I bought this when Reece Witherspoon picked it for her dual-selection month after the killing of George Floyd and subsequent BLM protests.
Austin Channing Brown tells the story of her own encounters with the deeply-embedded racism of American and within Christian ministry in America. She also talks about her hopes and fears for her sons in this climate.
This is a hard book to review. Everything she writes is sadly true. I work for a Christian institution that struggles to overcome its 1950s and 60s insularity that made it fear the Civil Rights movement (and later forced it to publicly apologize for this after being a leading force for abolition). I have watched wonderful, creative, Black colleagues come and go like through a never-ending revolving door–tired of the micro- and macro-aggressions of clueless, if well meaning, whites that likely included me and others with no desire to ever be racist. When she listed the silly ways such institutions tried to become more multicultural I laughed out loud–my institution does all of them.
Her experience of having to be the spokesperson for all Blacks (or other minority) or all African Americans is the norm for all minorities in such places. I am one of the odd ones out who has ever lived or worked closely with non-whites in this country. (I am odder still for having lived as part of a white minority in a African nation.) This does not make me immune to being clueless of her experience–just slightly better attuned to what not to ask or say. Slightly.
So many of her workday encounters are cringe-worthy to an extreme, but all ring completely true. I did feel occasionally she missed the fact that ALL women take some of the same crap at work if they try to lead. Unless we use our Michelle Duggar “keep sweet” baby voice and apologize to the oh-so-bright men in charge for even wanting to offer a comment, we get labeled as “shrill” or “strident” or “Butch” or “a bitch” or a “ball-breaker.” I get it–she has to take all of this with an added layer of scorn just for being Black. I only have to take the woman-crap-comments.
Then there is her story of white church groups arriving for a “mission” trip to “help” her ministry and leaving without doing anything to “help” out of fear the neighborhood wasn’t safe. Fear for their little white sons and daughters in the “ghetto” or “hood.” Yeah. Ouch. My kids went on such trips, but believe me, their Youth Pastor had what it took to do the hard things–like face the racism with which we grew up and want our kids to see that someone who is poor and Black in America need not be seen as a threat or a criminal anymore than their classmates who get free lunch at school are threats or criminals.
Cringey, too, is her playback of the oft-repeated comments from whites about “My family didn’t even own slaves/wasn’t in the U.S. then,” which I honestly admit to thinking. That isn’t the point. The point is that since my family’s arrival in this country we have done little to change this. Yes, I have a cousin, a nun, who was in Selma marching with Dr. King. So? It’s something I am proud of, as is her service in some of the poorest places in Chicago, but that’s one person, and it was Dr. King doing the changing.
My family, like most, have voted all kinds of different ways over the generations, but we never really pushed for change. I grew up in suburbs with “good” schools–all white until the mid 1970s when TWO brave families integrated our district. So many white Americans have grown up similarly or lived in cities but attended predominately white private or religious schools. How many white parents were happy to bus their children to poor-performing, all black or majority black public schools? This is truly how we “voted” over the generations. We voted to not change things very much. In fact today, there are STILL well-educated white people who think Blacks get a free college education [they do not] or that affirmative action hurts white men [oh, please….]. That’s how “far” we’ve come.
What I LOVED about this book was that she does NOT apologize for her personal faith or for worshiping Christ in Church and in her daily life. That is not a rare thing today, but it is rare to see it in a book published by a commercial, secular publisher on the best-seller lists and endorsed by a celebrity book club. That is a break-through.
Reece Witherspoon did people a favor in picking this one–it is a good, approachable, look at the problem of racism in this country humanized by the author’s relating her own experiences. I think every white church should read this book in 2021, including my own. I also recommended this as a possible all college “read” at my institution.