Becoming a racially inclusive community in Anabaptist structures is difficult. Advocates of undoing racism face challenges that seem overwhelming. White allies want to deal justly with people of color.
Seemingly innocent actions need careful attention.
In any organization, everyone has a role to play. A job description provides the script. But systemic racism adds a subtext. Sometimes those in power write scripts for others without involving those whose work is being scripted. This can happen to anyone who is not in power, but it more often happens to people of color.
Not long ago, Carlton (a pseudonym), a person of color, worked in an Anabaptist organization. His job description included managerial responsibilities. In the wake of measures to help the organization remain fiscally sound, a decision was made to change Carlton’s responsibilities without his involvement. Well-intentioned white allies looking out for the institution’s interests made the decision.
Responsibilities were taken from Carlton and given to others. He reported to several white colleagues rather than to one. His office was placed away from most of the others.
Eventually the organization realized what had happened and tried to remedy the situation. But the damage had been done. A role had been assigned and a script written. Carlton had been marginalized.
Script writers for people of color can enhance or detract from a positive racial climate. Our churches and institutions are primarily managed by well-meaning white brothers and sisters. They care about the organization’s sustainability. But systemic racism can unconsciously control decisions.
In most instances, there are few people of color in the workplace. Changing the script without notice, without discussion or without engaging the affected person marginalizes him or her. The message is, “I care more about the system than I do about you.”
Being in the majority, potential white allies have the power to write scripts and influence the way the organization flourishes. Anabaptist structures must clearly represent their dominant constituency’s perceived needs. Yet they can’t ignore their responsibility to build a nonracist community. They must scrutinize and revamp the scripts to meet the needs of everyone in our workplaces.
Writing the script in our structures must come from two directions. People of color need to play an important role in determining the script’s outcome. They should not accept the script given to them without questioning the rationale and impact it holds for them. Surrounded by like-minded allies who care about eliminating inequality, we need to rid ourselves of the internalized racial oppression that has allowed us to accept racial injustice.
Unlike the script of a Hollywood drama, the roles we play in our daily encounters have a lasting effect on our collective existence. We can live out the script as it is written, or rewrite it.
John Powell, of Ypsilanti, Mich., is a regional pastor for Indiana-Michigan Mennonite Conference.