Being White in the (White) Faith and Work Movement

“The American ideal of racial progress is measured by how fast I become white.” James Baldwin

As a white person I’ve never been very cognizant of my complexion—I’ve always just blended in; in my white family, my white neighborhoods, my white college, my white workplaces, and my white churches. It’s never been a matter of reflection because it’s all seemed so normal, so unremarkable.

The same is true with my membership in the faith and work movement, also a white context. A quick review:

  • The authors who write the books we purchase and read are mostly white
  • The guests who speak at our conferences and other events are mostly white (although I perceive a little more diversity here)
  • The “founders” of the faith and work community are mostly white
  • The directors, presidents, and other leaders of our organizations, steering committees, foundations, and governing boards are mostly white
  • And of course, I am white, and I participate, contribute and benefit from this community as well

To be clear, the “faith and work movement” to which I refer is a certain loose network of organizations and individuals—such as Made to Flourish, Oikonomia Network, Denver Institute for Faith and Work, and Opus: The Art of Work (where I work). Anyone who has attended the conferences I’ve attended or studied the faith and work authors with whom I’m familiar shouldn’t have any ground to disagree. The pervasiveness of skin the same shade as mine is clear for all to see, but let’s look in more detail and break down the numbers.

Our reading habits can serve as exhibit A. Out of curiosity, I counted books in the exhibitor area of a faith and work conference I recently attended—97% were by white, non-Hispanic authors, mostly male. This, in a country where 39% of individuals are people of color and/or Hispanic and where roughly one third of businesses are owned by people of color.

More personally, I scanned the 104 “faith, work, and economics” books in my collection—turns out I can count on one hand the number authored by persons of color. If I do some creative mental maneuvering and stretch the “faith and work” category, I can include other topics such as community development, cultural stewardship, and labor-related sociology. Then I run across more diversity (e.g. John Perkins, Makoto Fujimura, and William Julius Wilson are all authors represented in these sections of my library).

To be sure, there are persons of color who speak and write out of the context of our particular community—there are a few that come to mind off the top of my head. But while I’m unspeakably grateful for these men and women, don’t these exceptions prove the rule?

When you consider the founders of the faith and work movement, the case builds. At another conference a few years ago, a series of individuals were recognized and celebrated as pioneers of the movement—R. G. LeTourneau, Pete Hammond, Howard Butte, Wayne Alderson, and Bill Pollard—all of them (while admittedly remarkable people) are white males.

What’s more, as I think about the key figures who hold formal positions of leadership in the faith and work movement—they sit on steering committees, lead organizations, and curate our blogs—the vast majority of them are white too, as am I – and I am an Assistant Director in my institute. A well-known faith and work organization lists their thought leaders online: at the moment there is 1 person of color out of 10. Another conference I ran across was planned by a 100% white leadership team. And I’ll pause here to observe that while diversifying a conference with speakers of various backgrounds is good, diversifying the leadership team guiding the conference is also good; we should do that too.

Why is this important? I’ll offer one reason (among several) why this racial imbalance in our community might be a problem: the faith and work community needs to learn from diverse populations with different experiences and perspectives. Without an sincere interest in discovering what we don’t already know, our theologizing will be more and more encoded around our (white) cultural experiences, categories, and concerns. Our experts will all sound alike, and we’ll wake up one day and discover no one else is listening.

Is there anything wrong with an author, or a speaker, or a leader who is white? Nope. But doesn’t a movement with nearly total white leadership and authorship have a problem, especially if we aspire to speak broadly applicable words of faith about such a universally relevant but profoundly varied theme as work? In other words, if the faith and work movement seeks to produce value for most or all people willing to listen, then it must be transformed by the inclusion of people of color and other groups with different histories and frames of reference at every level of the movement, from organizational leadership to conference attendance and everything in between.

And if not now, in the age of Ferguson, Black Lives Matter, and Colin Kaepernick, when the racialization of our society is so clear, then when?

Asking what we don’t already know is a naturally scary question, bringing with it the possibility of discomfort, frustration, or otherwise. But of course the question is greatly worth pursuing. But, here’s the rub—you can’t answer this particular question for yourself. You need someone else for that. The faith and work movement needs the benefit of wider perspective, something we will gain as we open ourselves to greater diversity in the books we read, the speakers we invite, and the leaders we follow.

And what I am observing about the movement in general is true for me as well. I’ve begun seeking out the wisdom and insight of my brothers and sisters of color.  I’m asking questions I’ve never asked before.  I’m looking for and reading authors I’ve never read before (some I’d never even heard of until recently). I’m hoping to learn, to be challenged, to gain perspective on ways I am privileged, at work and beyond, by my skin color. And I am aware that I might discover ways I am called to give up certain spoils of privilege, which could feel like a loss. I’m not actually sure what I will learn or what it will mean for me—but I would like to step forward and find out.

Toward that end, I am planning a series of articles as a way of exploring additional reasons why we, as a largely white movement, should seek out the insights of a larger world of working experiences. If you’re not convinced that the near-exclusive whiteness of our movement is a problem, you might not find these articles very interesting. But for the rest of us, I invite conversation along the way.

  One thought on “Being White in the (White) Faith and Work Movement

  1. February 8, 2018 at 10:48 am

    Yes, and amen. I would add (relatively) wealthy and educated to the mix for this conversation as well. People for whom career choice and work-life balance are not on the table seem to be heavily underrepresented.

    Can’t wait to read the rest.

    Liked by 1 person

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