Making Room | #14

Between 2010 and 2014, I flirted briefly with micro-fame. During that time, a friend once introduced me as a “semi-famous gospel preacher”, and that is what I was – semi-famous. I had fallen in a circle of people who were actually – famous, or at least, famous within a large niche. Then I did some things and fought some fights that made the national news, and for a few years there, I stayed really busy, courted book deals, traveled the country leading workshops and keynoting speeches, and lots of people took my calls.

I liked that. I liked it a lot. I liked being invited to conversations I had been locked out of before. I liked being a “thought leader”. I liked being on stage and getting a standing ovation at the end of my talk. My personality type is such that I would always rather be the guy at the front of the room than a worker in a small team.

But while I still love to travel and speak and write, my life looks very different these days. Most of my writing is in the short-essay form, written in places like here. Most of my speaking is at a small congregation where I am a pastor. And most of my travel is to the beach with my family.

Several things changed to cause that. Part of it was that my life changed a lot when my wife had a heart transplant in 2015. Part of it was that I began to experience burnout from a lack of self-care. But the biggest part was that, in conversations with people of color, especially women of color, I learned that I tended to suck a lot of oxygen from the room. When I spoke up, other white people would center me and my ideas, instead of listening to people of color. And because I was the “leader”, when BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Color) folk did show up, they were often relegated to doing the grunt work of implementing my plans.

The whole culture of the US is built that way, by the way. If you are the person on stage, you are a “success”. We white folk, especially, are taught that our ideas are important and that they should be shared, and shared with confidence. So we are encouraged to drown out others, and as a result, BIPOC voices get drowned out. This is part of what we mean when we talk about White Supremacy. It isn’t just old white guys in hoods, but rather a system that is baked into our culture that actively promotes white ideas and voices at the expense of BIPOC folk.

So a large part of my self-work over the last five years has been to work to make room for others, especially BIPOC folk. I realized that I didn’t have anywhere in my life where I reported to anyone who wasn’t white. Most of the authors I read were white.  Most of the movies I watched were filled with white people and had white heroes. And I have worked hard to learn how to use my voice in different ways, working more off-stage and using my privilege to amplify the voices of folks who were not white.

World change begins with self-change. We all hold internal biases, prejudices, and harmful patterns that get in the way of us fully participating in the world as it could be. The ways we hold space, take up room and dominate conversations matters.

And it’s all a lie anyway, the idea that the only voice that counts is the one on the stage. For every MLK, you had a Bayard Rustin, who organized the march, you had a Vincent Harding, who wrote the speeches, you had the countless folks who housed traveling civil rights workers, those whose names are lost to history who copied flyers, who shuttled people to protests, who made sure there was water and sandwiches for marchers.

In the better world we dream of, there is no one without a voice, but some of us have to quit talking in order to make room for others to be heard.