On April 30, 2018, a group of black filmmakers was surrounded by seven police cars and a helicopter as they prepared to leave an Airbnb rental in Rialto, California. A white neighbor had called 9-1-1 to report that there were “three suspicious black people stealing stuff.”
Color me disappointed and irritated by this incident, but not surprised. It came on the heels of other recent incidents that join a long line in history. To name a few, police have recently been called on people of color for being too quiet on a college tour, sitting in Starbucks, barbecuing in the park, and golfing too slow.
The group in Rialto was eventually released from what they described as a “hurtful” encounter that left them feeling “angry, frustrated, and sad.” These events once again highlighted the friction between law enforcement and people of color, as well as the racial bias and unchecked fear of blackness that runs rampant in our society. Donisha Prendergast, one of the filmmakers detained by police and the granddaughter of Bob Marley, later said in a press conference: “What happened to all of us is an indignity.”
In Austin Channing Brown’s first book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” she addresses the root and fruit of the indignities, microaggressions, and injustices that plague black life. She takes readers along her personal journey of learning to love being black while navigating majority-white institutions, finding acceptance and a calling in the Church, and taking her place as a leader in the fight for genuine diversity and unity.
My admiration for Austin grew as I learned more about her work as a writer and speaker, and I developed a needless (albeit natural) instinct to protect her. I wanted to exorbitantly explain the book’s title and shield Austin from backlash and criticism that she’s likely already familiar with. With chapter titles like, “White People Are Exhausting,” she’ll be at risk of being called a few names that I know she’s been called before: divisive, negative, toxic.
But “I’m Still Here” is nothing if not honest. Regardless of what kind of reactions the book may attract because of the unveiled racial realities within it, Austin can speak for herself. She can speak for all of us who have ever felt hyperaware of our black bodies in majority-white spaces and frustrated in schools, organizations, and churches as we try to learn, lead, and worship in peace.
To read “I’m Still Here” is to relate to and/or absorb the complexities of the black experience and be challenged to dismiss white supremacy even in its less obvious forms. It’s not at all about campaigning against white people, but instead about changing the historical narrative of racism to honor the image of God in us all. “My story is not about condemning white people,” Austin writes, “but about rejecting the assumption—sometimes spoken, sometimes not—that white is right: closer to God, holy, chosen, the epitome of being.”
Growing up, Austin found herself with a name chosen for her in an effort to make job interviewers assume she was a white man and in a tight spot between white environments and black culture. She was “too white for black people and too black for white people” and on a search for identity and belonging. Through the years, she instead encountered attempts to assimilate or silence her. As many people of color have experienced, she would find that the organizations “wanted our racial diversity without our diversity of thought and culture.”
“I’m Still Here” covers a lot of ground for a short memoir and does more than tell us about Austin’s life. For anyone who’s been made to feel like “the other” or been subjected to silencing tactics like tone policing, you’ll find you’re not alone. This book is an account of being a black, Christian woman and the responses of belonging to those three categories often gets you in this world. It serves as a source of hope in a climate of ever-increasing racial hostility and an encouraging guide to working toward cross-cultural empathy.
A Powerful Application
Explaining how racial reconciliation has taken on an unclear, watered down definition, “I’m Still Here” also makes a case for taking the term off the paper and into action. For unity, diversity, and racial reconciliation to live beyond being buzzwords in the Christian community, Austin challenges readers “always to question what looks like unity at first glance.” She shares hurtful, frustrating experiences from school, work, and church and points out often overlooked blind spots of racial bias.
Too often, “diversity and inclusion” efforts aren’t defined in honest terms and Austin breaks down the cost of that dishonesty: mental, emotional exhaustion and trauma for people of color. “The role of a bridge builder sounds appealing until it becomes clear how often that bridge is your broken back,” she writes.
Among the most beneficial and beautiful aspects of “I’m Still Here” is that it encourages the reader toward healing and a healthy identity. The writing is clear and the exhortations are strong. Interludes (such as “A Letter to My Son”) break up the book and help the subject matter not feel as heavy or overwhelming. The book doesn’t hold back to spare feelings or to comfort and suggests solutions and survival tips for the issues it lays out on full display.
There’s much for everyone to learn from this book—the black community, the Church, and the majority culture. It’s eye-opening for those who choose to see, educational for those willing to learn, and inspiring for those ready to act.
But to the black community, black women in particular, “I’m Still Here” is our heart’s cry and a must-read. It looks at us and declares what we say when—as Austin describes in the book—we build community anywhere: “not just at church or at work, but also in the ‘ethnic’ hair care section of stores, in elevators, and other random places where we take the opportunity to simply say, ‘I see you.’”