On being a white man in leadership.

You may not have noticed, but I’m a white man.  OK, you probably knew that, but it’s a reality that’s been on my mind recently.  In general, this isn’t something American white men spend time thinking about.  Though I’m no expert, I imagine that women and people of color are generally far more aware of their gender and race/ethnicity than I- a white man- will ever be.  This is simply a reality of our country’s cultural and historical landscape, one that has always privileged people- white men- like me.

The primary reason I’ve been thinking about this has to do with our efforts to plant a church in the Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago.  If you don’t know, Bronzeville is a historically African American neighborhood with a long, complex, and rich heritage.  Though the neighborhood has experienced many changes over the years, it retains its distinct character and complexion.  This history and cultural reality has been the source of many conversations as it relates to my ability- as a white man- to contribute leadership to this new church.

Last week I read a guest post on the Stuff White People Do blog that nicely captured some of these complexities.  The post, written by IzumiBayani (“100% Japanese, 100% white, 25% deaf, oppressor and oppressed.”), addresses a white male friend who desires to participate in social justice.  The entire post is worth reading, but it was a couple of paragraphs towards the end that especially caught my attention.

No one is asking him to lead us out to the promise land. In fact, he can’t be a dominant leader in a social justice movement because of his identity. This space is for [people of color] and to some extent [white women]. He can support, but he can’t lead. That invokes the White Savior Complex. White male arrogance can easily ruin his credibility and get him thrown off the boat.

Some of you are familiar with IzumiBayani’s point: by virtue of our gender and identity, white men are unable to lead movements of justice and equity.  In other words, those who have played the role of oppressor cannot lead those whom they have oppressed.  There are, however, some places where white men can provide leadership.

In addition, people like [my friend] need to realize that their real work isn’t with a community of [people of color]; their responsibility is among white people, men, and straight people. He has the advantage in those spaces, so that’s where his privilege of assumed credibility can be used to his/our advantage. These are spaces where he can effectively be a leader.

According to this author, the place for white men to provide thoughtful leadership is with other privileged people.  Exercising leadership- no matter how carefully and humbly implemented- among people of color is ultimately self-defeating, hindering the purposes of those pursuing social justice.

And this is why lately I’ve  been particularly aware of my white, male-ness.

I solicit your feedback.  I’m knee-deep in these issues and would highly value the feedback of this blog’s readers.  Three questions in particular have surfaced for me:

  • Are there ever scenarios when a white man can provide helpful, redemptive, and liberating leadership among a diverse community?
  • How does a white man in leadership equip and empower others for leadership in ways that benefit the entire community?
  • In what ways does the death and resurrection of Jesus- the ultimate reconciling event- critique all the accepted norms of leadership?


27 thoughts on “On being a white man in leadership.

  1. I understand what Izumi is trying to say, I just can’t agree with the lengths he (she?) takes it. There has to be something more guiding our discussion that isn’t just sociological critique.

    I can’t help but to think of the discussion in terms of theology – yes, theology – particularly the human *participation* in the divine, and the diverse unity of the community we call “God”. In other words it aint about who’s on top, whether white or black, male or female, but rather the extent to which we participate and allow participation.

    Power structures will always exist (sociology); participation transcends it (theology). I hope this isn’t too oblique.

  2. I’m not trying to be callous, or to simply shrug this off, because I understand the situation well. However, I do believe that at some point… SOME point, we need to stop caring about how we look when we help. We need to stop caring about color entirely. We need to stop looking backwards, and look forwards.

    The point I make is that you help those you love. And if you love the people around you, then you are helping the people around you. If they happen to be African-American, European, Asian, Latino, or Martians, then you help them, because God called you to.

    If you see yourself being superior, then get yourself low, brother. If you see yourself serving, then that’s where you need to be.

    Jesus didn’t care what race he served. Jesus didn’t care what social class he preached to. Jesus didn’t hate the Roman oppressors, or the Jewish ruling elite. He didn’t care how he measured up to them, or how others viewed him, as long as they knew he loved them. As long as he knew that his message of redemption, his message of grace, and his sacrifice of ultimate love was being made known.

    And THAT is the standard, (the ONLY standard, mind you) that we (regardless of color) should care about.

