I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness By Austin Channing Brown
New York, NY; Convergent Books, 2018, 192 pp., $25.00, hardcover
Reviewed by Erynn Porter
I would like to preface this review by saying that I’m a white woman. I don’t know what it’s like to be a Black woman, or any woman of color. I learned much, however, from reading activist and author Austin Channing Brown’s I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. What I learned includes a deeper understanding of the term “emotional labor.”
Emotional labor is many things, such as when you have to manage your emotions for a job. It is also when you are expected to be responsible for someone else’s emotions—for example, the responsibility of explaining big and painful lessons, ideologies, and sociological ideas to those who don’t experience them without causing the “student” upset or distress.
White people expect a lot of free emotional labor, and most don’t acknowledge it as labor at all. Sometimes it’s a Facebook argument that goes on for too long or challenging everything a person of color says, by relentlessly asking for proof or examples. The impact on people of color who are providing this free labor has been discussed on Twitter, where there are threads and threads dedicated to it, as well as in articles on Everyday Feminism and Huffington Post. Largely in digital spaces, the question of just how much emotional labor marginalized people are supposed to give is currently debated. Is it more appropriate for dominant-cultured people to do their own research? Why is there any expectation at all that marginalized communities should teach people of privilege?
I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness is an act of emotional labor. Channing Brown bares and bears much in this memoir, putting herself in a very vulnerable place. She breaks down big ideas about white supremacy (often unnamed and therefore unaddressed) through painful personal stories. She exposes herself in every way she can in the service of shedding light on racial dynamics in the US.
The memoir opens with a chapter called “White People Are Exhausting,” in which she describes how white people usually expect her to be a white man because of her name. She writes that her parents chose her first name in part so that people would think she’s a white man on paper—“One day you will have to apply for jobs,” her mother tells her, “We just wanted to make sure you could make it to the interview.” People definitely assume she is white and male, but it doesn’t always work out in her favor. Brown recounts an early incident—she’s seven—in which a librarian implies that she is lying and using someone else’s library card. Brown writes of her growing understanding of this racism:
People’s reaction to my name wasn’t about my gender. It was also about my brown skin. My legs stilled. That’s why the librarian hadn’t believed me. She didn’t know a name like Austin could be stretched wide enough to cloak a little Black girl.
How white people are exhausting extends to small, innocent/ignorant (i.e., they don’t realize are hurtful) comments that add up to a big drain on her energy, such as “comments about my hair. Accolades for being ‘surprisingly articulate’ or ‘particularly entertaining.’ Questions about single moms, the hood, ‘black-on-black crime’ and other hot topics I am supposed to know all about because I’m Black.” Brown describes her usual interactions with white people as being massively generalized: Brown isn’t so much an individual as a stand in for all Black people. White people are never similarly treated, she writes. Still, when she has a racist encounter and reports it, white friends and allies are quick to dismiss it as a misunderstanding or a one-off bad apple—not behavior that should be attributed to white people, just that white person alone. In the same chapter, she describes how white people attempt to exploit a relationship with her. They want to use her to prove they are diverse, use her to prove they aren’t racist, use her to learn about Blackness. But of course, they don’t really want to learn about Blackness, because that challenges whiteness.
These are the ways of “Nice White People,” which is the title of another chapter. The big problem with nice white people is that they believe there is no racism inside them. They think racists are easy to spot, because of their Nazi flags and tiki torches from Pier 1. But, Brown argues, that’s not how racism works. “When you believe niceness disproves the presence of racism, it’s easy to start believing bigotry is rare, that the label racist should be applied only to mean-spirited, intentional acts of discrimination.”
Tellingly, when Brown challenges nice white people’s actions or attitudes, they get defensive and angry and seek her to affirm that they aren’t racist. They deploy the standard “I’m not a racist, ask my Black friend” sort of comment. Brown is pointing out racism, not attacking their intrinsic value, but nice white people can’t see that. They take Brown’s emotional labor and throw it away.
Guilty nice people may be worse. They see her as a cleanser figure and confess all their racist sins. Again Brown, and countless others, lose their individuality as they are transformed into tools for white people to feel better about themselves. They shove their burden onto Brown and others, expect them to hold this weight on their shoulders. Phew, now they feel better—the burden is lifted!
I’m Still Here has many moments of heartbreak, ranging from her favorite teacher worrying that two Black girls sitting together was “disruptive” to the class to having to deal with ignorant people saying random idiotic things about affirmative action. Maybe the worst example she gives of everyday punishment, though, is a trip she takes in college to learn more about Black history; the trip is called Sankofa. In it, twenty Black students are paired with twenty white students for a three-day journey in the South. The first stop is a plantation in Louisiana where the guides tells of “happy slaves” who sang while working in the fields. Later, the guides—having espoused inaccurate, romanticized versions of slave life—invite the students to pick cotton. “Black students,” she writes. “Picking cotton.” The Black students are enraged; the whites are confused, especially about the rage. After this, the group heads to a museum dedicated to lynching. Brown looks at bodies that look like hers hanging from trees. Bodies that had been beaten, brutalized, and burned. Tears are shed.
Unsurprisingly, this trip exposes a racial divide between the white and Black students. White students immediately distanced themselves from the museum’s images of white people gleefully pointing to the hanging Black bodies. They want to push those events as far away from that moment as possible: It’s not their fault, they weren’t there, they are different, this has nothing to do with the white students, they argue.
Meanwhile, the Black students are overwhelmed by feelings of connection to those who were lynched. To the Black students, this was a palpable reminder that their ancestors lived in fear and Black people still live in fear of white violence today.
While Brown helpfully narrates examples like this to illustrate concepts like white supremacy, white dissociation (i.e., innocence), and white fragility, she isn’t only writing to whiteness. In fact, she writes about why loving her Blackness had to be learned, how that happened, how crucial it is, and how trying to be a “white culture whisperer” alienated her from her community, leaving her lonely.
I want to reiterate that this memoir isn’t a bashing of white people. I experienced it—and Brown intended it—as an act of love, a term that she focuses on quite a bit throughout the text. As a Christian, Brown has had to reconcile her faith with reality. How can God be a loving entity when there is so much hate geared towards her and those who look like her? How can she love those who hate her for existing? She explores Christianity and these conflicts deeply in this book, and I will leave it to you to read how she resolves them.
Austin Channing Brown’s act of love was tough to read but also so very kind. Her accessible style is intimate and effortless. She uses simple, concrete language so that anyone can understand her complex ideas as well as empathize with experiences not their own. Her book was an act of emotional labor—and I honor the strain that it must have taken to bring I’m Still Here into being.
Erynn Porter is assistant editor for Quail Bell Magazine and the creative nonfiction editor for Blanket Sea. She lives in Manchester, NH, and has written for Bust, Bitch, and Brooklyn magazine, among other venues. See more of her work at erynnporter.com.