December 19, 2019
Middle-aged White Male
In working together on church, justice, and cultural work, Jess and I (Leroy) have had many conversations in airports and walks as we travel and do conferences. I asked him to write a letter specifically to his demographic of middle-aged white men about their work in these spaces. Here is our blog:
Dear Middle-Aged White Men in the Ecclesial or Justice Work (a letter to myself),
Nothing in our professional training or lived experience has set us up for this. It is not an excuse though. We have been enculturated to believe we are at the center of all things. The gravity of our opinion on any subject has been affirmed in most settings and engrained into our sense of self. We have very few experiences that have taught us to need to take a seat or be a learner on things we are passionate about. The work ahead is the painful work of being re-enculturated and unlearning some pretty foundational ideas.
It may feel like the world has moved on without us. It may feel like there is a reverse of privilege as the industry that formerly propelled hard-working white men looks to diversify. It is easy to blame others without looking in the mirror at some hard truths.
- The people of color around us are more qualified for ecclesial or justice work because they have real lived experience on the margins. Justice and ecclesial work need leaders who speak with, for, and through the language of the margins. We may literally not speak the language.
- But there is still a vital role for us and we can still be our full self. Just not our full unexamined privileged self. We can feel free to use the fullness of our leadership, giftings, creativity, and even privileged connections to fully support the work of ecclesiology or justice. However, we earn this freedom upon understanding our privilege in and through the conversation with the dynamic people of color around us. Nothing is worse that believing we are on ‘the team’ fully supporting the work while doing it from our privileged positions and assumptions. Trust me. We will hurt people. The natural question may be, “how do we know that we are working from privileged positions and assumptions?” Here is the answer…We are….We always do….We cannot do otherwise. They key is asking a lot of questions to the key people around us about how they are experiencing us.
- There are other middle-aged white people who can help. You or I are not the first person trying to do the hard work of self-examination in a cultural milieu that venerates us.
People of color call this “doing the work”. Ideally that work is aided by finding persons of color to mentor or walk with us. However, they are not obligated to say ‘yes’ to our invitation. For good reason. Working with culturally underdeveloped middle-aged white people on culture work is exhausting. Also, there is a lot of middle-aged white men, too many for folks of color to work with. So we need to do our work; read marginalized voices, listen to podcasts, watch the documentaries. With content as ubiquitous as it is, there is no reason we cannot make strides by getting some understandings of the real lived experience and internal conversations from communities of color.
However, one of the things we have been enculturated to believe is that we can be an expert on something after doing it just once. We must fight off the temptation to ever see ourselves as a more of an authoritative voice on cultural matters than the people of color around us. At best hold the position that “I know enough to be dangerous.”
In closing I want to change the variable for a minute. Let’s imaging we wanted to start, lead or be active in a ministry related to veterans’ justice. Veterans are disproportionately impacted by homelessness, mental health challenges in the form of PTSD, marital struggles, etc. No matter what you do, no matter how much research you do, no matter how many informational interviews you do; you will never be more qualified than a lived veteran to speak into what is best for veterans. You have never struggled with the VA, never tried to go back to “life as normal”, etc.
Now, you may be reading this thinking, ‘no kidding’.
I would propose it is the same for ecclesial, justice, and culture work. Our organizations will probably never be multicultural with our privilege driving decisions. Our nonprofit will rarely reach its full missional impact with our privileged ideology making policy and strategic direction. Our churches will hardly ever cross the race divide with us as its senior leaders. We have never been veterans. We have only ever been civilians.
I know this can be tough to read. Nothing in the US American lived experience has set us up for success in this. Resist the temptation to see the work of ecclesiology or justice as “passed you by” or “too hard”. The world desperately needs better white people. The time is now to tell one another the truth. Hold on to one another as we learn a new posture together. We have to grow. As we do, we live into a more diverse and just field of work and ministry that begins with ‘doing the work’ ourselves and being transparent about the journey.
Leroy Barber & Jess Bielman