A black woman in ‘a world made for whiteness’

Austin Channing Brown was a beneficiary of the civil rights movement.  But she never reached the point where she was judged on the content of her character instead of the color of her skin.

She grew up in the late 1980s and early 1990s, when overt racial prejudice had ceased to be socially acceptable.  She attended a good majority-white private Christian school and good majority-white colleges.  She had a career in majority-white religious non-profit institutions, all of which paid lip service to diversity and inclusiveness.

She now is a writer, lecturer, workshop coordinator and producer of a new TV program, The Next Question, which will air starting Oct. 6.  Few if any of these things would have been possible before the civil rights era.

But, in her memoir, I’M STILL HERE: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness, she wrote that she still feels like an outsider in a white world, and for good reason.

Her response is to immerse herself in what she calls Blackness (with a capital B) and take an oppositional stance toward what she sees as a monolithic entity called whiteness (all lower  case)

I have reservations about that.  The value of the book for me is its account of what even well-off black people have to put up, even when they’re with supposedly nice liberal white people.

Her parents named her ‘Austin Channing’ because they hoped that, when she sent in job applications, the potential employer would mistake her for a white man and invite her in for an interview.

Her parents were realistic.  Studies have shown that job applicants and loan applicants with characteristically black names get turned down at a higher rate than identical people with characteristically white upper-crust names.

And her own experience was that, in fact, interviewers were discombobulated when she came in the door and they saw who she was.

Another lesson from her dad: Never put her hands in her pockets or in her purse when in a store.  Because she was black, somebody might think she stole something.

When problems arose with white co-workers, Brown wrote, her mentors would invariably assume that she herself was the problem.  They would say they knew the co-workers and knew that they could never be racist.

There was a lot of racial prejudice, she wrote, underlying apparent concern and kindness.  Possibly she saw prejudice when it wasn’t there.

But that is the problem that black people face.  They never can know for sure whether a white person’s behavior toward them is a response to them as individuals or to their race.

Added to this is the problem of not fitting in, of not sharing the background, interests, tastes and assumptions common to her white co-workers.  This isn’t malice, it isn’t racial prejudice, but it is a real problem.

In my own case, I always felt a little uncomfortable when I was the only white person in the room.  I did not completely understand what was being said or done, and I was a little afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing.

I am socially awkward generally, so somebody else might not have felt the way I did..  But I think I did get a glimpse of the stress that many black people must feel when they are in this kind of situation every day.

Austin Channing Brown’s personal solution is to affirm what she calls Blackness so as to be armored against what she calls whiteness.

She immersed herself in the rich African-American church tradition and was inspired by the writings of Zora Neale Hurston, Nina Simone, Angela Davis and other outstanding black people.

Certainly the achievements and best values of the vibrant African-American sub-culture deserve respect, and it would be a pity if they ever were lost.

I think everyone, but especially African-Americans, feel a need to sometimes be with their “own kind” and be able to relax and speak freely, without being misunderstood or judged—although “own kind” is not necessarily defined by race.  I do not criticize her or anybody else for this.

Her mistake, in my opinion, is to treat Blackness and whiteness as monolithic, almost metaphysical entities.  Also, like many black people, she mistakes the characteristics of the dominant WASP elite for those of white Americans as a whole.

She criticized a speaker for referring to sailing and skiing as typical experiences, because they are not typical of black people.  But the fact is that there are tens of millions of white Americans who could never afford to own a sailboat or to to a ski resort, and it also is a fact that the number of black Americans who do these things is significantly zero.

Also, if the fundamental division in the USA is whiteness vs. Blackness, what about the one in four Americans who identify neither as white nor as black?

I would not call Austin Channing Brown a reverse racist or any other kind of racist, because she does not have the power or desire to deprive white people or anyone else of their fundamental human rights.

But her thinking does overlap with that of unapologetic white racists such as Richard Spencer and Greg Johnson, who also believe that racial differences are fundamental human realities.

As a universalist, I believe that all human beings have dignity and worth, regardless of race, ethnicity or nationality, and that beneath all our diversity, there is a unity that makes us one.

§§§

The most significant passage in the book was her account of a field trip taken by her black history class in college.  They toured a restored plantation, and then visited a museum of the history of lynching.

