Austin Channing Brown’s parents gave her a name they hoped would help her overcome prejudice.
In her book, “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” (to be released Tuesday) Brown recounts her mother’s explanation for the naming strategy: “We knew that anyone who saw it before meeting you would assume you are a white man. One day you will have to apply for jobs. We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.”
Making it to the interview, however, doesn’t make the interview any easier; nor does it protect her bias — explicit and implicit — once she’s secured a job. Here’s the beginning of the recounting of a typical day at work for Brown:
“8:55 a.m.: I arrive at work and walk through the lobby to get to my office. On the way, I am asked three times if I need help finding the outreach center. My white co-worker, whose footsteps I hear behind me, is never asked this question. The message: I am a Black woman, so I must be poor and in need of help.”
Brown goes on to detail unwanted efforts to touch her hair, failures to differentiate her from other black co-workers, and admonitions to watch her tone when expressing frustrations.
What makes Brown’s tale more disheartening is that she has spent her career working in Christian nonprofits. Even in this environment, she argues, her blackness is treated as a problem to be solved rather than something to be respected and valued.
The book — a quick read — is a bit haphazard. Part personal history, part workplace advice and part musings for her child, among other things, “I’m Still Here” might benefit from a sharper focus. That said, Brown makes the case that we are a long way from becoming a post-racial society or even a society that values the diverse people of whom it made.
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“Christians talk about love a lot,” she writes. “It’s one of our favorite words, especially when the topic is race ... But I have found this love to be largely inconsequential. More often than not, my experience has been that whiteness sees love as a prize it is owed, rather than a moral obligation it might demonstrate ... I need a love that is troubled by injustice.”
And, one suspects, she needs a love that sees her for who she is, regardless of her name.