Austin Channing Brown. I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness. Convergent Books, 2018. (185 pages)
Austin Channing Brown: White people are ‘exhausting’, by Emily McFarlan Miller of Religion New Service; Book Review by Shannon Whitehead of The Witness; A Conversation with Austin Channing Brown by Dianca Potts of Signature.
Go buy and read this book. Now.
It is appropriate to be at a loss for words when a book full of these words exists. This is not a book one “reads” as if it provides some new insight or education on race. No, this is a book one receives for the prophetic exhortations it is calling us all toward. I am profoundly grateful for this book’s existence, and Brown’s voice in The Church.
My notes below are some highlights and underlines, but I confess, these excerpts are inadequate to the full breadth of what this book really is.
1. White People Are Exhausting
White people who expect me to be white have not yet realized that their cultural way of being is not in fact the result of goodness, rightness, or God’s blessing. Pushing back, resisting the lie, is hella work. (20)
White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not. (23)
My story is not about condemning white people but about rejecting the assumption–sometimes spoken, sometimes not–that white is right: closer to God, holy, chosen, the epitome of being. (23)
I offer this story in hopes that we will embody a community eager to name whiteness, celebrate Blackness, and, in a world still governed by systems of racial oppression, begin to see that there’s another way. (23)
2. Playing Spades
…rather than my race being the elephant in the room, it seemed instead to be my secret knowledge. (25)
3. The Other Side of Harmony
…harmony–the absence of outright conflict–often leaves deeper complications untouched. (40)
Would I write that Christopher Columbus “discovered” America? Would I do the report on Malcolm X instead of Mark Twain? My parents left the decision to me. I could choose the better grade or I could choose to affirm Blackness. (45)
Why should the world be over-wise,
In counting all our tears and sighs?
Nay, let them only see us, while
We wear the mask.
I didn’t have phrases like white tears (50) or white fragility, and I’m not sure I had even explored the term white privilege at that point in my life. But I was learning about these things all the same–not from theory, but from life. (51)
4. Ain’t No Friends Here
Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.
5. Whiteness at Work
Confession: By the time I graduated from college, I thought I was the white culture whisperer. I was fearless. I thought Any future encounters of racism would rear their ugly heads like purple dragons, and I had no doubt in my ability to slay racist nonsense wherever I found it. I was so wrong. Far from an imposing beast, I found that white supremacy is more like a poison. It seeps into your mind, drop by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true. (67)
…at an organization that promoted diversity in its mission statements and messaging. …many people of color on our team had grown suspicious of those statements, suspecting that the organization wanted our racial diversity without our diversity of thought and culture. (69)
The role of a bridge builder sounds appealing until it becomes clear how often that bridge is your broken back. (69)
The ultimate expectation is that I will come to realize that white ways of thinking, behaving, communicating, and understanding the world are to be valued above all else. | Rare is the ministry praying that they would be worthy of the giftedness of Black minds and hearts. So we must remind ourselves. It’s the only way to spit out the poison. We must remind ourselves and (79) one another that we are fearfully and wonderfully made, arming ourselves against the ultimate message of whiteness–that we are inferior. We must stare at ourselves in the mirror and repeat that we, too, are fully capable, immensely talented, and uniquely gifted. We are not tokens. We are valuable in the fullness of our humanity. We are not perfect, but we are here, able to contribute something special, beautiful, lasting to the companies and ministries to which we belong. (80)
Interlude: Why I Love Being a Black Girl
6. White Fragility
This is partly what makes the fragility of whiteness so damn dangerous. It ignores the personhood of people of color and instead makes the feelings of whiteness the most important thing. … White fragility protects whiteness and forces Black people to fend for themselves. (89)
To stay committed to this work, I have to accept the constant experience of entrenchment and transformation. On the bad days, when entrenchment is lashing out, tearing down, pretending you don’t have a name, this work feels soul crushing, dehumanizing. But on the good days, you witness transformation, openness, a willingness to change one’s worldview. And for a brief moment, I can believe in the possibility that we are still inching toward justice. (98)
7. Nice White People
When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, and that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination. The problem with this framework–besides being a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates in systems and structures enabled by nice people–is that it obligates me to be nice in return, rather than truthful. I am expected to come closer to the racists. Be nicer to them. Coddle them. (101)
…the Relational Defense … rather than confess and seek transformation, the person defends their “goodness” by appealing to the relationships of those who “know” them. (102)
White people desperately want to believe that only the lonely, isolated “whites only” club members are racist. This is why the word racist offends “nice white people” so deeply. It challenges their self-identification as good people. Sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful. (104)
But the truth is, even the monsters–the Klan members, the faces int he lynch mob, the murder-(104)ers who bombed churches–they all had friends and family members. Each one of them was connected to people who would testify that they had good hearts. They had families who loved them, friends who came over for dinner, churches where they made small talk with the pastor after the service. The monster has always been well dressed and well loved. (105)
[via: This reminded me of the 2 Corinthians 11:14 passage that states that Satan often disguises himself as an angel of light.]
