10 Ways to Support WOC in Leadership
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.
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