Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, and the trend of “don’t call me racist!”

Tony Jones, Peter Rollins, and the trend of “don’t call me racist!” May 16, 2013

I’ve noticed a trend among white, straight, academic cis men in so-called progressive or emergent Christianity where calling someone racist, sexist, homophobic, etc. is a bigger problem than the existence of racism, sexism, and homophobia.

Emergent Christianity is a broad term, and progressive an even broader one, so I don’t speak about all people from all movements that use these words to define themselves. I want to make that clear before I move on, because I appreciate and benefit from much progressive Christian thought, and emergent Christianity helped me escape fundamentalism. But in many progressive Christian circles, I feel silenced, as a woman. Several people of color and queer people have told me that they feel the same way. This is why I talk about it.

It starts out with this idea that because a privileged man is educated, and because he is okay with women speaking in the church, isn’t part of the KKK, and doesn’t believe in ex-gay therapy he must an ally to all oppressed groups. The church/conference he attends or the blog that he writes on that has similar values must be a safe haven for all of these oppressed groups, too. When oppressed groups groups bring up the fact that they do not feel comfortable in Privileged Dude’s favorite spaces, or when they bring up the fact that they are underrepresented in these spaces, Privileged Dude refuses to see oppression as part of the problem.

Image via Manarchist Ryan Gosling Tumblr (click for link)

This is the part where Privileged Dude brings up his academic training and feigns blindness to race/sex/orientation/etc. He’s just concerned about “rigorous thinking!” You just don’t understand the Marxist sociopolitical ideology that informs his critique of theories that hegemonic paradigms invisiblize certain subjectivities! Oh, but you’re not educated enough to understand. Don’t worry. . . Privileged Dude will put it in simpler terms for you.

 Basically, “Don’t call me a racist/sexist/homophobe!” 

We see this in a recent article by Tony Jones, entitled “I’m Tired of Being Called a Racist.” The title and the article itself says a lot, but his comments on the piece say even more. When one commenter talks about the problem of systemic racism, Jones responds by saying,

Let’s work on dismantling those systems. We can do so by 1)stop calling each other racists and 2) stop lecturing people who are just like us.

Good news, people of color. Tony Jones has single-handedly solved racism. You all can go home now–Tony’s got this.

And it turns out, people of color, that YOU were the cause of systemic racism the entire time! Who’d have thought? If only you’d quit naming your oppression and speaking your mind, systems of oppression would just crumble to the ground!

Jones is also tired of being called a misogynist, as he states at the end of his piece. He’s not the only one. I once critiqued author Peter Rollins for his stance on what he calls “identity politics,” saying that his idea that “rigorous thinking” (as defined by white men, of course) is more important than inclusion (because, let’s face it, women can think as rigorously as humanly possible and still be dismissed by men as “too emotional” and “shallow”) made me feel like I was still a second-class citizen in the church.

After he blocked me (calling me “cute,” because he totally respects me as a fellow academic Update, Peter Rollins claims in the comments that this was a misunderstanding. I’m not totally convinced that his words weren’t extremely disrespectful, but I thought it’d be fair to direct you to his side of the story), he told a friend of mine that he could not converse with me because I’d talked about sexism my critique, saying,

“Sorry. But when ppl use words like ‘sexist’, ‘racist’, ‘homophobic’ etc. they preclude reasonable debate.”

What’s with this idea that it is calling someone a sexist or a racist or a homophobe that is the problem? These are people who claim, vehemently, that they are not sexist, racist, or homophobic. People who consider themselves progressive, contrast themselves with fundamentalist tendencies toward blatant misogyny, racism, and homophobia.

You’d think hearing someone direct the word “racism” toward them would be a wake-up call. A reminder to practice the humility that they preach, do some introspection, and repent so that they could continue building the radically inclusive kingdom of God.

But so often, it’s not.

So many (and again, not all) privileged people (and, honestly, though I focused on two dudes in this piece this often includes privileged white women as well) who claim to be progressive Christians act like they want a world where everyone has a “seat at the table.”

But they want it on their terms.

They tell oppressed groups what they can and cannot say. They tell oppressed groups what words they can use to define their oppressions. They even dictate whether or not the experiences and thoughts of oppressed groups are valid.

