“Managing” Diversity

by Nikki Toyama-Szeto

A handful of years ago I was involved in multi-ethnic discussions—panels, seminars, megachurch consultations, Christian schools, conferences. I’m no expert on the topic, but by virtue of being both a woman and a person of color (and as someone involved in a racially charged publishing incident), I’ve been given a place at the table. Or near the table.

racial diversity (frimages.iStock)

illustration by frimages / iStockphoto.com

During one of these discussions, my heart soared as I heard of the flood of Asian American families into a large, historic church in northern California. The church’s leadership team showed an eagerness to steward this opportunity well. “Here we are, arriving in a post-racial America!” I thought to myself giddily, imagining the diverse “house of prayer for the nations” that Mark describes.

But as the conversation continued, my heart sank. Instead of the foundations of the beautiful vision in my head, I heard the rumblings of danger ahead.

“Why do you care about multi-ethnicity?” I asked. Most of their answers were PR-related or simply passive: “Isn’t it the thing to be a diverse congregation or organization?” (especially if they’re engaged in justice work); “The diversity is just happening; we don’t know why.” The conversation leaned towards “managing” diversity rather than being transformed by it.

This same conversation repeated itself over the months. Independent of the context, well-intentioned people of God talked about “diversity” or “inclusivity.” But those words are too anemic to express the true complexity of partnering across racial boundaries.

My limited experience of racial and gender issues reveals that it is a hard journey. Good intentions are not enough to stay the course. They’ll get you through the early stage (“What are holidays like at your house?” “Wow—you do that too?”), but the journey quickly gets tricky when you start talking about communication, conflict, power, leadership, resources. We rush to avoid looking at our racial or gender differences: “Let’s agree on the basics. Let’s not fight over the details that divide us.”

As a woman of color, I bring “trouble,” “interruptions,” and “uncomfortable questions” wherever I go.

But, I want to scream, I am the details that divide us. I wish that gender or racial issues could be optional for me. For one day, I would love to have the luxury to not have to think about how my race or gender is bringing complications to my conversations with others.

Multi-ethnic (and cross-gender) partnerships make life messy. It slows the process down, requires more conversations. Things that you worked for will get interrupted. Plans that required investment will be uprooted. Values and issues that are important will be questioned. But this is all part of what my friend calls the “rock polisher” of community. Our crud bumps up against others’ crud as our sharp points hit each other. But the result is a polished set of rocks. It’s a painful—but refining—process.

When it gets difficult, many people choose to quit the journey. But as a woman of color, I bring “trouble,” “interruptions,” and “uncomfortable questions” wherever I go. Some folks welcome this and make space.

At one of these discussions, a panelist redefined leadership qualifications. And this has now become my standard interview question: “Have you ever been under the leadership of someone of a race or gender different from yours?” For many women, for many people of color, the answer is an easy yes. Most companies, churches, organizations have white male managers. Is it possible to be an effective leader in a multi-ethnic context like the US without ever having been under the leadership of someone who is different from you? What does it say about your leadership qualifications? Are you qualified to lead men and women, Latinos, African Americans, First Nations folks, or Asian Americans if you’ve never worked under one?

Is it possible to be an effective leader in a multi-ethnic context like the US without ever having been under the leadership of someone who is different from you?

We don’t need advocates. Advocates are people in power who use their power/position to make space for those who have no voice or who live on the margins. We need partners on the journey. Partnership is about justice, about the transformative power of the gospel—in my life, in the lives of those around me, in the systems and structures in which we exist. Multi-ethnicity and gender justice are about hearing those we desperately need to hear from. In a sense, this type of justice work is a selfish work, because the need is ours.

Without others, my view of God is narrow. I limit God to the things that can be done in my world—my culturally limited world. But I need the perspective and challenge of the Latino community, for example, to challenge my view of God that begins and ends with family. I need people in power, not to advocate for me but to see that what I hold inside me is a small portion of God that they will never access without me—and for the sake of their own souls, they need me in partnership with them. In the same way, I need them to see a fuller picture of God and the kingdom of God.

In her role as International Justice Mission‘s Vice President of Global Strategies for Christian Engagement, Nikki Toyama-Szeto directs the IJM Institute for Biblical Justice and oversees Global Prayer. She works with leaders of faith communities to help ignite a passion for biblical justice among the global church. She is co-editor/co-author of More than Serving Tea (InterVarsity Press, 2006), a collection of writings that examine the intersection of race, gender, and faith for Asian American women.  

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