A White Girl Gets Woke: Reading I’m Still Here

I have been learning more about racism and my own whiteness and how it functions for a few years now. I still have a lot more to learn, so I just finished I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness by Austin Channing Brown. 

This book challenged me so much. I found myself alternately wanting to give myself a break from reading it and not being able to put it down. Through reading about Austin’s experiences, especially in mostly white workplaces and churches, for the first time, I think I got a glimpse of what it is like to be a black woman in White America. And it is exhausting and haunting and scary. 

I so appreciated her being vulnerable enough to tell us about the small little cuts that well-intentioned white people, her friends even, would make. And then I had to put the book aside for a moment because flashing through my mind were the many scenarios where I was that well-meaning, but harmful white person, asking an insensitive question, making a stereotypical assumption, or crying my white tears for being called out on my racism. 

I started to look back at discussions with school friends and coworkers, realizing that some of what I said might have been hurtful and even harmful. But my mind wanted to tell me, “No, you are a NICE white person. You aren’t intentionally racist.” But my heart told me this: “Ignorance does not excuse causing someone harm. The default of simply being white is being racist. It takes work to be anti-racist — work you are not doing.” 

One recent example of how I can be thoughtlessly racist was when I got together with coworkers for a baby shower. I was talking about how one of the blonde-haired, blue-eyed boys in my son’s dual-language Spanish class went by the diminutive of Kike because his English name is Hank. I thought it was so cute that this little white boy went by a Spanish name. A Latinx coworker then sternly said“You realize that a Hispanic person can be white too, right?” I said something dumb like, “Yes, of course, uh…but I just haven’t seen them.” Then I clammed up and my eyes started to water, embarrassed. I focused only on my white guilt, and not until after I read this book did I realize that I had put this unspoken onus on her to make me feel better. Which she did. She changed the topic and asked me a different question. She, the one who had been offended, felt the need to make me feel better because that is the terrible power of Whiteness. 

This book made me realize that I must examine my own Whiteness. I must examine it Every. Damn. Day. Because black women like Austin deal with racism every day. The least I can do is learn more about it. Learn the right questions to ask. Not being consumed with my white guilt when I inevitably put my foot in my mouth again, but apologize and educate myself to do better next time.

I also realized that I am raising my kids in the same way I was raised — where we don’t talk much about race. White silence is insidious; telling kids to be kind to everyone doesn’t really cut it. Neither does sending them to a racially diverse school, hoping that by being around people who are different from them will magically make them anti-racist. I have discussed with my older son the different colors of skin all the children in his class have and that everyone is good, no matter their skin color and that a thing called racism where white people tell darker people that they are not as good exists, and that we should not think this way. But I think we have only had this conversation about three times in his seven years of life. 

I need to do better, but I’m honestly not sure how. I like guidelines and rules, someone telling me exactly what to do, but the process of becoming anti-racist is messy and challenging. But because my anxious self could not sleep at night thinking I might raise two white mansplaining racists, I searched the internet and found a book called Raising White Children by Jennifer Harvey. And I know there are seminars on how to teach your children about race and ways of combating racism and I will look into those next, but first I will read this book and see what I can learn, and how I can teach my kids better than the colorblindness I grew up with.

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