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Austin Channing Brown: White people are ‘exhausting’

Author Austin Channing Brown, right, speaks during a panel discussion at the Festival of Faith and Writing, alongside journalist Jeff Chu, left, on April 14, 2018. RNS photo by Emily McFarlan Miller

(RNS) — “White people can be exhausting.”

That’s the first line in Austin Channing Brown’s new book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness.” Brown, who writes and speaks about justice and racial reconciliation, said she chose those words carefully. “Exhausting” was truer than “frustrating” or any other adjective she tried, and, she said, “In the whole book, I’m trying to be as honest as I can about what it’s like to be a black woman who navigates whiteness on a very regular basis.”

Plus, she said, she didn’t intend to write an introduction to racial justice. She wanted to move the conversation forward by sharing her experiences that showed how hard and sometimes dangerous it can be for a black woman navigating white Christian spaces, while also celebrating blackness.

If that means some people put down her book, she said, then it’s not for them.

But, she said, “When I’m in multiracial spaces with folks who are already committed to the work of racial justice and I read that line out loud, white people laugh, too.”

Brown talked to Religion News Service about how the church is missing out when it doesn’t listen to black voices, how awkward even progressive spaces can be and how white people can be less exhausting. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

You write, “For only by being truthful about how we got here can we begin to imagine another way.” Is that what you hope people will take away from your book?

“I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown. Image courtesy of Convergent Books

Absolutely. As I read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ “Between the World and Me,” even though his story is extraordinarily different than mine, I was really impacted by his ability to take the small incidents that many, many black folks have experienced before and bring them to life. 

I wanted to make a book that (says), this is how it feels, here is how it’s dangerous for me to talk about race and be a black woman in an organization that thinks it’s made it, but it still has work to do. I hope by naming those things and making those things real, it would open up the eyes of white folks and (give) people of color an opportunity to say, “This is real.” I want to make it easier for people of color to express what it’s like in their own organization or their own church or their own ministry. I still believe in the multiracial beloved community, but we’ve got to talk about what’s wrong.

What do you imagine “another way” looks like?

You know, it’s not super complicated. On a small scale, I think (it looks like) diverse curriculums, people of color in actual leadership positions with leadership authority, influence beyond what I can contribute monetarily, making brave decisions in the face of those who hold the pennies. I really think sometimes there’s a desire to make it more complicated than it is. All we really need is a little bit of courage.

That’s why I didn’t include a “here’s what white people can do.” The whole book is supposed to be about what you can do. The whole book is, you can be like this teacher or you could be like this teacher. It’s supposed to inspire changes that you could make — what are the changes you can make right where you are? I don’t want to make this so big and so unattainable. I want to talk about the small things that impact that one person.

My hope would be for the church to be inspired to take the next step, whatever the next step is, to not be comfortable, to not think we’ve arrived, to think, “What’s the next step? What’s the next brave thing to do?” And to choose at least one systemic issue to really be passionate about.

You give the example in your book of white teachers you had and the white girl you met who realized, “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” How can readers learn to investigate what they think of what’s “normal” and what’s white? How can they be less exhausting?

Austin Channing Brown. Photo courtesy of Austin Channing Brown

I hope people can be honest enough to be like, “Ooh, that’s me. I need to change this or rethink this.”

Oftentimes, we say you gotta be in proximity with each other. You gotta be friends. You gotta sit at a table together. White folks need to take a step back instead of seeking out that friend, that person who’s going to teach them. They should seek out education, seek out books, seek out spaces where people of color are willing to talk, seek out the lecture, seek out the class, seek out the book studies. Seek out the spaces where people of color have already agreed to share their stories with you. That way when you come into proximity with people of color, you will have a larger foundation to build a relationship as opposed to using me as your teacher. The goal of our friendship shouldn’t be for me to be your teacher. It should be me as your friend.

You write about how you’re drawn to the church “even when that means critiquing the institution I love for its commitment to whiteness.” How is the church, knowingly or unknowingly, committed to whiteness?

I think it shows up in what probably feels like small ways to white folks that, to people of color, are massive: the all-white leadership team, the all-white teachers, the book studies that are always another white person, white conferences, the white music at white conferences, the white publishing world.

