Every day when I wake up and get out of bed, I understand that—as a person of color leading a non-profit organization—I will be negotiating power. To survive and to thrive, for the ministry I serve to survive and thrive, I need to understand who the power brokers are within the various arenas in which I’m working. To do the job I was called and equipped to do, I must negotiate invisible power structures every day.
As a person of color, this isn’t anything new.
Navigating disguised, yet powerful, structures is the way that we’ve all learned to move in the world. But the ways in which this worldly system has permeated Christian non-profits is particularly wily. In Christian non-profits power is nuanced in such a way that its inequities aren’t readily evident. In fact it takes some honest hard work to dig below the surface to unearth them.
Here’s one example. At a conference or meeting, especially in evangelical circles, I’ll find myself in a room with mostly white folks. There may or may not be other people of color in the room, but we are typically in the slim minority. Even when the “leader” in the room isn’t identified by a name badge that says “leader” or isn’t holding a talking stick, most folks in the room will still give respect and authority to a white male. To be fair, they’re usually right. 85% of the time in evangelical circles a white person, male or female, is leading.
What is often less measurable is the pain that this evokes among the leaders of color in the room who are, by all measure, the organizational “equals” to those who are being formally and informally recognized as leaders. Inevitably, as I watch it unfold, I become aware of the power dynamics at work and notice the feelings it evokes in me.
1) I feel overlooked when my opinion is not sought on topics where I have more experience than white leaders in the room.
2) I feel disrespected, in my own workplace, when an employee who reports to me doesn’t ask for my sign off because he or she assumes they know more and therefore do not need my input.
3) I recognize a double standard put on me as a black male when it comes to being a visionary: regularly, I am openly criticized by white employees more than a white visionary who leads in a similar manner.
4) If I don’t have personal relationships with white folks, they won’t follow me. And yet the same folks don’t need a personal relationship—for a leader to “prove” his worth—to respect or follow a white leader.
5) Leaders of color are given little room to make mistakes. The grace given to white leaders is much greater.
6) Many senior leaders of colors—who have influence on white leaders, and play key roles in nonprofits—must at times take stands with which they do not agree for the sake of “supporting” their organizations or for fear of losing their jobs.
Though I wish I could report otherwise, the reality that our society has been socialized to see black men as “less than human” doesn’t magically evaporate because a man has been able to work his way into positions of leadership. Even I am not free of this poisonous racial bias. When I am disrespected or overlooked, I’m often tempted to doubt myself and wonder if perhaps I deserve what’s being said of me or done to me. Systemic racism is that insidious. Over the three decades I’ve been leading Christian ministries, I’ve heard similar concerns from other black men and women. Some have even privately wondered if we’d be more effective serving as second-in-charge!
Although it breaks my heart to acknowledge, disrespect toward leaders of color is actually the norm in the world of Christian nonprofits. I, and many others, face this rampant bias every day. We’re aware of subtle gestures and whispered side conversations that undermine our authority and leadership.
Behind the compelling mission statements, innovative strategic plans, dynamic videos and inspiring newsletters of Christian nonprofits is the same vicious racial bias that’s impacting every other sector of our world today. Many of us serving the church in these organizations are hurting and disillusioned.
The constant challenges are costing leaders of color our confidence, creativity and dignity. So, if #BlackLivesMatter, I encourage you to think about ways you can make that clear in your family, church, and organizational culture today. This isn’t just the responsibility of police officers. It’s something all of us need to work on.