“White people can be exhausting.”
That’s the first line in Austin Channing Brown’s new book, I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. Brown, who writes and speaks about justice and racial reconciliation, said she chose those words carefully. “Exhausting” was truer than “frustrating” or any other adjective she tried, and, she said, “In the whole book, I’m trying to be as honest as I can about what it’s like to be a black woman who navigates whiteness on a very regular basis.”
Plus, she said, she didn’t intend to write an introduction to racial justice. She wanted to move the conversation forward by sharing her experiences that showed how hard and sometimes dangerous it can be for a black woman navigating white Christian spaces, while also celebrating blackness.
If that means some people put down her book, she said, then it’s not for them.
But, she said, “When I’m in multiracial spaces with folks who are already committed to the work of racial justice and I read that line out loud, white people laugh, too.”
Brown talked to Religion News Service about how the church is missing out when it doesn’t listen to black voices, how awkward even progressive spaces can be, and how white people can be less exhausting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
You write, “For only by being truthful about how we got here can we begin to imagine another way.” Is that what you hope people will take away from your book?
Absolutely. As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, even though his story is extraordinarily different than mine, I was really impacted by his ability to take the small incidents that many, many black folks have experienced before and bring them to life.
I wanted to make a book that (says), this is how it feels, here is how it’s dangerous for me to talk about race and be a black woman in an organization that thinks it’s made it, but it still has work to do. I hope by naming those things and making those things real, it would open up the eyes of white folks and (give) people of color an opportunity to say, “This is real.” I want to make it easier for people of color to express what it’s like in their own organization or their own church or their own ministry. I still believe in the multiracial beloved community, but we’ve got to talk about what’s wrong.
What do you imagine “another way” looks like?
You know, it’s not super complicated. On a small scale, I think (it looks like) diverse curriculums, people of color in actual leadership positions with leadership authority, influence beyond what I can contribute monetarily, making brave decisions in the face of those who hold the pennies. I really think sometimes there’s a desire to make it more complicated than it is. All we really need is a little bit of courage.
That’s why I didn’t include a “here’s what white people can do.” The whole book is supposed to be about what you can do. The whole book is, you can be like this teacher or you could be like this teacher. It’s supposed to inspire changes that you could make — what are the changes you can make right where you are? I don’t want to make this so big and so unattainable. I want to talk about the small things that impact that one person.
My hope would be for the church to be inspired to take the next step, whatever the next step is, to not be comfortable, to not think we’ve arrived, to think, “What’s the next step? What’s the next brave thing to do?” And to choose at least one systemic issue to really be passionate about.
You give the example in your book of white teachers you had and the white girl you met who realized, “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” How can readers learn to investigate what they think of what’s “normal” and what’s white? How can they be less exhausting?
I hope people can be honest enough to be like, “Ooh, that’s me. I need to change this or rethink this.”
Oftentimes, we say you gotta be in proximity with each other. You gotta be friends. You gotta sit at a table together. White folks need to take a step back instead of seeking out that friend, that person who’s going to teach them. They should seek out education, seek out books, seek out spaces where people of color are willing to talk, seek out the lecture, seek out the class, seek out the book studies. Seek out the spaces where people of color have already agreed to share their stories with you. That way when you come into proximity with people of color, you will have a larger foundation to build a relationship as opposed to using me as your teacher. The goal of our friendship shouldn’t be for me to be your teacher. It should be me as your friend.
You write about how you’re drawn to the church “even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.” How is the church, knowingly or unknowingly, committed to whiteness?
I think it shows up in what probably feels like small ways to white folks that, to people of color, are massive: the all-white leadership team, the all-white teachers, the book studies that are always another white person, white conferences, the white music at white conferences, the white publishing world.
I wish the church would make an investment in people of color the same way they invest in one another. I wish they would take the chance. I wish they would do the big contract, give them the big marketing budget, make them the keynote speaker. I just wish that the same level of investment, trust, excitement would be given to people of color.
You write, “Rare is the ministry praying that they would be worthy of the giftedness of Black minds and hearts. So we must remind ourselves. … We are not perfect, but we are here, able to contribute something special, beautiful, lasting to the companies and ministries to which we belong.” Can you talk about how ministries are made better by the contributions of black people?
I think that when we are all children learning about racial differences, it’s not uncommon for folks to collapse the nuances of race and culture and ethnicity to, “Oh, but we’re all the same,” “Oh, but we’re all human,” and erase differences.
On some level, that’s true — we’re all human — but in some really significant ways, we are not all the same. Our worldviews are different. Our experiences in the world are different. Our theology can be very different. The books we’re reading, the films we’re creating, the music we’re listening to and creating — there are vast differences in how we experience the world and how we interpret the world. I think what a lot of white Christian institutions do is they try to collapse that diversity for the sake of unity.
There are very unique ways of reading the Bible, of teaching the Bible, of discussing the books, of making some different decisions that people of color can bring to the table that white folks wouldn’t think about because they have different experiences. There’s so much value in it — in hearing a different voice, a different perspective. I don’t think white churches often realize what they’re missing when they don’t seek out those voices.