Between June 13 and June 20, Amistad Books tweeted a challenge for readers to purchase two books by Black authors in order to black out bestseller lists. In the interest of beginning to actually tackle my antiracist reading list and buy more Black authors, I bought I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown (plus another one since the challenge was two books). I haven’t done standalone book reviews in a long time, but I am working on being more vocal about race and about reading Black authors. That said, here’s my review of I’m Still Here.
Austin Channing Brown’s first encounter with a racialized America came at age 7, when she discovered her parents named her Austin to deceive future employers into thinking she was a white man. Growing up in majority-white schools, organizations, and churches, Austin writes, “I had to learn what it means to love blackness,” a journey that led to a lifetime spent navigating America’s racial divide as a writer, speaker and expert who helps organizations practice genuine inclusion.
In a time when nearly all institutions (schools, churches, universities, businesses) claim to value “diversity” in their mission statements, I’m Still Here is a powerful account of how and why our actions so often fall short of our words. Austin writes in breathtaking detail about her journey to self-worth and the pitfalls that kill our attempts at racial justice, in stories that bear witness to the complexity of America’s social fabric–from Black Cleveland neighborhoods to private schools in the middle-class suburbs, from prison walls to the boardrooms at majority-white organizations.
For readers who have engaged with America’s legacy on race through the writing of Ta-Nehisi Coates and Michael Eric Dyson, I’m Still Here is an illuminating look at how white, middle-class, Evangelicalism has participated in an era of rising racial hostility, inviting the reader to confront apathy, recognize God’s ongoing work in the world, and discover how blackness–if we let it–can save us all.Image and description from Goodreads.
I love memoirs. They’re one my favorite genres to read. If you are also looking for an entry into antiracism reading, this is a really good one to start with. At only 192 pages, it’s a quick read, and a good mix of anecdotes and more essay-like content. This may also be the most quotable memoir I’ve ever read. I almost never highlight or underline my books, but I marked this up. I even wrote some notes in the margins.
Like the back cover description states, the memoir starts with Brown’s realization that her parents name her Austin in an effort to combat anti-Black bias. From there, she takes us through her childhood, her college education, her early jobs, and her work as an antiracist educator. She explains the microaggressions and overt racism she’s had to deal with during every step of her life, in terms that are relatable and easy to understand. Because Brown is a Christian and has worked in mostly Christian organizations, there is a small faith bent to this, but don’t let that put you off if you’re not religious. Brown never preaches, even as she’s admonishing her white readers to do better.
Each chapter of this book reads like a standalone essay. You could even skip around if you wanted to, although I wouldn’t recommend it on the first read because you would miss the progression of Brown’s life. With chapter titles like “White People Are Exhausting,” “Ain’t No Friends Here,” and “Creative Anger,” you can expect candor. As a white reader who is literally, ashamedly, just now paying attention to the ways that I uphold white supremacy, I appreciated the bluntness. There’s an urgency to antiracism work that we don’t like to acknowledge, but we shouldn’t be settling for “niceness” or “wokeness” in place of antiracism. Brown does not shy away from that reality. This was uncomfortable to read at times, because I saw myself in some of the people from Brown’s life. But it’s well past time to face that discomfort.
The topic that stuck out for me the most was talked about in the chapter called “Nice White People.” Two quotes from that chapter can sum up the concept of “nice” white people and how pervasive – and yet, how harmful – that concept is:
Most white people believe that they are good and the true racists are easy to spot.101
Sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful.104
This is something that has been smacking me in the face over the last month or so. I like to believe I’m a good person, that I’m not a racist person, that I see everyone as equal. But it’s just not true – American society conditions people to see whiteness as superior. (More on that in a coming review.) And even if it were true, it’s still not helpful if I’m just nice but I don’t do anything to dismantle racist systems and institutions. It’s not helpful to be more worried about how I’m perceived than about how my actions impact the people around me. Nice white people is just one concept that is explored here, and I want to say again that this is a great introduction into antiracism reading, if that’s your goal, because Brown has a gift for making difficult topics digestible.
One final thing I found interesting about this book had to do with Brown’s experience in Christian circles. In more secular places, it seems to me that the resistance to real change like policies and equity initiatives have much to do with the “nice white people” phenomenon discussed above, even when the same organizations have DEI statements in their missions. According to Brown, that holds true in the church but with the added complication of this:
Because I am a Christian, my anger is dismissed as a character flaw, showing just how far I have turned from Jesus.123
This same attitude, where legitimate conflict and questions can be dismissed as a moral and spiritual “you problem” rather than an organizational problem, is something that comes up a lot in the Christian community. Obviously, not all churches are like this, and personally this is something that feels more like a vague unspoken standard than something I have had direct experience with. But it can be seen in situations like Jen Hatmaker’s, where she was shunned for questioning whether LGBTQ people should be affirmed in the church, and here in Brown’s life, when she has criticized Christian churches and organizations for performativity and other harmful or ineffective practices. When you’re part of a community that emphasizes personal relationships with a higher power almost over anything else, it can be difficult to ask questions or make suggestions without being directed back to personal study. I think it’s maybe more of a collective habit than anything else, but that could be a whole other post on its own. Regardless, I found it really interesting to read about Brown’s experience in this lane specifically.
To sum up, I really enjoyed this overall (in case you couldn’t tell). It’s an important but accessible read, good for an intro into antiracist reading and for those who just want a good memoir. I highly recommend.
White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.p 23