Why Not All Tables Are Worth Building, Sitting At, Or Maintaining

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It’s all well and good to want a seat at the table, but I worry that too many of us have skipped an important question: is the table even worth sitting at?

Just because an organization exists doesn’t mean it should. That’s one of the natural conclusions to any acknowledgment of structural inequality and injustice: if racism, sexism, and classism are actively maintained within society, then it follows that many companies directly benefit from maintaining these inequalities. (Lookin’ at you private prisons.) I don’t know about you, but I don’t want gender-inclusive drone operators, I don’t want racially-diverse private prison guards, I don’t want disabled engineers creating predatory and invasive apps that steal and sell data. I don’t want more LGBTQ+ representation in the KKK.

I get it – most of our companies and workplaces sit in a grayer space than the above examples. But the question still stands. Is the table worth sitting at? Is diversity genuinely improving the impact a company makes in the world or simply masking harm? I’m seeing a lot of y’all put the “J” in “Justice,” Equity, Diversity, and Inclusion (JEDI) acronym recently. If you’re not asking and answering this question for yourselves, then you’re taking that name in vain.” -Lily Zheng, October 20, 2020 LinkedIn Post. Author of “Gender Ambiguity in the Workplace: Transgender and Gender-Diverse Discrimination.”

What if “burning it down” means intentionally identifying the systems that are not working for everyone and demanding new ones?

What if “burning it down” means telling the truth about how various organizations and institutions have cultivated environments based on systems of oppression?

What if “burning it down” means recognizing that any system that was fundamentally built on supremacy ideologies cannot and should not continue?

The critic might caution me to consider that not all systems need to be burned in order to be functional. After all, what about democracy?

These sorts of responses concern and disturb me because not only do they rely on extremes as the only viable option, but these responses insist that democracy can only remain democracy when it follows tradition.

Consider the following:

  • Why does the mere suggestion that one should rethink contemporary and historic systems of democracy earn one the label: socialist, marxist, or facist?
  • Why does the mere suggestion that one should consider the contemporary and historic systems of racism and the church earn one the label: divisive, ungodly, and unspiritual?
  • Why does the mere suggestion that one should strive to interrogate how public and private systems benefit from systems of oppression earn one the label: unprofessional, undisciplined, and troublesome?

Many of us have relied on ancestors to get us into rooms that just fifty years ago many of us couldn’t have dreamed about entering. AND, many of us have never had to worry about table access or table representation.

And, it is here that I will make a direct request: if you are someone who has never had to worry about access to the table or representation, it is not enough to make noise on social media, you need to invest your access forward. Maybe this will look like refusing to speak on a panel that only has white people. Maybe this means speaking up at your boardroom and in your business. You can change the table. You can demand access for others at the table. And you can also refuse to be at the table.

A few months ago, a Mennonite Pastor friend of mine wrote a blog post titled “Defund the Police is Deeply Anabaptist.”. And, in it she writes this:

“There is no way to get from “God created the world in peace” to “I’m okay with paying taxes to the government so that police have access to riot gear.” To be pacifist is to maintain that for every social problem, there are better places to put our money than police departments. Any government representative who is required to carry a gun is less effective at creating peace than a government employee who does not have “exercising violence when necessary” as part of their job description. Because, in the Anabaptist tradition, violence is never necessary.

The phrase “Defund the Police” is the most Anabaptist term to enter popular American social discourse in decades. As pacifists, we ought to be rushing full speed to join the movement. And if we are not, we ought to pull out our Confession of Faith and ask ourselves, “Why does this phrase make me uncomfortable?”

It is, most likely, because of our commitments to our own privilege, and not our commitments to God.”

What does it mean if ones tradition is rooted in privilege and that privilege is rooted in ideologies of white supremacy?

In what ways could that supremacy manifest in your daily life?

A few weeks ago, I wrote a Facebook post asking Mennonite churches to assess their church-college pipeline because not all Mennonite colleges are safe for BIPOC folx.

And, I wrote that post because I think we need to take a hard look at our “tables.” Is the table worth saving? Do we need to clean-up the table before inviting others to sit at it? Or, if we don’t, are we willing to hear what those new voices have to say once they are at the table?

What does it take to analyze and re-imagine and rethink the current systems and the harm that these systems may cause? I think it goes back to three specific things: vision, risk, and investment. And, each of these things rely on honest truth-telling.

Here’s my itchy thought: I suspect that many white churches and organizations want to say that they want to be anti-racist. And, I also suspect that if these same churches and organizations would tell the truth, they would discover two things: 1) many are not equipped to do this work with their current resources, and 2) many do not want to do this work because the cost (the risk) is too high.

I’ve been asking this question a lot lately, but I want to ask it again.

What are you willing to risk?

What systems are you willing to name for the lie that they are?

How are you willing to act?

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