Editor’s note: I enjoyed reading this book! It was a different and refreshing style of writing. The author, Austin Channing Brown is a young Black woman that writes as if she is speaking straight to you. Until I read her book, I didn’t realize how much energy I put into protecting white feelings. Perhaps you’re like me and need someone to tell you the truth.
During the beginning of the Black Lives Matter movement, White people were surprised to hear about their “White privilege”. While some refused to accept the idea claiming, “we’re all equal,” and it does not exist; others did realize they did have a better chance at life due to their skin color. Austin Channing Brown gives us her story of combating racism and White privilege. Throughout the book I recognized myself as a character in the pages, and perhaps you might too.
Austin Channing Brown takes us through her life as a Black Woman in America, starting with the stereotype people hold about her name. Our names are the first impression people have of us and often times we are judged before we are met. This is a repeating issue for Austin Channing Brown, as her employers always expect a White man to be in her place, and she is left watching the shock and disappointment appear in their faces, then quickly try to be hidden. After finding out she is a Black woman, the interviews almost always turn into a racial diversity conversation within the company, the original interview questions about her talents and skills forgotten.
From there, Austin talks about her experience growing up in the late 80’s between two racial atmospheres: her mother’s home, and her father’s. Though both her parents were Black, her father lived in a predominantly White neighborhood and her mother did not. Austin describes the reverse culture shock of living in a new Black neighborhood for the summer while not knowing anything about Black culture. Her only saving grace was a friend who taught her what she needed to know about the culture. This helped her balance her life. She tells us that Blackness is expansive and doesn’t need the approval of Whiteness, and it was freeing to her.
Moving back to her father’s home for the school year she is even more aware of race and gives us the viewpoint of a Black kid maneuvering through a predominantly White school. We learn that her favorite teacher was being subconsciously racist, as she tells Austin’s classroom their seating chart was based on race. Her teacher did not allow Black girls to sit near each other in fear of them being disruptive or acting “ghetto” during class. Austin’s discomfort in the moment is felt through the pages, as is her realization that she buries certain parts of herself from White people even the ones she calls friends. Austin talks about acting on her own behalf if she wanted to see herself reflected in the curriculum and having to choose between affirming Blackness or receiving the better grade.
Personally, it was interesting to read Austin’s experiences in school because I also went to a high school made for Whiteness. It is hard trying to maneuver through a predominantly White schooling system while being Black, learning how to code switch between Black culture and Whiteness becomes vital. It was in those chapters that I recognized all Black children in White classrooms and hallways will go through the same situations — being the Black voice on all things Black on Martin Luther King Day, or all eyes turning to you in literature class when slavery is discussed. Things will not change If we do not change them.
Later, in her first year in college Austin experienced her first Black teacher, a Black Woman, and it brought her a sense of pride. Throughout her college years Austin continued to amplify her voice for racial injustices by teaching White people, and encouraging Black people to become a part of her small groups. At the end of her college years she was fearless, ready to confront racism in the “real” world. She soon realized being a Black woman in the professional world is more challenging than her younger self had thought.
Here is where Austin speaks of White fragility, the discomfort White people experience when confronted with race and inequalities. As Black women we are expected to water down our personality and passion to make other people feel less intimidated, as If we have a weapon in our hands when instead it is just our skin and hair. Austin gives us her personal encounters. After being verbally attacked by a White man in diversity session, she was pulled into a meeting. Instead of being comforted in response to her hurtful confrontation with a racist White man, she was given criticism on how to comfort the man’s White fragility. She makes the point of telling us that White feelings matter more than the Black experience. She says that, “If Black People are dying in the street, we must consult with white feelings before naming the evils of police brutality.” That statement alone make us wonder what else we reframe to benefit White feelings, like our social media post, and our voice.
After White fragility we have to deal with, as Austin says, “its cousin, White guilt,” that is, accommodating white people’s feelings towards racism. This happens to about every Black woman I know; having to affirm a White person after they have shared their stories of racism or they have told us how they had “no idea racism still existed.” For Austin, she shares her story of speaking to mainly White audiences about her dealing with racism and activism. In the days following her speeches she is always bombarded with racist confessions of people’s past. Although none of them pertained to her, she does say it began to feel personal. She describes it as being the only Black kid at the table and having to laugh at the racist joke.
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was an awakening book! Austin Channing Brown does a wonderful job of discussing race and racism in her book. As anti-racists we not only have to be comfortable with discussions based on race, but we also have to be able to read books based on race, listen to music that is based on race, watch movies and documentaries based on race and much more. It does take a lot of awareness and at times can be difficult to do if you are not accustomed to it. But now is the time to start. We together have to change the narrative of history and continue to make history in our own way.