I had a conversation recently with a non-profit director regarding power in his organization. I pointed out how he, a white man, had a board made up entirely of white men, and a management team that was entirely white men. At that time, there were decisions being made by these white men that had profound implications for the people of color on staff in that organization – people who had no voice in the decision making process. His response was typical of many people who are essentially agnostic about systems, systemic racism (or any disease of large systems), culture, or society. Hyper-individualists are rarely able to “switch gears” in their thinking and recognize patterns across communities or groups. Or how those patterns may benefit some more than others. Or how they may be guilty of perpetuating that pattern. I would invite you to consider if there is a pattern at work in your ministry, workplace, your family or country. It doesn’t make you, or the team or community you are a part of “bad,” I am suggesting that you recognize it. Not much more. Back to my friend. His response was this:
“You don’t have to worry about that power stuff. Jesus is King. He is the one in charge.” After reflecting my initial question, he continued to say, “that whole power system stuff you’re talking about doesn’t apply here.”
It is always a sensitive situation, trying to figure out whether who is in charge is in charge on their merits, or whether there is a racial / cultural element in play. First, understand: it is always degrees of both. There are no un-cultural spaces in the world, anywhere, in all of human history. Everything is culturally conditioned, there is and will always be some cultural element of any situation, always, always, always.
Second, this is especially to my white brothers and sisters: Don’t go straight to your “internal defense lawyer.” I see the same kind of thing when people talk about climate change to someone who doesn’t believe in man-made climate change. There’s this silent, subconscious internal dialogue that goes 1) I’m not a bad guy 2) so I can’t be the cause of this bad thing. Don’t do that. You don’t have to get defensive, that’s not the goal of these kinds of conversations. You have the ability, as an empathetic human being, to consider and affirm that there is a less-than-perfect reality. Even narrowing it down to a situation, one could say, “Yes, the board of our organization is all white, affluent, conservative men. That is not ideal for an organization that values (name any other group, idea, etc).” Just acknowledging the unbalance will pour some water on the fire.
Third, and I think this is as important as any realization for a white person: You have so much power. That “internal defense lawyer” will say, It’s not my fault I am (insert merit here: more educated, more experienced, more skilled) and that no people of color are as good. In saying that, you have missed the point entirely. You have a crazy amount of power. More power than you realize, more than you can probably fathom. There are whole swaths of people who don’t have access to what you have access to (put a hold on the “why” conversation for now). You can go anywhere, do anything, say anything you want, walk into any room and be honored and respected and heard, beyond what an “other” would ever experience. If you were to somehow put on “power goggles,” or lenses that would visualize power dynamics for you, it would be obvious. But explaining power to someone with a lot of power is like explaining water to a fish. It’s really hard to see when you are swimming in it, when you were born in it, and when you are and will always live in it. Less than empathetic people can temporarily experience a loss of power, or even a power imbalance, but not recognize that other people live in 24/7, life-long powerlessness. I see a lot of white people inconvenienced by a pastor, politician, policeman, etc, abuse their power, and not turn around say, “oh I hope that I don’t do this to other people myself… let me think about that.” If you have been abused by a leader yourself, but turn around and do it to others, then you are a ridiculous person! If you can see this on an individual level, but are unable to see it happening on a community level, then you are willfully ignorant. Whole communities operate with the same power dynamics as individuals on the ground level, and almost always at the same moral level as their leadership.
What I am saying directly to the white community, and white leadership is, you have the opportunity to raise the moral and empathetic level of your whole community. A white church, for example, could recognize the massive amount of power and influence that community has and use it for goodness (or first, recognize how it is currently being used… maybe it’s been wasted with trifling things? Maybe it is already implemented in great ways?) There’s no such thing as power unused.
Power is always kinetic, it is always doing something.
If you get nothing else from this, just know that you have power. To my original example of the organizational leader saying “Jesus is in charge” (therefore it is okay that we have a bunch of rich white guys in charge) is ignorant to the most important reality in front of all of us. There is a massive power imbalance in our world, and whether or not we can or should do something about it, we have to talk about who has power and why.
(Stay tuned for my post on why some people have power and why some don’t)