I don’t know if you’ve noticed, but white, American, evangelical spaces can be tough for women of color to navigate successfully. The very presence of women of color often lays bare how far these spaces (which are generally not created with us in mind) are from modeling the true—diverse—body of Christ. Much is asked of women of color in these spaces: we are asked to be patient and forgiving, gentle and gracious, long-suffering and kind, present and trusting. But we are all responsible for creating change, so I’d like to shift the conversation a bit and discuss how dominant culture might support the women of color in their midst.
1. Learn our names
Names are significant, weighty, and intentional. They have meaning. Our names are connected to our ancestry. They contain the prophetic hope of our parents. Yet, far too often, women of color are met with disdain, disbelief, or disinterest when they finish the sentence, “Hello, my name is...” Women of color are commonly subjected to awkward mispronunciations, unwanted nicknames, and even outright mockery.
For some women it is simply too painful to have their name butchered everywhere they go. They would rather it remain sacred and unspoken than handled haphazardly, so they offer an out: “It’s okay; just call me [fill in the blank].”
If she genuinely prefers a nickname, that’s great. Use it. But before you do, at least attempt to honor the name given her at birth. We must erase the myth that our discomfort over learning a name is more important than maintaining the full identity of our sister in Christ.
2. Offer women of color their own space
I know it seems counter-intuitive that homogeneous spaces would further the cause of inclusive leadership, but studies have shown this to be true. Consider for a moment how often leadership meetings, Bible studies, small groups, classrooms, and board meetings are all white, all male, or both. We don’t consider these “whiteness” meetings, but they are still filled with cultural nuances reserved for and privileging every white person in the room. If we are to truly honor the women of color among us, we will happily provide them spaces to be affirmed and loved in their own cultural language.
This might be a Bible study, a choir, an after-service brunch, or a self-care group. The possibilities are endless, but you must first be convinced they are necessary.
3. Recognize we are not genies in a bottle.
Far too often I have watched churches treat women of color like genies in a bottle. They are expected to carry their culture deep within, containing it, hiding it, reserving it. That is until the church has a “special service” when women of color are asked to suddenly showcase their culture with flair. After putting themselves on display for the audience to consume, they are expected to become “normal” (white) when the event is done. But this isn’t the best way to honor culture.
Culture is a way of being, a way of understanding and making sense of the world. Culture is a gift that can and should be infused into the life of the church. Women of color who speak more than one language should be free to express themselves bilingually. Women of color should be free to share the musicality of their ancestors more than once a year. Resist the desire to exoticize women of color. Their cultural gifting is invaluable to the life and habits of the church.
4. Stop using white men and women as the standard for success
If you have only had white, educated, affluent, suburban men or women in positions of power, it will be very tempting to compare women of color to your existing model of success. You must reframe this standard. We are different—our vernacular, our body language, our dress, our accents, our personalities, our hobbies and interests, the books we’re reading, the movies we’re watching, the sound of our voices, our cadence, our humor, and our expressions. Even the way our skin tones interact with the camera may be quite different from our white counterparts. Expecting us to perform in the same ways, with the same mannerisms is unfair. You must have reasonable standards, but make sure they are, in fact, reasonable, not cultural.
Be open and honest about your expectations and be willing to challenge them. Expand your definition of what it means to lead well. Learn to appreciate the diversity of thought, speech, and insight that women of color bring to the table.
5. Let us lead
I know this seems obvious, but you might be surprised at how often it doesn’t happen. Consider your organization. How often is a woman of color in charge of the meeting? How often does she set the agenda? How often does she determine the budget? How often is she planning the service? How often is she teaching? How often is she running the show? Is she truly leading, or is she the sidekick, best friend, or assistant?
Letting her lead is more than handing over the reins. It also means handing over resources she needs to lead well. If you want her to plan a retreat, give her a budget. If you want her to teach, give her a date, theme, and compensation. If you want her to lead the meeting, make sure she has access to the technology and tech support she may need, and if there are items you want her to cover, say so. Don’t expect her to read your mind. Set her up for success so that her leadership skills can shine.
6. Validate and address our concerns
Women of color who lead are often simultaneously one of few women leaders and one of few leaders of color. The heartbreaking words she hears in the hallways, in Sunday school, in board meetings, and in classes will be different from those that other leaders hear. When she comes to you with a concern, do not invalidate her. Respond with care and concern. Listen to her. Trust what she says, how she feels, and how she has interpreted the situation. Offer pastoral care for her soul.
After you give her pastoral care, after you tell her how valuable she is, and after you have restored safety, fix the problem! If a team is exhibiting racist or sexist behaviors, set up diversity training. If a specific person is not taking diversity seriously, add expectations to their performance review. If the congregation is not receptive to her, address it head on. If the curriculum is problematic, change it. Pastoral care is great. Fixing the problem is better.
7. Stand in the gap between the organization you want and the organization you have.
I am sure your organization has done a great deal of work to confront racism and sexism. Hours have been spent with every level of your organization expressing a vision for fully inclusive leadership. It has been hard work, but it’s not done yet. Women of color in white-dominant spaces are still navigating situations that no one else experiences in the same ways or with the same consistency. These situations must be addressed continually.
Who responds when people tell her “women can’t preach” just before she goes on stage? Are you responding to the emails that tell her what she wore was inappropriate or distracting? Do you correct people when her name is mispronounced in the introduction? Who responds when she is called “colored,” “oriental,” “wetback,” or any other racially charged term? Is there a process for her to report racial or sexual harassment? Address the gaps between the organization you envision and the realities of where you are today.
8. Hire more
It is really hard to be the only woman of color on the team, in the department, on the board, in the classroom, or on the stage. It can be very lonely and isolating, and comes with a great deal of pressure. If you believe there are many other brilliant women of color like the one in your midst, alleviate the pressure and isolation she feels by hiring more talented women of color.
9. Expect the staff to adjust to us as much as you expect us to reach out.
It is common for women of color to be expected to assimilate to some degree into the organization—to learn the lingo and acronyms, to learn the history and structure, to understand the vision for the future, and to be a “team player.” These are not unreasonable expectations, but she should not be the only one expected to cross cultural boundaries. The rest of the staff should be expected to create an atmosphere of welcome and belonging. They should be expected to question unconscious bias individually and, more importantly, as a group. Stretching beyond what has always been done, they must create space for her to express herself naturally, free of judgment.
10. Create a library
Unless she has been hired specifically to talk about race and gender all day, she can’t be the only place for people to learn about being politically correct. She can’t focus on planning events, grading papers, writing a sermon, teaching a class, or leading the board meeting if every few seconds she is being asked about her identity. Your members need a space to ask questions and make confessions. You need a library.
This may be a literal library. It might be a resource page on an internal website. Perhaps you’ll want to create trainings, classes, or small groups to address questions. But limit the time she has to spend fielding random questions about race or gender. If she does step out of her role to be a diversity beacon for the organization, please pay her for her time, and then get to work on that library.
This list is, of course, woefully short. It cannot encompass the diverse experiences of all women of color. Nonetheless, it’s a start. I hope it offers a foundation for action, even if the support structures you build look very different from these. May the Holy Spirit speak far more clearly than my words as you work to fully embody Christ of the nations.