I wish the church would make an investment in people of color the same way they invest in one another. I wish they would take the chance. I wish they would do the big contract, give them the big marketing budget, make them the keynote speaker. I just wish that the same level of investment, trust, excitement would be given to people of color.

You write, “Rare is the ministry praying that they would be worthy of the giftedness of Black minds and hearts. So we must remind ourselves. … We are not perfect, but we are here, able to contribute something special, beautiful, lasting to the companies and ministries to which we belong.” Can you talk about how ministries are made better by the contributions of black people?

I think that when we are all children learning about racial differences, it’s not uncommon for folks to collapse the nuances of race and culture and ethnicity to, “Oh, but we’re all the same,” “Oh, but we’re all human,” and erase differences.

On some level, that’s true — we’re all human — but in some really significant ways, we are not all the same. Our worldviews are different. Our experiences in the world are different. Our theology can be very different. The books we’re reading, the films we’re creating, the music we’re listening to and creating — there are vast differences in how we experience the world and how we interpret the world. I think what a lot of white Christian institutions do is they try to collapse that diversity for the sake of unity.

There are very unique ways of reading the Bible, of teaching the Bible, of discussing the books, of making some different decisions that people of color can bring to the table that white folks wouldn’t think about because they have different experiences. There’s so much value in it — in hearing a different voice, a different perspective. I don’t think white churches often realize what they’re missing when they don’t seek out those voices.

About the author

Emily McFarlan Miller

Emily McFarlan Miller is a national reporter for RNS based in Chicago. She covers evangelical and mainline Protestant Christianity.

48 Comments

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  • At certain points in my life it was painful to watch white people assume that they were entitled to the friendship of a black person just because they were “liberal.” The experience of being “erased” (We are all the same) is painful. My Irish, prosperous and well educated relatives in Britain were so often told that that they were “not really Irish, you’re English like us.” This was deeply hurtful to them. P.S. My most well off relatives in Britain are black.

  • What if an Asian person said, “Black people are so exhausting.” They would be accused of racism. This is no different. There are good people and evil people of every skin color. It’s about the HEART, people. Remember MLK’s words about that? Oh, you don’t? Well, that explains it.

  • Hasn’t she received the memo — Race is just a social construct. Geeze…..get a clue lady.

  • If an Asian said such a thing…………it wouldn’t get much attention. Now…………if a White person were to say that — all hell would break lose! She would be a racist n.azi who wants to kill 6 gazillion jews.

  • Or, more generally, What if a [race A] person said, “[race B] people are so exhausting.”

    There’s a pretty good chance that [race B] people will accuse [race A] of racism, but it only gets the social justice warriors going when [race A] = White.

    I look forward to the day that these statements are taken as the mere opinions (with no inherent value) they are rather than attempts at stating facts. And you know what they say about opinions…they’re like a$$holes because everyone has one and they all stink.

  • Your comment sucks so technically it’s the opposite not exhausting. Good job setting the record straight.

  • Well……..is race just a social construct or not? Why is it that ‘race is just a social construct’ unless someone wants to denigrate Whites?

  • The response would be “huh????”

    White people are the culturally socially and politically dominant group. It’s far different then your example. The expression was meant to show exasperation at being a minority in a culture you have no control or input in.

    Way to miss the point there. You are trying to pretend racism doesn’t exist and linvoje MLK in a loathsome manner. Typical white supremacist nonsense.

  • Because racism doesn’t exist?

    Because racism by whites isn’t culturally, socially or politically dominant in our future?

  • So how many people were lynched by racial minorities? None.

    When were whites ever excluded from access to benchmarks of decent living on account of race? Never.

  • Lynched by rope? None. You’re right.

    Lynched by guns and knives? More than the KKK ever did. And we ain’t stopped, either.

    But don’t worry, I enjoyed this RNS Puff Piece on Brown. It’s wonderful that MY folks can get away with saying mess that would get YOUR folks automatically labeled as racist.

  • Yes. Race is a social construct. And the good news is there is nothing in your genes that would prevent your views from changing. So when you’re called exhausting don’t take it racially, take it personally. She ain’t saying, she’s just saying.