They try to control oppressed groups, colonize their minds.

Yet they can’t understand what someone would accuse them of racism, sexism, or homophobia. It’d be funny if it were so sad.

Update: In case any of you are questioning my integrity, here’s a screenshot of my exchange with Peter Rollins. There may, as Rollins said, be a misunderstanding. But I think you can at least see why I was upset. 


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  • Thanks for this article. I’ve felt that urge to take my ball and go home when confronted by my own ingrained sexist, homophobic, or racist actions, words, or behaviors. What those encounters have shown me is that I may not intend to be sexist, racist, or homophobic but my ignorance reveals those lingering belief systems still at work. I have an alarmingly large amount of blind spots in how my actions and words affect those around me. I may not be intentionally racist, sexist, or homophobic but my ignorance has resulted in a fair amount of latent racism, sexism, and homophobia. As a result of this it seems to me that my place in the conversations about pointing out and dismantling structures of sexism, racism, and homophobia is not one of authority or leadership but one of active empathetic listener. To take the cotton out of my ears and stick it in my mouth. Then make amends when presented with the opportunity.

  • Let’s not forget this gem, when he tried to deflect criticism about emergent church’s whiteness by pitting queer people against people of color. As if folks who are both don’t exist.

    I don’t even think critiques that rely on “diversity” to talk about white supremacy or sexuality or gender are helpful, but even so, his responses are always so full of conservative notions of race and racism

    • sarahoverthemoon

      Sigh. He misses all the points.

    • Soong-Chan Rah

      You may want to pay attention to what got crossed out in the article. He essentially criticized my article without actually having read the article. Which to me would reflect the essence of white privilege.

  • This is good. I like in particular how it articulates the tautology that, because I am progressive, I can’t be racist/sexist/homophobic. Critiques from marginalized folks are taken instead as personal attacks. As a white male, I know I’ve been guilty of this–of responding first to such a critique with “I’m not a racist!” and only later considering, “Am I a racist?” If I truly understood the systemic nature of privilege, I wouldn’t react that way–instead, I would hear the critique for what it is and be reminded, above all else, to LISTEN and to check my privilege.

  • I remember that exchange with Peter Rollins. I have also had issues with him–he claims to only read (white) men on matters of feminism. I suggested he read some women in regard to what we consider important, and he said that women are biased and Christian feminists are too steeped in patriarchy. I had said nothing about reading “Christian feminists,” only about reading WOMEN. *sigh*

    I’m planning to write tomorrow about the rampant defense these people get whenever they put this garbage in writing and someone (rightly) complains about their bigotry. All day long I kept seeing people trying to defend both Tony Jones and his racism–everything from “but he’s nice” to “but he supports MY cause” to “there is REAL issues to solve so let’s stop talking about this.” My brain hurts.

    And thanks for the link, by the way.

    • sarahoverthemoon

      WOW. I missed that conversation. That makes me really angry.

    • I think I remember you talking about that, Amy. I still can’t believe someone would say that…

      But then again, I live in “progressive” and racist/classist Chicago…

    • Peter Rollins


      I would need to go over the conversation we had, but I just thought I should say that there is some kind of misunderstanding.

      It could well have come from me, I will go over the tweets, but I should say that I do happen to read woman on matters of feminism.

      It is true that I don’t read Feminism coming from within the walls of the Christian church (with the exception of Marcella Althaus-Reid – although I am not sure if she actually would have called herself a Christian), but that is the same about other topics as well (it is because, as part of the Radical tradition – and in no way progressive, despite what the article claims -, I don’t work within a confessional setting and thus take only a passing interest in confessional theology).

      The woman I happen to read include Butler, Daly, Cixous, Malabou and Kristeva. Indeed Malabou is widely regarded as one of the leading Hegelian scholars of our day and someone whose work I am knee deep in at the moment.

      The main worry I have about this article is the claim that I am privileged (a claim from someone who I think is a citizen of the biggest colonial power in the world!).

      It might not be known widely, but I am not American. Indeed I am from Northern Ireland and lived most of my adult life in one of the worst conflict zones in the western world. I attended Orangefield High (a working class school renowned for as a recruitment ground for paramilitaries), lived on unemployment benefits for many years and had a house in a working class loyalist estate called “The Village.”