    Forgive me, but allow me to speak freely in order to make myself perfectly clear:


    The answer…plain and simple, is that we should NEVER feel anything but joy in service, and the simple pleasure of knowing God’s will is being done through and around us.

    Again, we should always self-examine for pride. That’s biblical, honest, and THAT’S how we avoid being oppressor and helper to the oppressed. Because *that* is when we are a house divided. But if you are praying for a contrite spirit and a broken heart for those around you in need, then you are where you should be.

    Color doesn’t play into it.

    I’m not saying don’t be sensitive. I’m not saying don’t care about it. I’m saying, don’t let it affect your service. That’s the accuser and the stealer of souls trying to make you feel inadequate to serve, David. I mean that. You are where God has led you to serve. As long as your intentions remain pure, and you only long to serve, for the sake of Christ, then there is NO shame, ever.

    Forgive my directness, and forgive me if I seem insensitive to the subject. I assure you that I understand this issue far more than I may let on. But, I see nothing constructive in this area, at least pertaining to your service with the Bronzeville plant.

    Where this is inappropriate is when it’s some good-old-boys thinking they’ve got it together, so they’re going to help the poor folk in the city who don’t know about this Jesus feller. Or when it’s the well-intentioned, but way-off the reservation missionary who thinks that THEY will bring the word of God to the heathens who don’t know Him, to the third world.

    I’m not saying missions fields don’t exist. Because they’re all around us. But if we’re not looking at each other and seeing ourselves, then it’s time for a new prescription.

    Sure we don’t have the same history. But that’s the same for two whites looking at each other, or two blacks looking at each other, or two of anyone. We’re all different. But we ALL have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, but by his amazing and loving grace we have forgiveness and hope. And that message isn’t reserved for the ruling class. And that is precisely why race doesn’t matter. (1 because there IS NO ruling class, and 2 because there’s no matter if there was anyway. God’s the ruling class, and thanks to Him he gives a rip about us idiots down here.)

    Anyway, I’ll shut up. Forgive me for barging in. I’m not saying you’re a saint for what you do. I’m not saying that you are right where God wants you, because frankly, I don’t know His plans for you. But, I believe that you’re doing a good work. And I also believe that it is because of Him that you are doing a good work, not because of you. And definitely not because of your color, or because of the color of the people that tend to come to the services.

    I love you, David. And I wish the best for you, for Maggie, for Eliot, and for your newly forming congregation. I pray blessings upon your family and the extended church family, and I pray that the accuser would be bound up, and his hand stayed from deceiving you, from deceiving anyone who would also be swayed and accuse you of anything but pure service-minded work for His kingdom. And if you are prideful (which I don’t believe you are, from your tendency to be very open here, but I don’t know your heart as Christ does), then I pray that God would break you, hard. And that you would be rebuilt, stronger for the admonishment, and that you would become a greater ally of Christ’s for greater work and that God and God alone would be glorified.

    1. I always appreciate your perspective and passion Larry; no need to apologize or shut up. Thanks for your support.

      Where I think I differ from you relates to Wayne Park’s comment:

      I think color does play into it.
      To ignore that there is color involved is to ignore important and crucial dimensions to our engagement as Christians. We shouldn’t shy away from making that distinction. It’s counter-productive to our missional task.

      My own conviction is that white folks, myself included, far too often ignore the realities of race and ethnicity. My interest is not in focusing on race as much as the massive implications of one’s race or ethnicity. And, as Wayne put it, ignoring these implications (both historical and present) actually hinders the pursuit of God’s mission.

  3. I teach a diversity class occasionally, and we’re knee deep in questions like that right now. As always, I don’t have any easy answers. I think that, certainly, a white man, especially one who had a deep self awareness and deep awareness of these issues, could potentially be himself helpful, redemptive, and liberating. I think providing helpful, redemptive, and liberating leadership would be harder, though not impossible (nothing is impossible with God).

    I’m interested in hearing more comments and thoughts.

  4. I think color does play into it.
    To ignore that there is color involved is to ignore important and crucial dimensions to our engagement as Christians. We shouldn’t shy away from making that distinction. It’s counter-productive to our missional task.

