that characterize their work, and the harm it has caused to Black people within and outside of the organization. As long as they refuse to acknowledge this about their praxis, they’ll remain an unsafe environment for Black people and a collaborator in the racist status quo while giving themselves credit for being an ally.
But this is not a call-in to change for them.
I share this as the basis to a question to other Black, Jesus-tethered justice advocates. Why should we continue to enter these spaces where — as one of my brilliant friends has said — we are invited but not welcomed?