      More than this I started Ikon in ‘The Menagerie” (a Republican – not in the US sense – dive bar) and most of the people involved in our group were working on the front line of reconciliation work (where many of their lives were in danger).

      Indeed when I did get a job I worked for the Simon Community Homeless Shelter on the infamous Falls Road.,_Belfast

      So when I read an article like this I want to invite the author to spend a month where I spent my adult life! I am happy to lend out the keys to my house as long as the heat is turned off on the way out!

      Also, as an aside, I never called Sarah ‘cute’. This is a totally false and baseless accusation and I have contacted Patheos about it.

      I can only assume the reference is to a tweet I wrote (not addressed to Sarah) which read,

      “Note to self: no matter how cute and hungry the trolls are, don’t feed them.”

      Even if this had been addressed to Sarah (which it wasn’t) this can not be read as calling someone ‘cute’ any more than it can be read as calling someone ‘hungry’, it is saying that someones actions are trolling.

      • sarahoverthemoon

        Alright, I’ll believe you. Though I’m still convinced that calling someone a troll, immediately tweeting afterward about how cute trolls are, and then blocking that person before they can respond, is what actually precludes reasonable debate.

        • And that was what led to my comments. I was pretty irritated at the whole 4-day discussion about the whole thing, which ended up feeling like talking in circles about who was in and who was out and why there are so many white, straight, cis men.

      • sarahoverthemoon

        Also, I think you’ve misunderstood the concept of privilege as I was referring to.

        • sarahoverthemoon

          I would suggest expanding your list of feminist reading to Patricia Hill Collins and bell hooks.

  • I’m a friend of Tony Jones that worked side by side with him during the peak years of Emergent Village, and I love him very much and respect most of what he has accomplished as a leader and voice in the broad emergence/progressive movement…but I have been waiting for some years to talk to him both privately and publicly about his utter lack of understanding white privilege and systemic racism, and the opportunity with his glaring post has finally come.

    He has the same problem all my friends and family from our conservative background share – no one wants to personally be called a racist and doesn’t think they are, because they don’t remember too many times of feeling negative towards people of color in their own hearts…but they have refused to see or listen to the many voices proclaiming the existence of institutional racism, and the so very many privileges it bestows upon them.

    I’m also a Privileged Dude (and I really like that new term you’ve coined), but I had the other privilege of having a group of friends and mentors of color who over five years schooled me, busted me, opened my eyes and loved me into seeing my white privilege every time it popped up. The reason I know that Tony and his bud Doug Pagitt still don’t get it is because they live in a super whitesville upper middle class area and they’ve simply never had this experience. Reading books can only take you so far.

    What I now know is that my privilege has blinded me…and being so schooled doesn’t mean now I’ve “made it”, it means now I know that I continually have to shut up and listen whenever a person of color is talking and that I need to continually see whole big areas I previously didn’t see. It’s never ending. It’s like being an alcoholic and you know you continually need help to overcome and so you set up a system, with a sponsor and regular meetings attendance in your schedule. You know your one bad choice away from destruction, so you plan out your humility in advance.

    Tony simply does not get this yet. And that post was like a blazing neon sign advertising his deficit, and also that of a big part of the emerging church mostly white male community.

    If you’ve been around this movement, you may remember Sojourners Magazine back a few years had a cover with a box of crayons, and they were all white colored crayons…and the tagline of the cover article…”Is Emergent Village too White”? Well I can tell you that the big three of Tony, Doug and Brian Mclaren were all totally pissed off by that article. And that was right when I was in the midst of my friends schooling me as I shared above, and I could see so clearly how they didn’t see what I was learning at that time. The answer to that article’s question was a most definite resounding, “Yes!”, we were to white. But even though the after affects of that article cost me cold solid cash and caused me career losses…I was happy to endure them as an ally…that question remains as strong as ever within this broader movement, and I’m glad Tony’s glaring ignorance has re-stoked this discussion.

  • After my first stint with anti-racism training, I called a close relative a racist. We didn’t talk for about a year. What racism as a word means to those involved in the struggle and what it means on the outside – those we want to join us I might add – is VERY different. I am saying “a person who takes their white privilege as a right and does not notice it.” They hear “a cross burning, black hating, KKK member.” It is a hard conversation to have.

