Pandemic Book Recommendation #20: I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown
Today is Juneteenth, and possibly (thanks to Donald Trump?) the first time the commemoration of the ending of slavery in the US is widely acknowledged by white Americans. Though emancipation has been celebrated since 1865, this year it is especially important considering how the legacy of slavery is continuing to create racial trauma throughout the US and Canada.
In my hometown, there was an effort last week to have the statue of Stonewall Jackson, who was born in Clarksburg, removed from the courthouse. I walked past this statue every day for many years when I worked for the Harrison County Planning Commission. Like most citizens, I did not consider how the icon represented violence against the black citizens of my county of origin. Even relatives of Andrew Jackson testified to the County Commission asking for the statue to be removed, saying, “I also believe that a heroic statue of his cause in front of the courthouse sends a very specific message of white supremacy against the black population of the county.” Nonetheless, after an outcry from white residents (many of them high school friends in my Facebook feed asking us all to sign petitions to keep the statue), the Commissioners voted to keep it, which is unsurprising considering Harrison County is 95% white.
Perhaps even more appalling were the words this week coming from one of my favourite pastor/worship leaders in the Evangelical Church. For years in my classes, I have used Louie Giglio’s Star and Whale mashup as a devotional.
I can’t use it again, not after Giglio came out two days after Raychard Brooks was murdered in Giglio’s city of Atlanta, saying shockingly that slavery was a blessing for whites. His exact words: “We understand the curse that was slavery, white people do and we say that was bad. But we miss the blessing of slavery, that it actually built up the framework for the world that white people live in.” WHAT!?!?!
Meanwhile, in my university community, we are being called out for lack of action on diversity. Though not named in the formal letter from students of colour, in a subsequent social media post, I was named (by name) as a leader at King’s who dropped the ball on this during my time as VP Student Life and Dean of Students. The criticisms are fair and just.
As whites in North America, we are just not getting it – and I include myself in this statement. We are missing the big picture. White Christians in North America need to stop defending, stop talking, and start listening. A great place to start is Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. I finished it yesterday. You may think I am suggesting this because it is a book on race written by a white guy whom we may relate to, right? Wrong! Austin is a black woman whose parents purposely gave her a white man’s name to help her get to interviews in a white supremacist world. According to her own words, “it worked too well!”
Though not mentioned in the book, Austin worked for Calvin College for a time, and likely her experience there (in addition to several roles in ministry in white churches) helped provide quite a bit of the context for her perceptions of working as a black woman in Christian organizations. Friends from King’s – pay attention! Many of our black students have shared similar horrifying experiences. She includes chapters on how “White People Are Exhausting,” how to deal with “Nice White People,” and she walks through a profoundly disturbing portrayal of what it is like to live for one day as a black woman in a white Christian workplace.
My favourite chapter was about reconciliation, a term that is prominent in my own university’s mission statement. Brown describes it as a buzzword, “a churchy sounding catch-all for diversity education.” She persuasively argues that reconciliation has been drained of its extraordinary power as revealed in Jesus going to the cross, the lion laying down with the lamb, and the power of swords transformed into plowshares. For Austin Channing Brown, radical reconciliation must choose sides, and not merely be a symbolic act of harmony. Acts of harmony do not change power structures. Too often, listening to the pain of people of colour ends up being the final step, not the beginning of real reconciliation that diverts power. Thus, as black students grievously experienced under my leadership, they end up hitting a wall.
Every white Christian in North America should read this book slowly and carefully. Before opening it, we must surrender our tendency toward defensiveness and listen – intently, empathetically, and with a view toward true reconciliation. How have we internalized racism? How are we biased? As white people in North America, we have grown up in a society stacked in our favour, and for the most part, we are blind to it. If we are white, we have internalized racism, even if we don’t see it. But those who have experienced racial trauma see it very clearly. It is evident when we refuse to listen to this trauma and perpetuate white powers, symbols and structures on our courthouse steps, in our university policies and curriculum, and in the language we use about race and reconciliation. It’s time we stop exhausting people of colour in our white spaces and begin listening. Austin Channing Brown’s book is a great place to start.