Friday, March 12, 2021

Freeform Friday - I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness - Austin Channing Brown

Summary: Austin Channing Brown's first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man.  Growing up in majority white schools, organizations, and churches, Austin writes, "I had to learn what it means to love Blackness," a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America's racial divide as a writer, a speaker, and an expert helping organizations practice genuine inclusion.

In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value diversity in their mission statements, I'm Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words.  Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America's social fabric -- from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.

For readers who have engaged with America's legacy on race through the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, I'm Still Here is an illuminating look at how white middle-class Evangelicalism has participated in an era of rising racial hostility, inviting the reader to confront apathy, recognize God's ongoing work in the world, and discover how Blackness -- if we let it -- can save us all. (Summary from book flap - Image from amazon.com)

DISCLAIMER: I am fairly new to intentionally reading books centered on racial issues, so I will do my best to review this book honestly and with sensitivity.  If I make a statement that is ignorant or insensitive, please call me on it in the comments.  In addition, I acknowledge that, as a white woman, I cannot speak to what a Black reader might learn from this book so I will leave that assessment for a more qualified reviewer.  

My Review:  Austin Channing Brown's I'm Still Here offers a remarkable perspective on what it means to be Black in a world that, by all credible accounts, is made for whiteness.  In this book, Brown recounts the challenges that she faced growing up in a predominantly white neighborhood and school system.  She also talks about later visits to her father's predominantly Black neighborhood, her struggles to fit in there after having spent so long surrounded by white people, and how, with the help of a new friend and a loving church, she came to accept and cherish her own Blackness.  

Throughout her life, Brown has experienced racist interactions with white people, even in her own Christian workplace and shares some of those interactions in the hopes that readers can understand her perspective and learn from her experiences.  I expect that this book will reveal different things to different people, but I certainly learned a great deal about some of the common misconceptions about racism and what I can do to cultivate anti-racism. One crucial message was the importance of learning about our nation's racial history and the current racial landscape.  One of the things impacted me while reading is the sheer volume of concerns Black people have that I have never once had to think about simply because of the color of my skin.  

  • Will my skin color or the name my parents gave me make it hard for me to get a job?  
  • Will I have to serve as a spokesperson for my race today?  
  • Will I be accused of shoplifting if I open my purse or touch my pockets in a store?  
  • Will I look 'out of place' or 'suspicious' in X neighborhood?  
  • Will my loved one be perceived as a threat today?  
  • Will I be confused for yet another person just because we have the same skin color? 
  • Will I lose my life on a traffic stop because my actions were misconstrued as menacing? 
  • And so many more...

The fact that Black families even have to have a conversation about how to exist safely among white people is sickening.  It's no wonder they are tired, frustrated, and angry.  Using these and other personal examples, the author demonstrates that despite what some people think, racism didn't end with the abolishment of slavery or Jim Crow laws, the passing of the Civil Rights act, nor has it ended with the elections of Barack Obama, Kamala Harris, and other Black leaders.  She even asserts that these events are not laudable achievements, saying  'This is how it should always have been.  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." Those words hit me like a freight train and I have thought of them many times since.  We don't get to pat our ourselves on the back for reaching these 'achievements'; we still have a long way to go.  

Two of my favorite chapters center around the fallacious belief that 'harmony' signifies 'racial equality' and that nice people aren't racist.  I learned that the absence of outright conflict on the surface can perpetuate certain assumptions about race and often keeps us from exploring and resolving deeper conflict.  Harmony isn't helpful if we aren't learning from one another.  Engaging in racial dialogue only matters if it leads to meaningful change. I also realized that just because someone is 'a nice person' doesn't mean they can't be harboring racist ideologies.  In Brown's words, "Most white people still believe that they are good and the true racists are easy to spot..... 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.

I used to think that being anti-racist was simply believing that skin color has no bearing on a person's worth and that we are all equal in God's eyes.  While I still believe both statements are true, I have come to realize that anti-racism is more complex and requires significant work, dedication, and humility.  The lessons I learned from this book didn't come from bullet points or chapter breakdowns; they came from reading about Brown's experiences and taking a long hard look at myself.  I'm Still Here does not provide a series of step-by-step instructions for how to be Anti-Racist, but I still came away with a series of steps I plan to take:

  • 'Listen to understand' more.
  • Discover and confront my own racial bias.  Work to overcome it.
  • Be active and intentional in my stand against (and study of) racial injustice.   
  • Read a variety of BIPOC perspectives.  
  • Do the work.  I should never expect a Black person to 'educate' me.  
  • Learn about our nation's BIPOC history and acknowledge the harsh, uncomfortable truths.  (I finished this book last year and highly recommend it.)
  • Pay attention.  Speak up.  Do what I can to make things better.  
  • Avoid centering white feelings and/or elevating white concerns over Black ones.

One final thought.  As a fellow Christian, I appreciated that the author didn't try to hide her commitment to her faith, nor did she shy away from calling out racist behaviors in her own religious community.  One of my favorite sections of the book is where Brown discusses the importance of having hard conversations and how the Spirit of the Lord can still be present when we disagree as long as we are seeking to understand one another.  In the chapter, entitled, The Story We Tell, Brown says:

Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.  It's not a comfortable conversation for any of us.  It is risky and messy.  It's haunting work to recall the sins of our past.  But is this not the work we have been called to anyway?  Is this not the work of the Holy Spirit to illuminate truth and inspire transformation?  

It's haunting.  But it's also holy.  

And when we talk about race today, with all the pain packed into that conversation, the Holy Spirit remains in the room.  This doesn't mean the conversations aren't painful, aren't personal, aren't charged with emotion.  But it does mean we can survive.  We can survive honest discussions about slavery, about convict leasing, about stolen land, deportation, discrimination, and exclusion.  We can identify the harmful politics of gerrymandering, voter suppression, criminal justice laws, and policies that disproportionately affect people of color negatively.  And we can expose the actions of white institutions -- the history of segregation and white flight, the real impact of all-white leadership, the racial disparity in wages, and opportunities for advancement.  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."  

I think I'm just going to end this review on those words because, if heeded, they give me hope for true progress and equality.  Needless to say, I highly recommend I'm Still Here to anyone who wants to become more compassionate, understanding, and intentional in the push for racial equality.

My Rating: 4.5 Stars

For the Sensitive Reader:  If you are white and reading this -- please set aside your initial inclination to bristle at words like "white people," white fragility, "white tears," etc.  -- and read this book with an open mind.  The terms speak about the white community and certain behaviors in a generalized sense.  There is a small amount of swearing (mostly the D word) and the author uses the N word four times, when referencing other people's use of the word. 

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