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  • Writer's pictureBeth Pandolpho

Austin Channing Brown Offers Readers a Door In

Updated: Oct 23, 2021

I first listened to Austin Channing Brown’s book, I'm Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness as an audiobook. Although listening is not my preferred way to experience a book, it does enable me to get through many more books because I can listen while I’m driving, walking, riding my bike or otherwise doing household chores.

For me, the main problem with audiobooks is that they feel a bit ethereal . . .like the words and sentences that I want to think more about are constantly floating away just out of my reach.

My favorite way to read is with a pencil in hand, so I can pause on the lines that resonate with me, underline them, and then flag the page with a post-it note for future reference. I’ve tried using the highlight features on e-readers, but those annotations, although scrupulously compiled and organized, just somehow don’t feel the same to me.

Yet since reading "the old school way" is not always conducive to my busy life, when I’m listening to a book or reading on an e-reader, and I feel that I didn’t get to savor the ideas for as long as I needed, I simply buy a hard copy.

Austin Channing Brown’s book was one of those books for me.

One of the things that struck me was that for many parts of the book, Brown doesn’t even need to provide much retrospective commentary because the stories themselves resound with anguish. She recounts a field trip to a southern plantation that she attended as a college student where she had to listen the guide talk about “happy slaves who sang in the fields.” She tells us, “at the conclusion of the tour, they even gave us the chance the pick some cotton ourselves. Black students. Picking cotton” (pp. 54-55).

There’s not much else she needed to say.

Brown offers us stories like these, but also further elucidates many of her experiences that might otherwise be impossible to understand, like when she writes, “It is rage inducing to be told that we can do anything we put our mind to, when we work at companies and ministries where no one above middle management looks like us. It is rage inducing to know my body is being judged differently at every turn - when I am late to work, when I choose to eat lunch alone, when I am expressing hurt or anger…. These indignities follow us home too, when we open the newspaper or turn on the TV. Gross references to Serena Williams’ body as animal-like. The reinforcement of Black inferiority as when The New York Times publishes a piece saying Viola Davis is not “classically beautiful…. But words are hardly the worst of it. If we look at statistics and standard of living, we find a host of racial disparities that have persisted over decades -wages, homeownership, job accessibility, health care, treatment by law enforcement, and the list goes on. For us, these aren’t just statistics - they are the facts of life for us and our mothers, our sisters, our friends, and neighbors (p. 120-121).

If you are white, particularly a white woman like I am, this book will likely make you uncomfortable. It should make you uncomfortable, and that is actually a good thing. Writer and activist, Sarah Schulman explains it this way, “discomfort is good for a society because it means that lots of different experiences of difference are being expressed. And the only people who really insist upon being comfortable all the time are people who are in the dominant position. And the only way they can be comfortable all of the time is if everyone else is oppressed.”

Robin D’Angelo further clarifies this point when she writes in White Fragility, “we will not move forward in race relations if we remain comfortable. The key to moving forward is what we do with our discomfort. We can use it as a door out . . . or we can use it as a door in by asking:

  • Why does this unsettle me?

  • What would it mean for me if this were true?

  • How does this lens change my understanding of racial dynamics?

  • How can my unease help reveal the unexamined assumptions I have been making?

  • Is it possible that because I am white, there are some racial dynamics I can’t see? (p. 14)

The answers to these questions are, or course, different for all of us - as is what we decide to do as a result.

For me, I'm choosing to use my discomfort as a “door in” . . . .

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