After seeing the lynching exhibit, a black woman student on the tour bus said, “I just want to say that I’m having a hard time being mad at you white people any more.  I think I’ve just been convinced that white people are just innately evil.  You can’t help it.  You steal and kill, you enslave and lynch.  You are just evil.”

The other black students were pleased that “she had spoken her truth even if it meant hurting the feelings of every white student on the bus.”

I can understand the black woman’s comment.  During World War Two, many of us Americans believed that the Japanese and Germans were intrinsically evil because of the atrocities their nations committee.

In one way, lynching was worse than the Holocaust, even though it happened on a much smaller scale. The attempted genocide of the Jews was hidden away, while lynchings of black people were often community festivals, at which refreshments were served, while onlooker watched black people being mutilated, tortured and killed.

Whining white students denied they or their families were responsible for any of these horrors.  But one white woman student said at the end, “I don’t know what to do with what I’ve learned.  I can’t fix your pain and I can’t take it away, but I can see it.  And I can work for the rest of my life to make sure your children don’t have to experience the pain of racism.  Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.

My reaction to that passage was to feel defensive, like the white students on the tour bus.  I felt I was being unfairly accused.  But this was the wrong way to react.  The value of I’m Still Here is that it provides information about how the world is experienced by people different from me.  The point is not to feel guilty, but to learn.

Update:  A friend e-mailed me saying she did not understand how I as a white male could deny that Austin Channing Brown was treated harshly or how I could deny the existence of overt racism in the 1980s

I noted that Brown benefitted from the civil rights revolution, but I do not deny that she is affected by racial prejudice, including the racial prejudice of people who don’t think they’re racially prejudiced.  I think this is important to understand.  Perhaps I did not stress this point enough.

Overt white racism certainly existed in the 1980s and exists today.  What has changed is that it has ceased to be respectable, particularly in the corporate world in which Austin Channing Brown makes her living.

I think there is a subtle, but important, difference between attacking white racism or attacking unconscious white racial prejudice and attacking “whiteness.”  It is like the difference between attacking Naziism and attacking “German-ness.”

LINKS

Austin Channing Brown’s blog.

TV schedule for The Next Question

White people are ‘exhausting,’ an interview of Austin Channing Brown for Religion News Service.

Review of I’m Still Here on DWD’s Reviews blog.

I’m Still Here: a Review by Emily Mitchell for Young Clergy Women International.

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5 Responses to “A black woman in ‘a world made for whiteness’”

  1. Fred (Au Natural) Says:

    You have just blown your progressive white man’s credentials for all eternity. It doesn’t matter what you say. The extremists and militant activists have convicted you for the color of your skin without regard for the content of your character.

    Racism stems from the human tendency to form into “us and them” groups based on trivial differences. Freud called it the pathology of small differences. There have been numerous studies that demonstrate this in action based on the most spurious of differences. It will continue to plague us as long as there are easily distinguishable groups and humans continue to seek out scapegoats.

    Hate never solved anything. It is a poison pill you take hoping to hurt the other person. Once hate becomes a part of you, you don’t let it go easily. It has its own set of perverse incentives to keep hating. It gives you purpose. It gives you an external object to despise instead of looking inward and finding yourself wanting. Hatred gives one a little ping of feel-good juice every time you get to vent it.

    Haters (of all stripes) are usually people who have retreated to the echo chamber. They are not people who deal rationally with disagreement. Hate is, after all, an emotion that negates reason.

    The one good thing I see is the dramatic increase in interracial couples. The road of hatred being eschewed for the road of love. That is the hope of our world.

    Like

    • philebersole Says:

      I appreciate your comment, Fred. I have to say I do not claim to speak for white male progressives or any other group.

      “Hate” is a loaded word. When I was a small boy, one of the things my mother forbid me to so was to say that I hated anyone.

      To hate someone means to wish they were dead, my mother would say. You may be angry with someone or be annoyed with someone, but do you really want them dead? Then don’t say you hate them.

      I don’t think my mother would say that Austin Channing Brown hates white people. She is annoyed with us, she is angry with us, but she does not wish us to be dead.

      What she wants us to do is to be aware of every bad thing that white people have done to black people down through history, and every thing that white people consciously or unconsciously do to make things harder for white people, and take responsibility for it.