    I’ve also had to come to terms with the fact that I believe that I am only a recovering racist. It is hard to get rid of all the socialization that I received in my school, my home, my church, and my TV. It is especially hard for those of us who took Texas State History in the 7th grade and took part in racial integration of the schools in Florida. The first taught me to be a Confederate and the second was executed very poorly indeed.

    We need to find ways to talk to each other that does not allow someone to just say, “I’m not a cross burning hater and so therefore I am not a racist.” We all need to define our terms. We need to speak still respecting the dignity of those we wish to convert. You cannot convert someone who will not speak to you. Then we might see that Beloved Community that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. longed for and spoke so eloquently about.

    We must NOT allow this discussion to be sidetracked nor allow ourselves to be silenced. Racism remains one of the largest “birth defects” of our country. Unequal access to education, unequal access to the halls of power, unequal access to capital, all of these persist.

    Words are important. I think we need to use them with the innocence of doves and the cunning of serpents. Then, we might make progress.

    • Phule77


      I think that it’s important to discern the difference between “saying this particular thing” or “doing this particular thing” or “having this particular bias be invisible” is a racist thing, without that making that person be a racist, or a misogynist, or a homophobe, or whatever.

      If I’m a homophobe, then I beat Matthew Shepard to death and enjoyed it. That’s what you’re saying about me. It may not be what you mean, but it’s certainly what you’re communicating.

      If I’m a misogynist, then I’m the sort of person who abuses, rapes, and demeans women, and prefers when they were disposable property.

      If I’m a racist, then I’m a cross burning person who despises anybody whose skin color doesn’t match mine. Etc.

      And living in AR as I do, where racism is alive and well…

      When you say that I am something, you have identified all of me, everything I am, everything I will be. When you say a particular behavior or thought process is something…I can change that. We can talk about it. We can work through it.

      Not everybody thinks this way. But I’m not sure we can afford to assume that anybody uses words the same way we do, unless we have a relationship with them and know how they think.

      I see a lot of people very concerned that various authors and speakers within the Emergent conversation are too white, too privileged. I would venture that the people these folks are investing most of their time in talking to are mostly white males from the Evangelical side of things… to them, that is the world, that is the conversation, despite the fact that so much of the world falls outside of that body.

      If we trap ourselves into believing that unless they see our issues and talk about them, they aren’t validated…we’re selling ourselves short. You don’t need them, particularly. Do you?

  • Marta L

    I’m not going to defend either Tony or Peter here – I’ve only read the main past on Theoblogy but not the comments, and I don’t even think I was around for the exchange at Peter’s blog. I suspect that most people (myself included – I’m a woman but also a middle-class, white child of the suburbs…) have degrees of racism, sexism, homophobia, etc. that goes unrecognized. Some of us have more than others, obviously.

    That said, and based just on the main post over at Theoblogy, I actually think Tony has a point. As I understand him, his argument seems to go something like this:

    1) Tony has examined a certain theology typically identified with certain ethnic minorities. He has found it lacking in whatever areas he looks for in a theology – coherence with Scripture, ability to sustain a good ethic, coherence with the best science or philosophy, whatever. At least on a conscious level, this isn’t motivated by racial bias – he simply doesn’t agree with the theology as a theory.

    2) Tony then put forward criticisms of the theology in academic venues. He explained the things he expects a good theology to do and showed how the theology he’s criticizing doesn’t match up. He didn’t say anything overtly racist – he didn’t say “this is wrong because people of color developed it” or “only people of color would hold this view” or anything of the like.

    3) In response, people of color said this criticism was racist.

    Now, Tony may well be racist. He may be a misogynist, too. But it bothers me when someone sets out an academic point in an academic venue and instead of answering the point, you call them a racist. That’s shutting down debate. It’s saying the concern they have doesn’t matter, that it can’t be discussed even in this context.

    These academic discussions shouldn’t be suppressed, of course. But the thing is, I’m not just a woman and white and middle class, etc. – another part of me is an academic. I’m a doctoral student in philosophy, which means that aside from questions of racial oppression and sexism and classism and privilege, I honestly think discussions about the academic merits of a position matter. When you say that certain theories cannot be criticized on those grounds in any context whatsoever, I start to feel silenced. And in this culture, being interested in an academic exchange of ideas puts you in a minority as well.