  5. Hi David, provocative as usual. I have thought a lot about this and have come to believe that the question is a little mis-cast in terms of church leadership. Biblical ecclesiology does not point to ‘a leader.’ If there was a single, authoritative, leader then I share the author’s concerns as to whether reconciliation and justice could occur under the leadership of a majority representative. But biblical ecclesiology is done in community. You may be the paid, preaching, leader, but I suspect that you will be submitting yourself to a community of non-trivial lay leaders (say an elder board) that would reflect the diversity (or homogeneity as the case may be) of the Bronzeville community. I also suspect you are planning to share the pulpit with the same. Trans-cultural Christianity requires quick and copious repentance by the representatives of the majority community, but it also requires forgiveness and restoration by the members of the aggrieved community…including restoration into the community of leadership.

    This was the model in Antioch (Acts 13) where God’s vibrant church for a bitterly divided city was led by a team of 5 guys that came from 3 continents and 4 ethnic groups (Stott)…including individuals of the privilaged classes (one was a prince). If leadership is done in community, then, not only is a white dude helpful, he is necessary, and, I think, could even be the paid, primary teacher…but only if the diverse leadership community is non-trivial in its responsibilities, authority, and visibility. That said, it will also be harder because you are white. You will have to earn the community’s trust by your devotion and reliance on and submission to you African American co-leaders.

    Side note. Surely you have thoughts about this in other areas of spiritual leadership…namely parenthood. In adopting across ethnic lines you have opened yourself up to some of these same charges. I would be very interested in your thoughts on this.

    1. You’re spot on about how our beautiful son has impacted me in this area. I’m careful about how much I share about this as it is so personal. I’ll say this though, the gift of our son has opened us to both incredible grace and moments of painful complexity… and I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

      1. Sorry to probe even more personally on an already exceedingly personal matter. I should have had more sense. It was entirely self serving, as my wife and I have contemplated a similar choice.

      2. No need to apologize. I’d like the chance to hear more as you and your wife consider adoption. It’s the best thing that ever happened to us!

  6. I too walk the fine line of figuring out what God wants from me, a middle class white male. Let’s assume that you’re going to be leading Christians. Let’s also assume that these Christians are coming to NC3 Bronzeville precisely because they want to deal with issues of race, culture, socio-economic struggles, and how to be a follower of Jesus when the world says you can’t be friends let alone brothers and sisters. With those two assumptions, there is a lot of leeway and freedom for making mistakes. You may offend some, but God will enable the church to work in, through, and in spite of, you.

    The mark of a true leader is not someone who tells others what to do. A true leader enables those around him/her to do the work necessary with little to no input from the actual leader. If you, as a leader, can’t step away from Bronzeville and realize that it’s God that sustains the ministry and not you, you will fail. If you were to disappear tomorrow and Bronzeville failed because of lack of direction, then you have placed too much emphasis on your direction and Bronzeville would not be God’s it would be David’s.

    God is not the source of guilt but of growth and challenge. If you’re feeling guilty about being a leader and a white male, you can bet that you’re in the right place. The enemy sees what you’re doing and will use anything he can to undermine God’s work in Bronzeville.

  7. It seems like Wayne Park, stanford, and Nate Noonen are all pointing to a similar reality: those with a Christ-centered understanding of the world have an intrinsically different understanding of leadership. I suppose this means that while IzumiBayani’s critique may be valid, it doesn’t address the realities of leadership among those submitted to the crucified and resurrected Christ. Is this a fair summation of your thoughts?

  8. Logic 101: “Polar bears are blue, therefore seals eat skittles.”

    IzumiBayani’s critique is valid only in the sense that a false premise always leads to truth. IzumiBayani incorrectly assumes that the American pedagogy has inundated us to the point where when we see a white male in a position of power, he is there because he expects others to sacrifice for his benefit.

    Godly pedagogy says the opposite: a person is in leadership because they are willing to sacrifice for people they lead. God calls those who are least likely to be good at a task to perform that specific task to further show his power and manifest His glory.

    The world says that an introverted white male can never successfully lead a multicultural church. The world also says that David loses against Goliath, that walking around in a circle can’t knock walls down, and that a Savior can’t die.

    I find it almost nonsensical to debate with non-Christians on most topics because there is no moral baseline and no common reference point. If a non-Christian says that a white male can’t lead their non-Christian organization, so be it. That’s a vain and foolish argument if I ever saw one.

  9. i have no helpful comments. i just wanted to say that i appreciate you. just that you think of these things with the desire to be sensitive is so you and so appreciated. i’m thankful for your leadership!