…for those on the receiving end, white guilt is like having tar dry all over your hands and heart. It takes so much work to peel off the layers, rub away the stickiness, get rid of the smell. Unsolicited confessions inspired by a sense of guilt are often poured over Black bodies in search of their own relief. (107)
I was expected to offer absolution. | But I am not a priest for the white soul. (109)
White people really want this to be what reconciliation means: a Black person forgiving them for one racist sin. (110)
8. The Story We Tell
Ultimately, the reason we have not yet told the truth about this history of Black and white America is that telling an ordered history of this nation (116) would mean finally naming America’s commitment to violent, abusive, exploitative, immoral white supremacy, which seeks the absolute control of Black bodies. It would mean doing something about it. (117)
Sadly, too many of us in the church don’t live like we believe this. We live as if we are afraid acknowledging the past will tighten the chains of injustice rather than break them. We live as if the ghosts of the past will snatch us if we walk through the valley of the shadow of death. So instead we walk around the valley, talk about the valley. We speak of the valley with cute euphemisms:
“We just have so many divisions in this country.”
“If we could just get better at diversity, we’d be so much better off.”
We are experiencing some cultural changes.
Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort. (117)
We can lament and mourn. We can be livid and enraged. We can be honest. We can tell the truth. We can trust that the Holy Spirit is here. We must. | For only by being truthful about how we got here can we begin to imagine another way. (118)
9. Creative Anger
To be a Negro in this country and to be relatively conscious, is to be in a rage almost all the time. So that the first problem is how to control that rage so that it won’t destroy you. Part of the rage is this: it isn’t only what is happening to you, but it’s what’s happening all around you all of the time, in the face of the most extraordinary and criminal indifference, the indifference and ignorance of most white people in this country. – James Baldwin, 1961.
Every woman has a wellstocked arsenal of anger potentially useful against those oppressions, personal and institutional, which brought that anger into being. Focused with precision it can become a powerful source of energy serving progress and change … Anger expressed and translated into action int he service of our vision and our future is a liberating and strengthening act of clarification.- Audre Lorde, Sister Outsider.
I serve a God who experienced and expressed anger. … Jesus throws folks out the building, and in so doing creates space for the most marginalized to come in: the poor, the wounded, the children. I imagine the next day’s newspapers called Jesus’s anger destructive. But I think those without power would’ve said that his anger led to freedom–the freedom of belonging, the freedom of healing, and the freedom of participating as full members in god’s house. (127)
Interlude: How to Survive Racism in an Organization That Claims to Be Antiracist
10. Ask why they want you. Get as much clarity as possible on what the organization has read about you, what they understand about you, what they assume are your gifts and strengths. What does the organization hope you will bring to the table? Do those answers align with your reasons for wanting to be at the table?
9. Define your terms. You and the organization may have different definitions of words like justice, diversity, or antiracism. Ask for definitions, examples, or success stories to give you a better idea of how the organization understands and embodies these words. Also ask (128) about who is in charge and who is held accountable for these efforts. Then ask yourself if you can work within that structure.
8. Hold the organization to the highest vision they committed to for as long as you can. Be ready to move if the leaders aren’t prepared to pursue their own stated vision.
7. Find your people. If you are going to push back against the system or push leadership forward, it’s wise not to do so alone. Build or join an antiracist cohort within the organization.
6. Have mentors and counselors on standby. Don’t just choose a really good friend or a parent when seeking advice. It’s important to have one or two mentors who can give advice based on their personal knowledge of the organization and its leaders. You want someone who can help you navigate the particular politics of your organization.
5. Practice self-care. Remember that you are a whole person, not a mule to carry the racial sins of the organization. Fall in love, take your children to the park, don’t miss doctors’ visits, (129) read for pleasure, dance with abandon, have lots of good sex, be gentle with yourself.
4. Find donors who will contribute to the cause. Who’s willing to keep the class funded, the diversity positions going, the social justice center operating? It’s important for the organization to know the members of your cohort aren’t the only ones who care. Demonstrate that there are stakeholders, congregation members, and donors who want to see real change.
3. Know your rights. There are some racist things that are just mean, but others are against the law. Know the difference, and keep records of it all.
2. Speak. Of course, context matters. You must be strategic about when, how, to whom, and about which situations you decide to call out. But speak. Find your voice and use it.
