Summary: What it means to be a Black Woman in middle-class White America, even within the church.
A little over a week ago I sat down with a list of the books I had read since the start of 2017 and analyzed the authors. I looked at how many were White, how many were women, how many were fiction versus non-fiction. What I discovered when I completed this quick exercise was that I read just over 60% non-fiction. Although the authors of the fiction I read was was roughly evenly split between men and women authors, my non-fiction was five times more likely to be male authors as female. And my non-fiction was three times more likely to be White than non-White authors. Because of my bias toward non-fiction, I read mostly White males.
This exercise was not about meeting a quota, but about exploring what as a reader I am consuming. How much do I, when not paying attention, default to reading the voices of White males (a lot). What do I need to do to make sure I am not internalizing the bias of my reading choices? With that information, I know that I need to make sure I am intentionally picking up more books written by minorities, especially women.
I picked up I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness yesterday, when it came out, in part because of my exercise not hearing minority, especially female minority authors. I’m Still Here is brief, just over 3 hours in audiobook. It is mostly memoir. Austin Channing Brown opens with a story about how her name (one that is associated mostly with White Males) was chosen intentionally to get her in the door for interviews. She grew up in mostly White neighborhoods and going to mostly White schools. It wasn’t until college that she had her first Black teacher. But the saturation in White culture did not change her skin color or how she was perceived by those that were going to judge her because of her gender or skin.
It appears to me that I’m Still Here is written primarily for Black women, but with the intention to be overheard by others. She celebrates her blackness because that is how God created her. And she celebrates the comfort of the Black church in the reality of the difficulties of the world. It tells about the emotional baggage that has been heaped upon her as a professional woman working mostly in Christian non-profits to do the work of making Whites feel good about how much progress has been made in racial issues or to spoon feed them history about racism in the US.
Part of her work has been directly around diversity and racial awareness. So she has both informal and formal background in what it means to be a Black Woman in a White Christian world. She has led diversity trainings and facilitated White youth groups coming into urban neighborhoods for awareness building. She has been asked to understand plenty without most Whites being willing to understand even a portion.
I am very glad that the end of the book spoke directly about racial reconciliation. She diagnoses the problem well,
“…reconciliation is not about white feelings. It’s about diverting power and attention to the oppressed, toward the powerless. It’s not enough to dabble at diversity and inclusion while leaving the existing authority structure in place. Reconciliation demands more.”
When I criticized John Perkins’ recent book One Blood, it wasn’t that I didn’t agree with his basic point, that we as Christians are in fact one blood and that racial reconciliation is very important. I disagreed with the tone and focus of the book because it was not hard enough on Whites. And Perkins seem to place, if not equal, at least significant, responsibility on minority Christians for their part in making racial reconciliation work within the church. Austin Channing Brown is not playing around with that type of equivocation. Racism is the result of White’s prejudice and power, and while many minorities want to work to end racism, the reality is that they have mostly been doing the work unassisted. Racism is ultimately a White problem as James Baldwin has said. But one where the largest payment for the problem is borne by those that are not White.
I’m Still Here is one of the best examples of why, even though I think that White authors need to step up and talk about race and prejudice and racism and history, we cannot stop listening to people of color, especially women, as they tell us their reality.
(I also appreciate that the publisher let her read her own book. Books should be, whenever possible, narrated by their own author.)