  10. I think you have summarized the posts above well, David. If we say that because of the history of experience White males are incapable of leading a multi-ethnic church we are denying the possibility of God’s power. Not only that, but we are allowing a certain type of racism to continue. Just was it is racist for a White man to say Blacks are inferior, so too is it racist for a person of color to say no White man will ever be able to overcome cultural issues such as the historical injustices of racism.

    That being said, we should still be sensitive to the reality that people are hurt, and we are not perfect. Even if we are a community submitted to Christ that doesn’t mean we are completely free of what has happened – it is a work in progress. Any person, regardless of race, in a leadership position would need to be aware of the challenges faced by race relations and be ready to serve the needs of that community.

  11. I think my sentiments tend to be the same as you summarized most recently. That race is indeed important, but should not be ANY hindrance whatsoever to your service in Christ. I like the way Matthew put it:

    “If we say that because of the history of experience White males are incapable of leading a multi-ethnic church we are denying the possibility of God’s power.”

    I find that the point in time we are at in history, for MANY reasons, is a wonderful opportunity to start writing new histories. Not to erase or cover up the old, but to say “this is the bold new direction we are headed” and to be able to give the glory to God in this area, because it is through Him and service in Him that we look beyond color and we look only to need, and to love and to communication…that’s truly the best part of this crucial moment in the history of mankind, in terms of race relations.

    Did I grow up privileged because of my color? I honestly do not know. Some would say no, and some would say yes. But while it’s a good point to discuss intellectually, and to be certain we are sensitive to, socially… it’s not relative or germane to the conversation of whether one should be a leader, or whether one has the right to lead. If God places someone in charge of others well being, in the context of service in the church, then woe be to the one for ANY perceived reason, good or bad, that tries to go against His will.

  12. I disagree with Izumi on a couple of points: first, that only like people can lead each other; second and more importantly, that ‘social justice’ is only available to the more disadvantaged people in the social equation. ALL socio-economic and ethnic groups benefit from increased respect and opportunities for the disadvantaged and disenfranchised.

    As a white middle class male (and close to 50 years old) who was led by God to a leadership role in a young, diverse Church community where I have no doubt I belong, I would not start at this point playing God by determining just how much I can do for this community, especially based on race, age difference, socio-economic status, or educational background.

    I see the very existence of our church and my being called into it as an example of the healing, reconciling power of the gospel of Jesus Christ. No question great things are already happening, in Christ, in our church. There is really no limit, in Christ, to our future.

  13. There are books written on your questions…and people are still asking. i prefer not to comment, but just to say that I think there are great resources out there. I have a great article on this subject by a native american,

  14. hey David,
    v interesting and insightful… I really relate- i feel like this year, for really the first time I am learning what it means to be white- whereas before i just thought it was unimportant- i have become increasingly aware that history hangs heavy- and that whilst many unjust structures and laws have been removed- their legacy remains- and of course much of the way in which international systems are structured is in a way which persistently gives an upper hand to the powerful. I need my friends of other backgrounds to shine a light on the prejudices and patterns i take forgranted.

    I am also very aware in the cross-cultural context of westerners who (in the name of christ and with the best of intentions) model a type of leadership which essentially says”I am better, I know best”…

    Whilst i think it is crucial to be aware of, and to explore these issues, particularly in the contexts in which we both currently find ourselves- I also think that allowing race (or sex) to define who you are in a negative (ie feeling constantly guilty and apologetic for being white) sense is just as wrong as in a positive one.

    Lastly my two keys are humility and loving people

  15. dave- just read the whole post- excellent, helpful and encouraging- for me to persevere and to recognise the need to suck it up and not be resentful when people struggle to see past the colour of my skin…

  16. I think one of the most important things is what non-Whites in the Bronzeville church think about this – especially those who identify Bronzeville as home.

  17. I am a white male. I went to college, have a family history of college attendance, and both my parents have good jobs. I was raised in the suburbs and went to a private school for my whole life. In short, I am the ‘person of privilege’ that many people talk about.

    I have a hard time commenting on race and social justice issues, precisely because of these reasons. I wonder if those different from me will question my perspective because, “I just can’t know what it’s like.”

    That is true. I cannot know the injustice of growing up as a person of color. I cannot know what it is like to consider (what I call) a ‘broken home’ as normal. I cannot know what it is like to scrape by to make rent and pay the water & electricity.