    That’s the problem with calling someone a racist, even if they are one. It delegitimizes the whole conversation they’re trying to take part in, and others interested in those conversations (read: me) end up being shut out as well.

  • I think that owning up to privilege is extremely difficult, but in doing so, it helps us examine our own biases. I’m white, pretty, and from an upper-middle class background. I hide my bisexual orientation under the guise of straight privilege, and if you look at me, you assume total able-bodied privilege because Crohn’s is an invisible illness. Thus, most of the time, I enjoy straight & able-bodied privilege too. It does not feel *good* to have your privilege and your bias pointed out to you, but having these doesn’t make you a bad person… Ignoring them, especially when pointed out to you… I won’t say it makes you a bad person, but you’re not winning any good person points. I have to fight my inherent racism every single day, and when I have a particularly racist thought, I chastise myself pretty severely. I’m not that great at feminist intersectionality, but I’m working on it. If we all actually own up to our privilege and bias, and work to overcome that, then we might actually make a few steps towards equality.

  • This is really good stuff, Sarah. I see what you describe so clearly in personal relationships, self-identified progressives (and, sometimes, self-identified feminists) who have read all the right stuff but who can’t even see fit to treat other women they work with as equals.

    (And, in some of the examples you describe here, haven’t even read the right stuff. Christian feminists have been doing amazing work. Hell, evangelical feminists are still doing amazing work. Letha Dawson Scanzoni and Virginia Mollenkott, foremothers of the evangelical feminist movement, completely transformed my understanding of gender, of self, of God, but I guess they are to be disregarded because they come from within the church? Is the same disregard given to male theologians writing from within the church?)

    • sarahoverthemoon

      I’m so frustrated by the dismissal of Christian feminists. So frustrated. Especially since Christian feminist theologians have been talking about, oh let’s say the idolatry of God long before the emergent church came around. 😉

  • Bingo. I see a major reason (ironically) for what you describe as a lack of sociological imagination/perspective for distinguishing between individual and systemic racism. In its absence, individualism prevails – even among highly educated progressives. This is no surprise in the context of US culture, or for anyone coming out of evangelical Christian sub-culture, which is hyper-individualized. I’ve found the books by Tim Wise and Allan Johnson on this topic very helpful in facilitating my own and others (still) growing understanding, along with Jay Smooth’s humorous “How to tell someone they sound racist” video. Thanks for your words!

  • Emerging Christian

    Sarah, this is a fantastic article. My friend Becky Garrison sent me the link. I’m dealing with similar bullshit in the little hipster-Christian circles I still dip my toes in.

  • mskathykhang

    I’m late to the party but grateful for your voice. A few years ago there was a little incident with a few emerging/emergent/Privileged Dudes and a little book I will call DV, and I will never forget how many White Christian men and women essentially told me that I was being too sensitive about the faux-Chinese calligraphy and images of geishas and ninja warriors in a book about Christian leadership. Clearly the authors could not be racist nor could the material be considered racist because their intentions were Christian. Oh, and a lot of people liked the book. And my calling out the authors caused financial loss.

    It makes me wonder if racism will be more difficult to overcome in the Church than in the scary secular world.

  • mhelbert

    Thank you.

  • I am an old white guy. As a young adult in the 1960s, I was very racist and quite sexist and homophobic as well, but I have spent most of the past 40 years trying to recover. I no longer consider myself racist, sexist, or homophobic. However, if I am called out on any of these issues my response is to discover what is meant by the objection and listen in all humility to the answer.
    It is not my job to tell a racial minority, a female, or a gay person how they should understand what I say; it is my place to understand how they hear what I say and change my language or attitude if necessary.

  • Darla Blair

    # !, we ALL see color. When I was in a bigger Midwest city visiting my sister, I saw a gigantic black guy go in a little store where I was headed, at night, I LEFT!!!!!! AND I AM BLACK!!!!!!!!! Listen if you are NOT a racist etc… you do not have to tell anyone, they will see it in your life, your conversation, your family values. Nuff done! You are so right, whites want equality on their terms, what are they so afraid of? that we might do to them what they did to us????HMMM makes you wonder

  • Darla Blair

    again, you hit the nail on the head!