When the video of George Floyd’s death began to stream in the news, and on social media, and no one seemed to be held accountable for his death, a knot found its way into my stomach: it was wrong. And as people became more vocal about it, there came more videos and more stories of injustices perpetrated by police against people of color. I should have known these things were occurring, I should have known this was a battle that needed fighting, but the fact was that I didn’t. And now that I did know, what was I to do about it?
And more than that, what was I supposed to do about what I didn’t know? I knew the first step wasn’t action. Action on behalf of someone without knowledge of their story would just be ignorance. It would just be saving face, or making myself feel better. I knew that I needed to sit with the information, process it, and learn as much as I could. And I needed to repent of the ways that I had ignored or belittled the stories in the first place. I needed to lament and repent at the state of our country that led to protests being the only thing that could lead to change.
And as I watched the protests turn to riots, and the actions of police against peaceful protestors also turn to violence, fear settled in my heart. I kept having to tell myself that the fear I was feeling right now was a fear that people of color had lived with their entire lives. As I have educated myself, I have learned that this fear is not new. This fear of what could happen when I walk outside, when I take my kids to the park, when I sleep in my bed behind a locked door is not new. And people of color having that fear deep in their bones, and me, as a white person, not knowing it ever existed is a severe injustice. It is an injustice that has to change, and an injustice that needs healing.
During this time, I am doing my best to read books, and listen to podcasts by people of color. The first couple days of upheaval in our country I scrolled social media, and worried. I was overwhelmed by the amount of information, and the amount of misinformation in my feed. I decided to get off of it, and spend those moments that I would be scrolling, reading. One of the things that I have been empowered to do through this reading and listening is to share the black voices that have molded and shaped what I know and feel today versus a few weeks ago.
Austin Channing Brown wrote a book called “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness,” and it has helped me greatly to understand the anger, and the fear in our world today. It has helped me to understand that this is not new, and this is not something we can ignore any longer.
She begins the book by telling the story of her name, and how she came to resent it. When she asked her mother why she named her Austin, her mother gave an answer that shocked me: “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. (p. 14).” As a parent, I have never had to think this. As a potential employee, I have never had to wonder what my name says about me. This was a parent looking at her newborn baby girl, and knowing that she would be at a disadvantage just because of the color of her skin.
When I read that I thought, okay, but was it necessary? And as the story unfolds, yes, it was. Every time someone didn’t know Austin, and met her based on her name, they were shocked. Some were just plain confused, but others after meeting her used that knowledge against her. It got her in the door, and into the minds of people, but oftentimes, it only went that far. Once they saw Austin, she was counted out.
Austin’s story is good in so many ways, but I especially appreciated her words because she found herself trying to fit in. She found herself as a young girl, and even into college and adulthood, trying to become more white. She tried to do it the way that we wanted her to, but as she grew she realized that fitting in meant betraying who she was. And we, as white people, gave her no other options: it was fit in the way that we want you to, or get out. Why are we allowing this to be okay?
As I continue to walk toward righting the wrongs in our country when it comes to racial injustice, I can only do so with the knowledge directly from the oppressed. And I need to trust them. I am not perfect, and I have caught myself trying to defend white people in these stories, trying to give them the benefit of the doubt. I have to stop myself and say, “Just listen and learn.” I have to begin giving them the benefit of the doubt because they need us. They need us to listen and learn, and then act: in that order.
Austin Channing Brown’s book enabled me to listen and learn. Because of her book, I can now begin to look at ways to act. I encourage you to start with learning. Start with this book, or any book written by someone of color. Listen and learn, and then we all can act.