    Neither can I know what it is like to grow up in a mansion. I cannot know what it is like to drive a Bentley, or eat caviar, or take trips to the Caribbean on a lark.

    All I have is my experience. And what my experience tells me is that I am broken, greedy, vain, power-hungry, and foolish. Despite all my privilege, I have to trust on God for EVERY thing in my life that I count a blessing. I am just as prone to evil as the next guy, just as reliant on grace, and just as much in need of humility.

    Here’s my thought: We need to start worrying less about what makes us different and begin thinking, “There, but for the grace of God, go I.” Both when we look at those ‘above’ us as ‘below’ us. God has given each of us our situation in life precisely because he wants us there.

    So David, as a person contemplating leadership in an area very different from your background, remember this: God has you here for a reason. Not to ‘bring salvation’ or ‘defer to those who know how to do justice’, but to be a messenger of grace to a broken world. That’s all. Nothing more, nothing less.

  18. I think there is some truth to this…Race and Identity to play a role in our we conduct leadership.

    But his whole the oppressor can’t be a leader for justice and peace it not true. Look at Paul, he was an oppressor of the faith and he later became a great leader for the church. He dealt with Jews and Gentiles.

    Nothing is written in stone. Race and ethnic identity are a challenge yes but with Christ you can do anything. Don’t let this thing hinder what God has called you to do.

  19. As an African-American woman, I would say that “a white man can provide helpful, redemptive, and liberating leadership among a diverse community” when they have truly embraced and formed a genuine appreciation for diversity. Otherwise, they inevitably will say or do something that surfaces their ignorance and ends up short-circuiting their efforts. I currently serve in a predominantly white church and I can tell you that I’ve had the life sucked out of me as I have sat and endured others’ ignorance about the world and other cultures. If this church and others truly wish to embrace diversity in their communities, they will have to be real about the differences that exist among God’s people. While the scriptures tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave or free, etc., the reality is, in THIS life we humans in many ways have not embraced that and at times we will do and say things that offend and deeply hurt our brothers and sisters. Rather than accepting and appreciating the differences of each other, we sometimes demean others’ ways of living and their experiences as somehow inferior, rather than just being different and appreciating the diversity that God has placed among His people.

    1. I appreciate your perspective on this Pat, particularly these sentences:

      If this church and others truly wish to embrace diversity in their communities, they will have to be real about the differences that exist among God’s people. While the scriptures tells us that in Christ there is neither male nor female, slave or free, etc., the reality is, in THIS life we humans in many ways have not embraced that and at times we will do and say things that offend and deeply hurt our brothers and sisters.

      I’m afraid that all too often differences are glossed over in order to keep the peace. When this happens, I’m not sure we can expect genuine Christian unity. The hard work of Gospel-reconciled community has to include the safety for differences to be expressed and, ideally, explained.

      I hope you can find people and communities within your congregation who will value the unique and necessary perspective and experience that only you can bring.

  20. My concern is that this approach re-enforces segregation. We need to find a way to live in the tension between the very real dynamics the writer mentions and the greater goal of unity in Christ, which is defined primarily by our shared reflection (if cracked) of the image of God.

  21. Thanks for your comment Jamie! I agree that we need to find a way to live in the tension that seeks the best interest of the other without forcing their actions on another.

    I, of course, have come to approach the whole “leadership” issues from a different direction — one which backs away from power as position rather than power as ability to influence. This always speaks to having earned the right to be heard, which means that there is real relationship involved.

    Leadership that seeks to be a tool for influence in God’s hands can be a totally difference experience. Listening twice as much as speaking … and mostly asking thoughtful, humble and clarifying questions when choosing to speak — can have a better result.

  22. Thanks for your transparency. I’ve been on a diversity journey as a white male for more than forty years, and for me this means to live into Jesus’ words: “To whom much is given, much is expected.” To that end, I’ve written the first book for white men who lead for a living – Leadership 101 For White Men: How To Work Successfully with Black Colleagues and Customers”. The accompanying website for my work: http://www.leadershipforwhitemen.com. Yes, controversy can be constructive. I figure since Jesus “killed the hatred” that divides us as human beings (Eph. 2:16), the Lord will fuel our attempts to try and live and lead with that new reality in view.

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