      I think that is asking a lot. I think it works against solidarity between progressive white people and progressive black people, based on common goals, which is unfortunate.

      But I don’t think she is a hater. The Klan, the neo-Nazis, Greg Johnson’s white nationalists, Richard Spencer’s alternative right—they are the haters. They hate black people. They hate liberal white people.

      Like

      • Fred (Au Natural) Says:

        I define hate a bit differently than you. I consider “hate” to be a state of perpetual anger over something. Neither punishment nor contrition nor political victory make hate go away because the expression of hate itself is a kind of cathartic. It sends little jolts of happy juice. If it did not, we would not hug our hatred so tightly.

        I honestly think that some people are predisposed to this sort of behavior. The Klan you mentioned is populated by people who look outward to place blame for the causes of their inner problems. They are bullies who try to build themselves up by putting someone else down. I can recognize them as a mixture of misguided, mentally ill and outright evil characters without hating them.

        Let me give you an example. My father was a soldier in WWII. When his unit was shipped overseas to Europe, his orders got changed and he didn’t go. His unit, where he had made many friends, died to the last soldier when German U-boat sank the transport they were on.

        He never hated the Germans. He hated the Nazi political machine, He hated the individuals who led the Nazis. But when he guarded POW camps in the latter part of the war he didn’t hate the Germans in general or even the German soldiers he guarded – even though they would happily have shot him dead in combat.

        My wife is Jewish. (I am not.) We raised our children as Jews. Those Klansmen would hate her as much as any liberal white. Jews have been subject to Pogroms and Holocausts in every country of Europe and the Mideast going back to within a few decades after the founding of Christianity. And a thousand years before that as slaves in Egypt. And then Persia. And then the Assyrians. And then the Romans. If she hated her oppressors, most of the faces she sees are descendants of her oppressors.

        I have my own considerable pain from my own life. Asperger’s, ADHD, depression, failure, discrimination, poverty, lost potential. Cruelty, bullying, dismissal, and disparagement. I am uninterested in hurting the hurtful or in compensation for that which there can be no true recompense. It is futile to compete as to who had it worse. It is futile to resent that someone has it better. All you can do is be the best you can be and be happy that you tried. Focus instead on how to make the future better.

        The past has a way of trapping you within it if you don’t let it go.

        My personal opinion is not that Austin Channing Brown is a hater but rather that she is seeing hate where it does not exist. She is conflating awkwardness between unfamiliar cultures with bigotry. She is also angry about a past that cannot be changed, meaning that she will be forever angry. That perpetuates the disquiet and unease which artificially created groups come to feel for each other. The politics of racial identity and the politics of opposition are not going to bring us together.

        But they do keep the door to hate open. It is a matter of degree and not direction.

        Liked by 1 person

  2. paintedjaguar Says:

    “Added to this is the problem of not fitting in, of not sharing the background, interests, tastes and assumptions common to her white co-workers.”

    Welcome to my world. I’ve spent half my life trapped in the Deep South, but since I’m a childless bookish atheist with zero interest in spectator sports, bars, or family gatherings, I’ve fit in about as well as a penguin in the Sahara. I’m white, but I suspect Ms Brown would fare a lot better here than I ever have since Church culture has always been the most dominant element in the South. Well, that and a cruel plantation economy which abuses poor whites as well as blacks.

    Liked by 1 person

    • philebersole Says:

      I live Up North, not Down South, but i can identify with what you wrote.

      I’ve always felt like an outlier. I never followed professional sports. I’ve always had interests that hardly anybody around me shared. I don’t watch television anymore. Instead I read books.

      This is a choice. If I really wanted to have a stronger bond with people around me, I would follow professional sports and watch television so we would have something to talk about. But I have different priorities.

      For someone like Austin Channing Brown, the situation is more complicated. When she is alienated from people around her, she has no way of knowing whether it because of (1) her personal traits, (2) differences from African-American and corporate white culture, which cause misunderstanding or (3) straight-out racial prejudice.

      My guess is that most black people functioning in a majority-white environment have to deal with this ambiguity. I’m glad I don’t have to.

      I don’t see that as a reason why I myself should think of “Blackness” and “whiteness” as metaphysical realities, but that is a different question.

      Liked by 1 person

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