These days of American cultural, political, and societal unrest has led to a lot of public conversations about individual rights, advocacy, solidarity, the use of one’s voice, power, policy, education, classism, and systemic structures and injustices.
I’m tired. Physically, spiritually, and emotionally exhausted from it all.
As an African American woman, none of these challenges or conversations are new to me. Given my education and professional background, it is quite normal to show up in spaces where I am the only or “few” (pick your minority group or diversity category) in a room filled with privileged white people. I don’t reference the latter group in a condescending fashion, just as a matter of fact. This reality is most noticed by me, and people who look like me, when there is a blindness to the lack of the “other”—diverse voices and presence, particularly among diverse, ethnic people groups—represented in a space.
This tiredness and weariness can lead to frustration. Frustration is birthed out of the majority group expressing a desire to learn (most of the time sincerely) and to have a conversation (often on the elementary level), without a willingness to: 1.) own and understand the power they have, 2.) do the hard work of educating themselves, and 3.) use their power to take real practical steps to change the realities that are crippling all of us.
When these three steps are not intentionally taken, white people (even those who desire to do what’s right) perpetuate a broken system where they are part of the problem, and indeed benefit at the expense of others. I recently observed this reality play out in two specific ways.
Last week, I had the privilege of attending a women’s history conference that focused on the heroines of the past, present, and future. With a few exceptions, most of the women featured in the conference line-up were leaders in the military, government, and corporate sectors. I was only made aware of the conference four months ago, so I reached out to one of the conference planners and asked the diversity question.
It was not until two thirds of the way through the conference that I understood why there was hardly any ethnic diversity represented. From the stage, I heard two messages loud and clear:
a.) “diversity of thought” is the goal (and apparently the new buzz phase concerning diversity in professional fields), and b.) maybe having a “critical mass” is not that important after all.
Hearing these statements from white women presents a huge problem for a Person of Color (POC) like me. These statements negativity impact us, and that is not evident when majority audiences don’t get to hear from people who have had my shared experiences and struggles (some of which includes racism on top of sexism) speaking into the conversation.
The Problem with the “Diversity of Thought” from the Powerful Majority
The championing of “Diversity of Thought” by a group of white people, is actually not at all diverse.
When having the diversity conversation, we must realize that throughout history and even today, “whiteness” or the white experience is the standard that everyone is measuring against.
This is the reason why black people can protest peacefully and have their patriotism called into question. Because, when we say the word “America,” what we really mean subconsciously is “white America.” So if a POC protests, it is presented as taking a stand against “[white] America.” They are exercising their constitutional rights but they are not patriots. On the other hand, if a white American were to protest peacefully, it might not even make the national news or trend on social media. If it did, the narrative would change because the media would apply different language, be apologetic, or offer excuses, but we would not question the white person’s citizenship or commitment to our country.
The same happens in the church with theology and evangelism. When scholars talk about orthodox theology or theology proper, it is the theology that has been defined by “white” men. It is necessary then to label other forms of theology in a hierarchy and in comparison to the theology that is acceptable to white men. This is why we have additional descriptions like liberation theology, black theology, and feminist theology. And when we say “evangelical,” what we really mean subconsciously is white evangelicals, when many POC like myself would identify with the traditional, not the political, understanding of the word.
Professor, author, and scholar, Soong-Chan Rah writes eloquently about how this lack of understanding has escaped American culture. Collectively, we have a distorted view concerning our value of diversity, especially multiethnicity. The two images he references in his book, “The Next Evangelicalism: Freeing the Church from Western Cultural Captivity” are: “The Great American Melting Pot” and “the salad bowl.”
“The melting pot image claimed that the vast array of rich and diverse cultures that make up America would melt away into an unrecognizable mass of cream of mushroom…Not everyone in America wants to have their unique cultural flavor melted away.”
“With the rejection of the ‘melting pot’ image came the advent of the ‘salad bowl.’ In the salad bowl, once again, the wide range of flavors was brought together. But the salad allowed for each vegetable to retain its flavor. Unfortunately, we often took this rich array of flavors and drenched it in creamy ranch [i.e. the dominating white experience]. The dressing overwhelmed and covered all of the other vibrant flavors.”
The conference planners checked their diversity box because they had people from different professional communities, and different branches of military service. They also had a good representation of generational diversity (though I don’t know if that was an intentional effort). They failed to see, however, that real “diversity of thought” must include the voices and experiences of those from ethnically diverse people groups. Otherwise, these images and postures continue to fail us, those in the majority people group continue in their blindness, and it won’t be long before their organizations falter and this blindness hits them in their pocketbooks. Maybe then they will be motivated to take real action and initiate change, but I’m giving fair warning that their change may be too little too late.
Maybe Having a “Critical Mass” is not all that Important
A quick definition of critical mass is “the minimum size or amount of something to start or maintain a venture.” Within the conversational context of the women’s history conference, this would mean having a minimum amount of women working in a professional space to initiate or impact real change.
This understanding “that maybe having a critical mass is not all that important” was mentioned multiple times by some of the panelists, many of whom were trailblazers and glass ceiling breakers in their respective fields. On one hand, I understand that no one should wait for a critical mass to initiate action, raise their voices, or become a first. However, this posture reeks of the fallacy of “pulling one’s self up by her own boot straps.” It’s a prideful posture and error of “I did it so you can do it too, just keep working hard.” The reality is that many minorities work hard and some are more qualified than their white male counterparts and do not get the same work experiences, opportunities, or access.
This is a privileged posture of those who have made it into the working system, and are just so glad for their position and career. It lacks the responsibility to steward their power and position for the benefit of others. Maybe this is why some say women are hard to work with, and maybe this is why some women work out of an understanding of scarcity rather than that of abundance.
As a WOC (Woman of Color), I understand that whenever I enter a predominately white space, I am representing myself and I am representing other black women to an audience that might not have intimate relationships with black people. This is my responsibility. It is also my responsibility and privilege to use whatever access I have to create space and opportunities for others, especially those who are underrepresented, but needed, in a professional space. I understand that this is my responsibility to my fellow sistas on the journey, and it is also my commitment to the next generation of leaders.
My black daughter needs to see women who reflect her in various leadership positions and career fields. The way young people know without a shadow of doubt they can do something, is when people who believe in them affirm that they can, equip them to thrive, model leadership for them, and then create space and opportunity for them to do so.
A lot of people are sharing the article about how Obama female staffers made their voices heard. This strategy would not have been possible if there was only one woman in the room. Is critical mass important? Absolutely.
So my challenge—as a WOC who understands the beauty and complications of forever being both black and woman—to my white friends and colleagues is this: do not take the easy route in the diversity conversation. Get smart. Use your power, and insist on diverse representation, opportunity, and fair payment of your brothers and sisters of color.