1. Remember: You are a creative being who is capable of making change. But it is not your responsibility to transform an entire organization. (130)
10. The Ritual of Fear
11. A God for the Accused
It doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, Blackness is always the true offense. Whiteness needs just a hint of a reason to maintain its own goodness, assuring itself that there’s no reason to worry, because the victim had it coming. He was a drug dealer. A criminal. A thug.
| We don’t talk about white drug dealers this way. We don’t even talk about white murderers this way. Somehow, we manage to think of them as people first, who just happened to do something bad. But the same respect is rarely afforded to Black folks. We must always earn the right to live. Perfection is demanded of Blackness before mercy or grace or justice can even be considered. I refuse to live this way. (146)
All those years ago, I learned in church that Jesus understood the poor. Because of Dalin, I realized that Jesus also understood the accused, the incarcerated, the criminals. Jesus was accused. Jesus was incarcerated. Jesus hung on a cross with his crime listed above his crown of thorns. It doesn’t bring Dalin back. But it matters to me that my God knows what Dalin’s body endured. Suddenly racial justice and reconciliation wasn’t limited to Black and white church members; it became a living framework for understanding God’s work in the world. (147)
12. We’re Still Here
I am grateful for my ancestors’ struggle and their survival. But I am not impressed with America’s progress. (151)
Many call it progress, but I do not consider it praiseworthy that only within the last generation did America reach the baseline for human decency. (151)
For all their talk about being persecuted, white Christian Americans don’t know this kind of terror. Generations of Black Americans have known nothing but this kind of terror. (156)
Interlude: A Letter to My Son
13. Justice, Then Reconciliation
In its true form, reconciliation possesses the impossible power of the lion lying down with the lamb; the transformative power of turning swords into plowshares. But instead of pushing for relationships that are deep, transformative, and just–instead of allowing these efforts to alter our worldview, deepen our sense of connectedness, and inspire us toward a generosity (166) that seeks to make all things right–we have allowed reconciliation to become synonymous with contentedly hanging out together. (167)
Reconciliation chooses sides, and the side is always justice. | This is why white American churches remain so far from experiencing anything resembling reconciliation. The white Church considers power its birthright rather than its curse. (167)
…when they’re not paired with greater change, diversity efforts can have the opposite of their intended effect. They keep the church feeling good, innocent, maybe even progressive, all the while preserving the roots of injustice. (168)
…dialogue is productive toward reconciliation only when it leads to action–when it inverts power and pursues justice for those who are most marginalized. (169)
In too many churches and organizations, listening to the hurt and pain of people of color is the end of the road, rather than the beginning. (170)
When white people stop short of reconciliation, it’s often because they are motivated by a deep need to believe in their own goodness, and for that goodness to be affirmed over and over and over again. (171)
Reconciliation is the pursuit of the impossible–an upside-down world where those who are powerful have relinquished that power to the margins. (171)
Reconciliation requires imagination. (172)
Reconciliation is what Jesus does. When sin and brokenness and evil tore us from God, it was Jesus who reconciled us, whose body imagined a different relationship, who took upon himself the cross and became peace. (172)
Fortunately, Jesus doesn’t need all white people to get onboard before justice and reconciliation can be achieved. For me, this is freedom. Freedom to tell the truth. Freedom to create. Freedom to teach and write without burdening myself with the expectation that I can change anyone. It has also shifted my focus. Rather than making white people’s reactions the linchpin that holds racial justice together, I am free to link arms with those who are already being transformed. (173)
14. Standing in the Shadow of Hope
More often than not, my experience has been that whiteness sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate. Love, for whiteness, dissolves into a demand for grace, for niceness, for endless patience–to keep everyone feeling comfortable while hearts are being changed. In this way, so-called love dodges any (175) responsibility for action and waits for the great catalytic moment that finally spurs accountability.
I need a love that is troubled by injustice. A love that is provoked to anger when Black folks, including our children, lie dead in the streets. A love that can no longer be concerned with tone because it is concerned with life. A love that has no tolerance for hate, no excuses for racist decisions, no contentment in the status quo. I need a love that is fierce in its resilience and sacrifice. I need a love that chooses justice. (176)
The persistence of racism in America–individual and societal–is altogether overwhelming. It doesn’t lay the best fertilizer for hope to grow. (178)
Each death of hope has been painful and costly. But in the mourning there always rises a new clarity about the world, about the Church, about myself, about God. | And in this there is new life. Realignment. Rediscovery. | And on the really good days: renewal. (179)
…instead of waiting fot he bright sunshine, I have learned to rest in the shadow of hope. (179)