  • No, racism by whites is not dominant in our future. That is changing with every passing day.

  • She should have lived in MLK’s days, and then she would have more sense than to make such an inane remark. I know that’s the politically-accepted narrative, but it simply does not hold true.
    Are you assuming I’m white?

  • That is true, floydlee. I read an interview recently with an older black lady who lived in Little Rock, AR, during the days when the schools were being integrated and life was so hard.
    I was amazed when she said that violence was not any worse then than it is now, that it wasn’t as bad then as it is now — she was speaking of violence by black people against black people.
    It takes guts for a black person to be that honest. God bless her. And you. 🙂

  • ‘Whites,’ as an even cursory acquaintance with European history would show, are not a monolithic group.

    Unplug. You are too effing stupid to be online.

  • The vapid narcissism of cultural Marxists like this whiny, entitled woman is what’s exhausting.

  • Flinging poo and insult rather than address when is said.

    When racism was given color of law, whites were as monolithic as it got. Meaning, “none of that stuff applied to them”

    You are full of crap.

  • Nonsense. Racism was far more open, acceptable and obvious back then. It wouldn’t need to be said because it was apparent to anyone.

    As for the rest, you certainly are hitting the white supremacist talking points and completely missing the point here.

  • LOL. Riight. Because you never saw someone call the flow because a group of white guys are just hanging around a Starbucks.

  • It’s still dominant in our present. Even emboldened by current political situations.

  • Progs like you should boycott Starbucks. Drive em outta business. I mean, what’s stopping you? You are Duh 99 Percent, remember?

  • Well………………tell that to her then!!! 🙂
    I think only non-whites don’t understand the concept. The White race is the only race it seems to have swallowed that [email protected]

  • You have nothing, you made that clear. You missed the point of the statement to act like a triggered snowflake.

    “How dare she say something about endemic cultural racism!”

    How about this, until there is a slur for white people on the same level of offense as slurs for any other group, then I can take your complaints about the alleged racism by minorities seriously.

  • This interview is the absolute repudiation of MLK’s dream for his children to be judged not on the color of their skin but on the content of their character. He’s rolling over in his grave because of this kind of racism being promulgated by the left.

  • Not in the least. I live in Asia. Am leaving it up to brave progressyve Hillary/Liz Warren/Kamala Harris/Oprah/ Mooch Obama fanboi’s like you to, uhhh, ‘be the change,’ as proggies like say.

  • LOL! Now you are just flinging poo with petty personal insults to avoid the discussion.

    “I live in Asia.”

    So you are posting from a Russian gulag, East of the Urals. Makes perfect sense.

  • I was under the impression that “snowflake” was the slur for white people. You use it enough.

  • Your Russian partners in progressyvysm bought thousands of Facebook ads.

    Content was designed to sow discord by creating and inflaming racial tensions.

    IOW – Identity Politics.

    “The Russian company charged with
    orchestrating a wide-ranging effort to meddle in the 2016 presidential
    election overwhelmingly focused its barrage of social media advertising
    on what is arguably America’s rawest political division: race.

    “Theroughly 3,500 Facebook ads were created by the Russian-based Internet
    Research Agency, which is at the center of Special Counsel Robert
    Mueller’s February indictment of 13 Russians and three companies seeking
    to influence the election.

    “While some ads focused
    on topics as banal as business promotion or Pokémon, the company
    consistently promoted ads designed to inflame race-related tensions.
    Some dealt with race directly; others dealt with issues fraught with
    racial and religious baggage such as ads focused on protests over
    policing, the debate over a wall on the U.S. border with Mexico and
    relationships with the Muslim community.”

    USA Today

  • You and your fellow Occu-tards have the power. You can take StarbuKKKs down.

  • This entire angle is so racist she’s missed everything a non-white Jewish rabbi taught 2000 years ago and still does today. She is so consumed with the melanin levels in her skin and the levels apparently only westerners or Europeans may have – she discounted every other cultural background. Her identity is not found in Christ but in her skin tone. This is a sad misuse of her obvious gifts.

    There is only one race….we’re all humans. Period. Full stop. I hope one day she discovers her face should be fixed on Christ alone…not on skin colour.

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