A couple nights ago, I received a call in the early evening from a prominent speaker and writer here in the Portland area. He was having a dinner party and wondered if I was free to come and join him and his other guests. He said that most of the people at the party were, like him, from the area and he thought that having me, a Southerner now living in the Pacific Northwest, would add a different voice to the conversation. Though somewhat unsure about what he meant by that, I rearranged my plans for the evening and drove across town to his house.
When I arrived, it was immediately clear that I was late. Everyone else was already seated at the table and finishing up the salad course. Still, I was welcomed and introduced as guest of the host. I looked around the table and noticed that there wasn’t an empty place setting. All the seats were occupied. Slightly embarrassed, the host quickly had people rearrange their chairs and make some room as he retrieved a folding chair from his garage.
I sat down, a little bit lower due to the height of the cool, metal chair, and began to eat the salad placed before me. The shorter chair meant that the surface of the table came up to my mid-chest. I felt a little ridiculous sitting a full head lower than everyone else, like a child invited to sit with the grown-ups. The party staff cleared everyone else’s empty dishes. I shoveled the greens into my mouth, trying to catch up. In between bites, I tried to politely answer the other guests’ questions about my upbringing in Georgia.
They were most interested in why I don’t talk like Rhett Butler or Larry the Cable Guy. They seemed surprised and a little disappointed that I sounded so much like them. I explained that I’d spent a lot of time in the theater and had adopted an “actor’s neutral” accent for the purposes of auditioning for plays, and that it just kind of stuck.
Each of them seemed to have some indirect connection to the South. One woman told me that her sister married a man from Birmingham, Alabama and she’d visited there once. A man told me that growing up, his neighbor was Southern. The gentleman sitting next to me leaned over at one point and told me that when he was younger, he’d often dreamed of moving to “Dixie.”
When the main course was served, the staff placed bowls of steaming hot shrimp scampi in front of us. I’m allergic to shrimp. Deathly allergic. I caught the attention of one of the servers and asked of there was anything else that didn’t have shrimp in it. Unfortunately there was not. I contented myself with a few rolls. I don’t think anyone noticed or, if they did, no one said anything. So, there I sat in my little chair, watching everyone else have their fill.
As the dinner carried on, I tried to understand just why, exactly, I’d been invited to this dinner. The host hadn’t given me any more details other than he wanted my perspective present. “My perspective on what?” I wondered. Much of the conversation seemed unstructured.
After the dessert course, as everyone was preparing to leave, the host came up to me and thanked me for coming on such short notice. He said he really appreciated having me at the dinner and that he feels like his guests learned a lot from me. I asked him if he could explain that a little further. He said that it was just good for them to be around the table with someone not like them, to have a different perspective at the table, and that he was sure that I gave everyone a lot to think about. As I left, somewhat perplexed by the whole thing, he asked me if I’d be willing to come to another dinner party sometime. I said I’d think about it and then I drove home.
Have you ever had an experience like that? No? Me neither. That dinner party didn’t really happen. However, you’ve probably created situations like that without realizing it. This happens all the time when (mostly white, male, evangelical) Christians talk about “extending the table” to include “minority perspective.” The notion of extending the table is a myth and here’s why:
1. The “pull up another chair” mentality simply doesn’t work. In our mind’s eye, “the table” is an unlimited, malleable resource that can be pulled stretched to accommodate any number of voices. The reality is that’s not true. There is a tipping point after which additional voices only serve to dilute, not enhance, conversation and decision making. The table is often a small one out of necessity and to keep adding chairs only magnifies the differences between those who were seated first and those who were later invited. This is not the Lord’s banquet table we’re talking about. It’s a table of your own making. We shouldn’t get those two things confused. Even if it is possible to pull up another chair, it is often like that metal folding chair. It is obvious that the latecomer is an afterthought, squeezed in at the side and seated a head lower than everyone else. Justice and equality at the table goes beyond pulling up more chairs.
2. When filling the seats at the proverbial table, minority voices are often only invited after the idea/cause/concern/event/church/organization has been roughed out by a small group of homogenous insiders. The assumption is that “they” want to be invited into “your” idea and give you “their” take on things. You still retain ownership and control the trajectory of whatever the thing is, are merely opening it up for some light shaping by “them.” Even the thought language used here betrays hegemonic tendencies.
So, what to do?
First, expand your circle of relationships to include voices that aren’t like your own. That’s right, before doing anything at “the table,” you need to make new friends. It’s all very “first grade” isn’t it? My daughter recently asked my wife and I how she could make more friends. Our advice: Be a good friend. You don’t make more friends by pining away, hoping that people will invite you into relationship. You go and be a friend.
Second, workshop ideas with your new friends. If you really want there to be a different make up of people “at the table,” that begins during the dreaming part of the process. Dream with people who look differently than you, don’t merely try and “on board” them to your dreams and ideas.
Finally, be willing to give up your seat for your new friends. If you are invited into the early stages of an idea or event and there are already a lot of people at the table who look and think like you do, send in someone else, one of your new friends, perhaps. This is the hardest part for me. I’m at a place in life where I am on the cusp of some big opportunities. The temptation is to lean into those opportunities to write, speak, and plan, and really make a name for myself. Sometimes, though, the better decision is for me to nominate someone else in my stead, someone who can be a different voice. I don’t really know what that looks like yet, but I’m willing to give up my seat at the table. Are you?
(Thanks to Christena Cleveland and Drew Hart for their feedback on the draft of this post. Their thoughts, critiques, and challenges continue to shape my thinking and my practice. I’m honored to be at the table with them.)