The Table Leaf Rule

When I was a young boy, my mom would produce this wonderful little object. It was a piece of varnished wood perched upon rails, which she would hook like cleats to the bottom 3 steps on our carpeted stairway. I could climb to the third stair, sit on its slick surface, and shoot to the bottom. It was my little indoor slide, and my mom would employ it thus when she knew I needed to burn off some excess little-boy-energy.

What I didn’t know was that she was repurposing said object. Its intended purpose was actually equally wonderful—a section of wood which could be inserted into the middle of a table to magically produce more spots! The table itself had secret machinations of gears and locks and nubs that allowed it to be expanded outward to receive and integrate this extension. The object in question was of course a table leaf.

These leaves create table space where there is not enough. My in-laws have a table with improbable abilities of augmentation—interlocking slats that slide out to welcome a seemingly endless amount of dining real estate. Whenever I am called upon to extend this table, I find it almost comical. Nevertheless, when the table has reached its lengthiest proportions, it is quite a marvel to have so many important guests gather around it.

The table leaf is a marvelous device; one which might even instruct us in ways of equity and justice. Can it even be repurposed thus? I believe it can and must.

In recent years, our society has taken notice of an oddly-configured practice among Christian men, often termed “the Billy Graham rule.” Many prominent Christian men—most notably, vice president Mike Pence—subscribe to versions of this rule which precludes them from being alone with women in various settings (travel, meals, even professional meetings). I wrote a piece reflecting on my own history with this rule a while back. This rule was part of an integrity pact the late evangelist made with a group of colleagues. They called it “The Modesto Manifesto,” because that’s where it was conceived and written. Graham commented,

We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.

Their goal was to avoid temptation; perils they’d seen befall others. (And, certainly, perils we’ve seem befall many since.) It was at the same time an effort to be above reproach and a realization of their own vulnerabilities. And it has been adopted by many a Christian male leader since—be they ministers, politicians, businessmen, or whatnot.

This, of course, is only a sacralized iteration of more broadly grooved patriarchal systems that have constructed significant spaces in ways that—intentionally or not—exclude women. And many, I believe rightly, cried foul. Well-intended though such self-regulations may be (Ta-Nehisi Coates called them “guard-rails“), they must give way to better practices lest inequality and exclusion be named among their unintended consequences. Certainly, in the age of #MeToo and growing recognitions of how private spaces have become exploitational in innumerable arenas, we must come to terms with the importance of certain “guard-rails”—and we must do so with increasingly creative versions of integrity that will not be contented with collateral damage.

Beyond this, our society is again becoming more acutely aware of how racialized social and professional architecture excludes minorities from important spaces. Though many a racist justifications for such segregations has been steadily eroded away—at least in the public square—nevertheless, these stratifications remain stubbornly in place.

This is evinced in the dismal (and diminishing) diversity of C-Suites of major American companies; this despite decades of efforts toward inclusion and representation. This is evinced in the almost comical representations numbers within academia. Two sectors, one right-leaning, the other left-leaning, experiencing the selfsame problems. This is evinced toward both minorities and women in the realms of charity and venture capital. It is evinced in politics. Oftentimes, in religious spheres, it is enacted under a theological or moral cloak. Even our physical world is designed according to exclusionary practices. If you are a woman or an ethnic minority or (have mercy) both, there is, to say the least, a stiff leadership headwind in our society. Naturally, this becomes a self-perpetuating cycle. It it structural and it is cultural and its harmful effects are very real.

This is why exclusionary practices, even rationalized under a type of moral reasoning, are so anathema. Not to say we shouldn’t maintain preservational guidelines for morality, propriety, and non-exploitation. (Matt Lauer had a door-lock button under his desk, for the love!)

Still, this got me thinking about the Billy Graham Rule anew recently, and the most interesting thought plopped into my mind: “What might be the opposite?” Put differently, what might be the composition of a rule with inclusion and equity at its core?

This is where the table leaf comes in.

And this is also where I must acknowledge that this piece is centered upon the privilege of male whiteness; even my own. I am a white male. Very white. Like, I grew up skiing in Colorado white. I am also in a leadership position. I have been the beneficiary of white male privilege. I don’t say that ignominiously or guilt-ridden. I really had no choice in the matter. I do, however, have a choice in the matter of what I will do with that privilege. Privileges always come with responsibilities; or should. This is true of all privilege, but it is even more true of those that are tainted with injustice and inequality. One of my ancestors may have swindled and exploited whole communities out of their just deserts, or written rules of the game in a way that kept them on top, and I may have come into that bounty—more like booty. Maybe my ancestors were peripheral actors, maybe they even arrived late and penniless to the scene, but now I’ve been unwittingly allowed to come under that banner of privilege. Regardless of the history, in this society, being a white male has its undisputed privileges. And I am writing from, and primarily to my fellow white males. They are my audience, but all are welcome to listen in.

I have a recommendation. Carry a table leaf around with you! No, not a real one. (You’re so literal.) Carry a conceptual one. A table leaf has the power to create two additional spots at the table and, if you happen to have one, will. You see where I’m going?

One of the more unnoticed culprits in this whole realm of power-exclusion is that it is almost never verbalized. Allow me a respite from too much scrutiny here, however deserved. Exclusion is rarely verbalized; rarely noticed. That’s why adherents of the Billy Graham rule always assumed they were taking the moral high ground. We need to hone the skill of noticing the rest of the picture.

