***Note: I originally read this book in June of 2020. The review posted here may be slightly altered from its original version and was first posted on my Goodreads account.***
Austin Channing Brown does a superb job of deconstructing the myth of American progress toward racial equality, tracing the evolution of white supremacy from chattel slavery to Jim Crow and further on down the line to our current world characterized by police violence against Black people and their communities, and the prison industrial complex that warehouses Black people with outsized sentences for non-violent offenses in a modern-day proxy to slavery.
I loved her examples of dealing with—on an everyday basis—well-meaning white people whose ingrained racism and belief in their own goodness prevent them from taking responsibility for their racist microagressive behavior. Brown shows us that racism isn’t a problem that exists only at Klan rallies—it is perpetuated by millions of white people who have deluded themselves into thinking they live in a post-racial society where they get all the clout tokens for “having Black friends” while doing none of the work involved in anti-racist activism.
The work of delegitimizing and dissolving white supremacy is a job that can’t happen unless white people (all white people) acknowledge their complicity in reinforcing racist norms and do their part to effect real change. This is a book every white person needs to read.
Favorite Quotes with Commentary
Rather than dwell on individuals, I speak about the system. About white boardrooms and white leadership teams. About white culture and the organization’s habit of hiring people who perpetuate that culture rather than diversify it. But the white consensus doesn’t want me to point out these things.
So many white people in positions of power like to play the numbers game when it comes to propagating their organization’s own racial diversity. “We can’t be racist because we are *exceeding* EEOC guidelines in hiring racial minorities.” “We hire Black people to work in every department within our organization, so therefore we are committed to equality.” Why is it that white people want a pat on the back for every modicum of human decency they performatively display? Why do we still allow this pablum to be volleyed hither and yon as a marker of a nonexistent racial equity?
White supremacy is a tradition that must be named and a religion that must be renounced. When this work has not been done, those who live in whiteness become oppressive, whether intentional or not.
I love that here Brown names white supremacy as a religion, because that’s exactly what it is—a faith tradition grounded in the inferiority of BIPOC and the deification of white skin as morally pure and upright. What makes it so insidious and corrosive is that white supremacists attempt to legitimize their racism by purporting to have faith in a form of Christianity completely excised of the primary teaching of Christ—to love one’s neighbor as oneself.
Far from an imposing beast, I found that white supremacy is more like a poison. It seeps into your mind, drip by drip, until it makes you wonder if your perception of reality is true.
One thing Brown brings up throughout her book, mentioned in the quote above, is the gaslighting element accompanying subtle racism. As if the accumulation of daily micro-aggressions were not enough, Nice White People love to assuage their own guilt by minimizing the impact their own actions (intentional or not) have on the lived experiences of the Black people they interact with. This is not acceptable. If we are going to create the more perfect union touted by American nationalists of every star and stripe, we have to start, as white people, by first acknowledging our complicity in the structures and systems that we benefit from at the expense of our Black siblings and neighbors.
The role of a bridge builder sounds appealing until it becomes clear how often that bridge is your broken back.
Why is it that we expect Black people in our circles to be the first ones to initiate change, the first ones to make a step toward understanding? Whenever we talk about EDI (equity, diversity, and inclusion), why do we place the brunt of the labor of coalition-building (emotional and otherwise) on our Black colleagues? We should not expect a person to speak for a whole people. Any efforts we make toward increasing inclusivity in our offices, in our boardrooms, and at every level of our organizations should come from a place of shared goals-setting, not simply (as so often happens) expecting our Black colleagues to hold our hands and erase our own culpability.
Whiteness constantly polices the expressions of Blackness allowed within its walls, attempting to accrue no more than what’s necessary to affirm itself. It wants us to sing the celebratory “We Shall Overcome” during MLK Day but doesn’t want to hear the indicting lyrics of “Strange Fruit.”
This is something that really bothers me every February—Black History Month—which purports to celebrate the achievements of Black Americans (which was the original intention) but instead has developed to depoliticize the struggles of liberation through a lens of corporatized sanitization. The lovely ads showing Black and white hands so gloriously intertwined and shots of MLK featuring his most well-known and palatable quotes deliberately ignore a bloody history of enslavement, disenfranchisement, segregation, and incarceration which continues today in modalities not very different from their iterations of the past few centuries.
These actions are vomit-inducing because they celebrate the end of a war that is still being fought and they still place a limit on the level(s) of Blackness which is palatable. They say, “You can be Black, but only on our (white folks’) terms, only in modes and frequencies that we find acceptable.” They say, “It’s fine for you to be Black, as long as your Blackness is coded to uphold my whiteness.” It’s not okay.
This is partly what makes the fragility of whiteness so damn dangerous. It ignores the personhood of people of color and instead makes the feelings of whiteness the most important thing.
One thing we white people need to do better is listen. When the Black people in our circles call out something as racist, we need to stop centering our feelings in the conversation. When our knee-jerk reactions to identifications of racism are focused on the way we feel about them, we are minimizing the actual harm caused to the people who have experienced racism, and adding unneeded emotional labor to our Black friends who have to subsume their own pain to coddle our fragile white feelings. We’ve got to do better, and that starts by listening to and acknowledging the veracity of the acts of racism our Black friends tell us about.
White people desperately want to believe that only the lonely, isolated “whites only” club members are racist. This is why the word racist offends “nice white people” so deeply. It challenges their self-identification as good people. Sadly, most white people are more worried about being called racist than about whether or not their actions are in fact racist or harmful.
If we’re going to be radically honest, racism perpetuates not because of Klan members or Proud Boys or neo-Nazis, but because of morally-upright white blowhards who cluck and clutch their pearls and flinch at the very insinuation they could be racist because they voted for Obama twice and how dare you? 🙄
Because I am a Black person, my anger is considered dangerous, explosive, and unwarranted. Because I am a woman, my anger supposedly reveals an emotional problem or gets dismissed as a temporary state that will go away once I choose to be rational. Because I am a Christian, my anger is dismissed as a character flaw, showing just how far I have turned from Jesus.
How convenient it is for people to selectively remember Jesus the Redeemer and Jesus the Healer, and forget Jesus in his other iterations. My Jesus, and here I believe Brown would agree with me, is Jesus the Wine-Drinker, Jesus the Friend of Sinners, Jesus the Caller-Out of Hypocrites, and Jesus the Table-Flipper. Table-flipping Jesus is by far my favorite.
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