A Personal Response to Diversity Criticism

posted in: Random Musings | 0

I recently edited and saw published a book, Why We Stayed, and it has been a thrilling experience. I was unsure of how it would be received, and not surprisingly not everyone is a fan. I anticipated Conservatives among Churches of Christ would be the most critical of the project because I chose to include authors who were more progressive than myself and to allow them to speak without a filter. I was honestly interested in their point of view and thought others might be also. Though I have seen recommendations from Conservatives that our book be burned (not kidding), unexpectedly the loudest criticism so far has not been from staunch traditionalists, but rather from others who have complained that the book lacked diversity among its authors, a group of all white males. This was the vocal criticism I read on Facebook before the book ever even came off the printing press, and it has been repeated in formal reviews since that time. One review made our lack of diversity part of the title of the review. I have patiently endured this particular critique until now and thought at last that I should say a few explanatory words in response.

First, failing to include more diversity is a missed opportunity, but not an omission made out of carelessness or negligence. I invited a number of female authors and persons of color to write for the book. They declined. It turns out that much as I wish it were otherwise, I do not have power over other human minds to bend them to my will, nor do I have the power to clear people’s schedules and move my project to the top of the pile. Sally Gary showed interested early on, but her schedule was simply too full. Likewise, Jerry Taylor. At the end of the day, when people say “no,” I have to live with that.

Second, understanding why they said “no” can be summed up in three simple words, “I am nobody.” This project, originally conceived by my friend Grant Sullivan, began while I was finishing my M.Div. at Oklahoma Christian University. To find my authors, I looked around the room a little and said, “Hey how about you?” A lot of the people I looked at were white males, because they are disproportionately represented in most graduate schools of theology. Why? Well, that is an excellent question which should be explored, but for now it is worth noting simply that they are. As students tend to do, several said “yes,” only later to say “no.” They were moving on with their careers and didn’t have time for yet another writing assignment. Next I turned to my bookshelf and starting cold-calling (or rather emailing) authors I found interesting. Here is where the “I am nobody” part came into play. I was not a prominent author or a minister with lots of influence. I was nobody asking people to write with a guarantee of not being compensated (we all agreed early on to donate the proceeds should there ever be any). Every new author was a triumph. I’m seriously considering a frame for my email from Scot McKnight whom I had never spoken to before asking him to write the Preface. Recognizing that our cast was not diverse, I did invite others. They declined and I understand why. They didn’t know me and had no reason to think this worth their time. At some point my shallow well of contacts ran out, and I began asking other people, “Who do you know?” I asked even more complete strangers and got similar results. At the end, I realized I had twelve or thirteen authors who shouldn’t be delayed while I searched for the perfect cast of characters to complete our book. After pushing through several uninterested publishers (did I mention yet that I am nobody?) we moved ahead.

Third, I am happy with the product and would happily accept critique of the content. I am however disappointed to see the work judged entirely based on the table of contents rather than the actual contents. I appreciate that a diversity of backgrounds offers more variety to the ideas represented, but is that actually the only measure by which a text may be judged? Is it even the primary measure? Perhaps it is my background in mathematics and the hard sciences, but in terms of books, I am predisposed to judge them not based on “the color of their skin, but by the content of their character.” What do they say? I don’t believe in casting, and at some point I think it becomes insulting to both women and people of color to suggest that they need be included in a project as a token offered up to diversity. I found it very awkward to ask someone, “Hello and you don’t know me but I need a black author in order to be taken seriously. Would you be interested?” I asked that question more politely, but I felt guilty doing so. I felt that I was taking part in the very problem I was trying to reconcile.

Fourth, and I say this with all the love in the world for my critics … write your own dang book. I saw a need for this book, and I did the best I could. There are a lot of things about it which could be better. There are even more things about it which could be different. I have ideas for future projects and personal criticisms of this first attempt which far exceed what even the harshest reviews have said. However, I saw a need and I did something about it. If you think you can do it better, please do. I’ll be eager to review your efforts, and I promise I’ll be at least as kind as you have been.

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