ĎWhite people can be exhaustingí: How black dignity perseveres in a world made for whiteness

June 4, 2018

"White people can be exhausting.

"Itís work to be the only person of color in an organization, bearing the weight of all your white co-workersí questions about Blackness.

"Itís work to always be hypervisible because of your skin ó easily identified as being present or absent ó but for your needs to be completely invisible to those around you.

"Itís work to do the emotional labor of pointing out problematic racist thinking, policies, action and statements while desperately trying to avoid bitterness and cynicism.

"Quite frankly, the work isnít just tedious. It can be dangerous for Black women to attempt to carve out space for themselves ó their perspective, their gifts, their skills, their education, their experiences ó in places that havenít examined the prevailing assumption of white culture. The danger of letting whiteness walk off with our joy, our peace, our sense of dignity and self-love, is ever present. As a black woman working in white spaces, my perception of racial dynamics has been questioned, minimized, or denied altogether."

These words are from Austin Channing Brownís new book, "Iím Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness," released earlier this month.

Theyíre words are about the black experience in America ó about "being calm in a world made for whiteness"; where "half-baked efforts at diversity are enough because the status quo is fine."

But lest readers think this book is about condemning white people, itís about surviving in a world not made for a woman of color. "Itís about standing before roomfuls of Christians and challenging them to see Blackness without the baggage of racist bias," Channing Brown writes.

We talked with the former Chicago resident, North Park University alumna and former staffer with faith-based service organization DOOR about what she hopes readers will take from the book.

The following conversation has been edited for space and clarity.

Q: Is this book a lesson for the white population, or is it an affirmation to the black community?

A: I really, at the forefront of my mind, had black women reading this book. I really want black women to feel seen; I want black women to feel heard. I feel like there are a lot of books out there on the black male experience, but they really made me think about those of us who have a different experience, those of us who didnít grow up in the íhood, those of us who have always been around white spaces, and I really wanted to uplift that story because we so often feel alone and isolated because there is only a handful of us where we work or worship or volunteer. So I just wanted to write a book that said: I see you. And I affirm what youíre experiencing. You are not alone.

Q: "Letís start a conversation" has become the new catchphrase on race. But whatís the truth of the matter?

A: I agree. The truth lies in being honest about the system and the structure that we are in. Why is it every time I speak and say something, someone at the table feels the need to translate what Iím saying before people can appreciate it? Thatís the truth. If weíre going to sit around and talk about race, thatís what I need us to talk about. I need for us to talk about how inappropriate it is for white folks to think that they can touch me or my hair. Thatís the truth. The things that really impact our lives, our emotions, that impact whether or not you and I can go to work and just have a "normal" day. It is so frustrating.

Q: How did the book unfold when writing it?

A: I knew I was going to start with the story of my name because it was the first time I realized what race means in America. I knew I was a little black girl, but I didnít know what that meant until that moment (in the first chapter). I wanted to show that I didnít just go to sleep one day and wake up the next as an activist and advocate for black lives ó this was a journey. This has been a journey even for me, and itís a journey for all of us.

Q: Is the bookís goal to kick-start folksí activism?

A: Honestly, I think this book is probably not for folks who are just beginning their journey on racial justice. I did write this book for people who are already committed to racial justice, to whom I wanted to say hereís where we still have some improvements to be made. So stop patting yourselves on the back for having a black woman on staff, stop being proud of yourself for having a whole 20 percent people of color ó you need to move on. Like good, Iím glad you started, Iím glad youíre committed, but weíve got to keep going. So I was trying to paint a picture of what it might look like to keep going without being prescriptive.

Q: In the book you say you donít think you or your grandchildren will see racial equality in their lifetimes. Where can one find hope?

A: I do find hope in change. Iím really encouraged by the advocacy efforts, particularly around mass incarceration right now and changing laws related to the criminal justice system, so there are definitely places where I am still hopeful that we will see change. I just think the elimination of racism just feels really big; I donít know if in a couple or few generations weíll manage that, but Iím definitely still hopeful, supporting and cheering on real changes toward that end, and I hope to raise my son to be a part of that change too ó whether he gets to partake of the fullness of it or not. I hope that he will fall in love with the work, the same way I have.




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