Interrogating Whiteness: reading Austin Channing Brown’s “I’m Still Here”
Michael Brown was killed just weeks before I began my junior year at a private college in Oakland, California. “Police brutality” wasn’t a phrase I’d considered within an American context. My parents homeschooled my eight siblings and me. Our access to TV, the internet, music, movies, and people outside our church’s very small community was strictly limited. As a 24-year-old college transfer student, back in 2014, I knew next to nothing about the Israel-Palestine conflict, about the war in Iraq, about the history being made by America’s first Black president. And, if memory serves me correctly, the Christian curriculum we used at home taught that racism in America ended in 1865, with the Civil War.
The population of the county where I grew up, as of the 2010 census, was 50 percent white, 15 percent Black, 15 percent Asian; 24 percent of the population identified themselves as of Latinx origin.
I never considered the fact that I might be racist, or that I came from a place of privilege. I was in for an education. When Michael Brown was killed, and as the news reports of killing after killing after killing came out, my consciousness shifted. How could I live in a country where these things were happening? What could I do to stop these horrors?
Recently, reading Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here (Convergent Books, May 2018) — even though I’m four years into my racial education — my mind yelled over itself. It flew, examining memories, and crashed in the act of looking backwards. It’s embarrassing to admit that, as I read Brown’s words about white guilt, and white fragility, and “nice white people,” my emotions, just as she predicts they will, overwhelm me. My shame. My guilt. My exclusions. My blindness. My privilege. These things belong to me, with me. They are mine to reckon with and to find ways to actively revolt against. Most of our institutions were built for white people, and many for those of Christian affiliation. But even if you don’t consider yourself a part of either group, this book is for all of us.
I’m Still Heremakes the racism tied to many small and large actions very clear. Brown begins her narrative with the story of her first name. It didn’t take her long, as a child, witnessing the surprise on people’s faces when they paired her name with her face, to figure out that something was amiss. Trying to give her a kind of insurance against biased hiring and admission practices, her parents had given her a white man’s name. “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,” Brown writes, in the chapter entitled “White People Are Exhausting.”
Spending summers with her mother in a Black community in Cleveland after her parents split up, Brown felt she didn’t belong. The white institutions she’d spent much of her life in up until that point had denied the complexity of Black experience. Through a new friend’s acceptance, though, she learned how to be herself: “Tiffani was my bridge to understanding that Black is beautiful whether it looked nerdy like me or cool like her.” Blackness had found her, Brown writes. “[I]t changed my life.” This new understanding couldn’t make her interactions with white teachers and peers less painful, but it seems to have helped her value herself, and to see that the problem lay outside of her. “Like many Black students in predominantly white schools, if I wanted to see myself reflected in the curriculum, I had to act on my own behalf,” Brown says. But this is exhausting, and not work a child should have to do. At another point, Brown questions, “Who had time to teach the teacher?
Even those white people who tried to accommodate fell short. “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort,” Brown writes. And this is what makes so many of us uncomfortable: White goodness is not charity to blackness. Being a good, decent person doesn’t rectify the racism of our systems. Kindness and decency should be our baseline. They don’t earn us a pass. It’s not enough to be “good” when whiteness perpetrated slavery. It erected statues to slaveholders and genocidal men. It has raped and lynched and murdered. If we ever hope to rebuild our nation on the principle of equity, we have to first tear down the false narratives and systems of injustice that have kept it standing, as is, for so long, and which trap us all in racism at birth. “White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced,” Brown writes. “When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.” We must actively tell our true history, to own the shame of it as Black people have had to own its pain. I imagine the aggregation of day on day on day lived as a Black person in America, and I marvel at my own flimsiness.
This is what I’ll work to keep in the forefront of my mind: It is my responsibility to ensure the safety of others’ children because it is the same supremacy of whiteness that I benefit from, that harms. To make the classroom and other public spaces more equitable, white people (myself included) need to use our power. It’s up to us to elect people of color and choose not to attend universities that don’t employ Black teachers; to question police terror — not the people being terrorized; to challenge the language of the press, educational curricula, and our own families’ views and actions.
Toward the end of her book, Brown writes, “Too often, our discussions of race are emotional but not strategic, our outreach work remains paternalistic, and our ethnic celebrations fetishize people of color.” In this essay, I am not saying anything new, and these are not my ideas. I have come to this place because of the many people of color risking much more than I’ll ever have to, to write and tell the ugly truths of white supremacy. I’m hoping that, as a white person saying these things, maybe other white people will hear me. My life is comfortable. I don’t worry constantly that my brothers will be pulled over and have their bodies harmed. I don’t live in fear for the safety of my sisters. I trust my husband will be allowed to come home to me each day. These are the privileges given to me by intertwined systems that favor those of my skin color. This security means I have the space in my life and am obliged to assume the mantle, to take up the tasks that need doing. In her last chapter, Brown writes that she has found the kind of love preached by white churches to be “inconsequential.” Whiteness, she says, “sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it must demonstrate.”