Post Author: Emily Mitchell
Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness was released this year and I commend it to you. Brown’s memoir is essential reading. Especially Christians who are white and living in the United States will benefit from listening to Brown’s wisdom and perspective as a woman of color.
Her absorbing book starts with a surprising story that immediately draws the reader in: Brown describes an encounter she had at the age of seven when the librarian was suspicious and questioned whether the library card actually belonged to this young Black girl. When Brown confronted her mother afterward, her mother confessed that she and Brown’s father had intentionally chosen a name most typically given to a white male, because they hoped that potential employers in the future would give “Austin” a chance not normally extended to people of color.
After this powerful chapter, Brown tells her story chronologically. She describes attending a private Christian elementary school in Toledo, visiting extended family in Cleveland, and she shares experiences—both positive and negative—with teachers at her Catholic high school and majority-white college in Chicago. After graduating, Brown worked at a number of Christian non-profit organizations. Brown is someone who is well acquainted with white evangelical culture, and she writes with persuasion and spiritual strength.
Going into the working world after college, Brown admits that she had assumed that she would be able to fearlessly combat racism, slaying racist nonsense as if it were a dragon. What she discovered, however, was that racism was not so much an “imposing beast” but a “poison” that “seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.” My guess is that many young clergywomen could resonate with this experience. We may enter a ministry with idealism and a desire to effect change, but systems that oppress continue to oppress, and others undermine our truth at every turn. Every time we seek to name the problem, we are told that the problem is with us. It can be wearying.
For this reason, I am grateful for Brown’s tenacity: throughout her memoir, she fearlessly challenges the presence of white supremacy within the American church. At the same time, it was clear to me that she wasn’t using Christianity as a punching bag: there was no malice in her evaluation, only love. She writes, “even though the Church I love has been the oppressor as often as it has been the champion of the oppressed, I can’t let go of my belief in Church—in a universal body of belonging, in a community that reaches toward love in a world so often filled with hate. I continue to be drawn toward the collective participation of seeking good, even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.”
In the workplace, Brown discovered how insidious white supremacy is. She writes, “Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls… It wants us to sing the celebratory ‘We Shall Overcome’ during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of ‘Strange Fruit.’ It wants to see a Black person seated at the table but doesn’t want to hear a dissenting viewpoint. It wants to pat itself on the back for helping poor Black folks through missions or urban projects but has no interest in learning from Black people’s wisdom, talent, and spiritual depth. Whiteness wants enough Blackness to affirm the goodness of whiteness, the progressiveness of whiteness, the openheartedness of whiteness. Whiteness likes a trickle of Blackness, but only that which can be controlled.”
There were times as I read this book that I had the same sensation as when I watched the James Baldwin documentary I Am Not Your Negro. What I had previously seen as benign in American culture was exposed, by Baldwin and Brown’s keen insights, to be grotesque. Brown rightly observes that the white church has viewed power as its birthright rather than its curse, and her memoir is a testimony of the damage done by the curse of whiteness in the American church.
Brown’s book is a helpful addition to Ta-Nehesi Coates’ Between the World and Me. When I read Coates’ book in 2015, it struck me both as required reading and incredibly bleak: I didn’t detect the presence of hope in Coates’ outlook. Brown explains her experiences with candor and sorrow, but she does not convey the same level of starkness as Coates, owing to her faith. Reading Brown’s book thus buoyed me toward the possibility of change in a way that Coates’ book did not.
The chapter “Nice White People” connected with me in my particular ministry context, because many people at my church believe that they are not racist because they are nice and they participate in regular acts of niceness that validate their self-identification as good people. Brown writes, “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. The problem with this framework—besides being a gross misunderstanding of how racism operates in systems and structures enabled by nice people—is that it obligates me to be nice in return, rather than truthful.”
Brown is right: niceness is a value that has been elevated above all others in the white American church, even though that niceness would not top the list of virtues that Christ espoused. The insistence on niceness has enabled white people to be affirmed in their whiteness while remaining ignorant of sin both individual and collective. Niceness does not cover over a multitude of sins.
Brown’s chapter on white fragility is a good introduction to the topic. She calls white fragility dangerous because it makes the feelings of white people the most important thing and it ignores the personhood of image-bearers of God who are non-white. White people largely tend to get more agitated about being labeled racist than they are concerned about whether or not their actions are in fact racist. I think that is where I struggle the most: likely those who have the most to gain from listening to Brown’s story may not feel like picking the book up, because reading it may make them uncomfortable. I long for Brown’s book to have a larger audience than it currently does.
Brown asserts, “Our only chance at dismantling racial injustice is being more curious about its origins than we are worried about our comfort.” Brown’s book is discomforting and disillusioning—if white Christians are under the illusion that the church is far removed from the brokenness of the world. I pray that the Holy Spirit will spark a curiosity and a keenness to understand among my white brothers and sisters in Christ, that we shed our idolatry and illusions of comfort and we let justice roll down like waters.
I look forward to reading Brown’s future work. I was stirred in her memoir of how she came to prize her own voice. I think that many clergywomen can relate with making comparisons with our heroes and ultimately claiming our contributions to be different and also important and complementary. Brown writes, “I am not Nina [Simone], but I can defend Black dignity through writing and preaching. I am not Angela [Davis], but I am learning to speak truth to power in ways that are equally invitational and challenging.”
Brown’s memoir is indeed a challenge to the reign of whiteness in the American church and an invitation to be brave and curious, humble and hopeful for things to be different. May we heed her invitation.
Emily has been serving as Associate Pastor of First Presbyterian Maumee in Northwest Ohio since January 2015. She previously served as a pastoral resident at Bellevue Presbyterian in Washington State. She holds degrees from Princeton Theological Seminary and Whitman College.
Emily grew up in Seattle; therefore, she recycles, makes her own granola, and enjoys spending time outdoors. She averages reading over 35 books a year.
Image by: Penguin Random House
Used with permission