When you get that email, “Alan, we’re reviewing the budget allocations on Friday and need your input.” Or, “Steve, would you be willing to give a presentation to shareholders on Monday?” Or, “Mike, great news! You’ve come up for a promotion.” What do you do?

Typically, you go to that meeting, give that presentation, accept that promotion. What’s the problem? Well, when you go to that meeting, does everybody look like you? What about the panel of presenters? The partners? The elders? The leadership team? The board? Are you seeing a lot of white? Mostly Y chromosomes? That’s the problem! If you are being asked, invited, promoted, platformed, groomed, coached, developed, then who might not be? Who is missing at all these tables?

You see, we tell ourselves that we’re not being exclusionary, but are we being inclusionary? Do we notice the white maleness of our important spaces and are we troubled? This is why we need a table leaf on hand. Consider it an item that necessitates placement—like when my in-laws rope me into Thanksgiving prep. Learn to see that boardroom table, that executive desk, that podium, that pulpit, that report, that email thread as lacking a table leaf.

Now here’s the hard part: you also need to hone the skill of insisting on its placement.

“Thanks for the email. May I ask who else is on that review committee?”
“What an honor to be asked! Who else are you hoping to have present?”
“Such great news! Is anyone else up for promotion?”

If you aren’t hearing the names of females and minorities being included, bring out your table leaf.

“Hey, so I’ve got this principle. I don’t like to attend important meetings without better representation. Can we talk about who else to invite?”
“You know, I think I’ve given the keynote several times already. Can I recommend someone else?”
“I’m honored to be considered for this promotion, but I feel strongly that I will need a few key perspective-points around me in this job.”

Believe me, you will be an annoyance to people. (I can’t think of any meaningful achievements that don’t come about through some annoyance.) At times you’ll know you are exasperating people: “We don’t have time for this!” You may even have to step awkwardly out of meetings, especially once you’ve made it known you’ll not be there with only white men. You may be accused of being sanctimonious or worse.

“But my company [or church or organization or non-profit or whatever] is too small and too white for me to fulfill this,” you protest. Maybe you need to leave that institution? Or maybe you need to get in the habit of inviting outside voices—third party consultants. Or form an advisory board. How else will you see change happen?

I’m acknowledging that this will require both dexterity and moxie to fulfill, but here’s the cool part—this is what women and minorities have had to do for generations! By simply taking up this responsibility, you will transport yourself into a more truthful (and more turbulent) world. It’s not for the faint of heart. It is safer to just keep your mouth shut, and you are free to chose that path.

“What if the representation is strong?” Good question! Keep it strong by continuing to confirm your principle; by continuing to pull out your table leaf. If we know one thing, it is that gains can turn to losses in the blink of an eye. I’m asking you to accept the onus of being a breakwater; of forestalling needless erosion.

“The theology of my church (or synagogue or mosque or faith-based organization) prohibits women from holding certain positions.” That’s a tricky one, but it actually accentuates what I’m saying here! If more egalitarian institutions need to give better attention to issues of impropriety, then more conservative religious institutions must give better attention to issues of subjugation. Don’t use your theology as an excuse for deafening your ears to what is best for those in the margins. If anything, these theologies demand that you redouble your commitment to creating every possible space at the table. It comes with its own set of moral requirements. (And let us remember that similar such “theological” justifications were levied against ethnic minorities not long ago.) Don’t let theology be your cop out. Don’t sacralize your indifference.

I propose this be called Table Leaf Rule (maybe in honor of my mom, who first taught me the imaginative utility of table leaves and was, in her own right, one who fought hard for a place at the table), but the name doesn’t matter. What matters is that it be pursued with the same moral conscientiousness as the Billy Graham Rule or any other integrity guideline. If we need guard-rails on one side of the bridge, we should certainly have them on the other side as well. Somehow this needs to find its way out of the optional compartment of our behavior and into the obligatory one; the moral one.

Though this message can carry over to others with access to power and influence, I’m appealing it to white males because we need it badly. We need to see and appraise things differently; better. We need to account for our obliviousness and help others do the same.

Peer under that table, and you’ll find some locks and gears and such. They might need unsticking, a little elbow grease will do. You may pinch your fingers and have trouble getting the leaf in place, but stick with it. I would encourage you to do a really good job inviting others to the table—a good host never lets their guests fly blind, especially when you are needing to invite outsiders in. A table leaf achieves its designed purpose when additional guests become present. Let’s not think of them actually as guests, but as those who’ve long-since been deprived of their belonging place.

If certain guard-rails acknowledge the harm that can come from our own vulnerabilities, certain others must appreciate the harm we might inflict upon the vulnerabilities of others. Both are important. Ta-Nehisi Coates expressed it this way:

These are compacts I have made with myself and with my family. There are other compact we make with our country and society. I tend to think those compacts work best when we do not flatter ourselves…

A guideline like this cannot solve the endemic social problems I’ve described; then again, neither can any personal principal or guideline. These are always only ways in which we remind ourselves of our responsibilities, and give ourselves clearer instructions for conduct. Then again, if Billy Graham and Co.’s little manifesto became a movement unto itself, certainly there can be found power in such ideas—especially those imbued with a sense of moral mandate. Every time white males sit in all the important chairs around all the important tables, know for sure that harms are compounded and perpetuated. They may not be intended, but are real and serious nonetheless. We can and must do better.

Let’s not forget our table leaves. Who’s with me?


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