I always debate about reading this sort of thing, mainly because I don’t want to see insensitive or self righteous. I always see interesting titles during Black History Month that I want to read, but I find that I’m always afraid to pick it up, because most of it is about empowering the African American culture…and I’m not Black.
(Interestingly enough I don’t even know if Black and White are supposed to be capitalized or not…so I’m going to feel it out awkwardly through this whole thing. Bear with me and enjoy the inconsistency.)
I’m quite the opposite in fact. I’m very White. So Anglo Saxon I practically glow under black lights. Ghostly even to some. So picking up a book about “Blackness” seems like a moot point. What could I glean from it? What could I learn? I was so afraid of being considered insensitive for wanting to read or being curious about a life outside of my own I often refused to even look at those kinds of things.
Until one day I decided I wasn’t afraid anymore.
It started with a conversation I had with some friends at Wayzgoose, a letterpress convention for designers, printers, and typographers. As we spoke we we found ourselves often trying to figure out how to make art more accessible to people who could be harder to reach, such as the blind, the deaf, the poor, and of course, minorities who saw so little res presentation in the art world. As a female, I appreciated every woman I had to look up to in the design world. How would it feel to be a black young man never having seen another black young man in the letterpress community? How much more approachable would it be if there were more?
So one day, while I was looking through the religious literature section, I saw the book “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made For Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown. It sounded interesting, and so I decided to put my anxiety aside, and I bought the book.
It was a struggle to read, being a white person. Not because it was a bad book or the Ebonics were hard to understand. It was well written, but also honestly written, and that was hard to read. It meant hearing a perspective on whiteness that I knew was all too real, and had no idea how to help with. The exclusion. The subtle racism. The prejudices. All of it washed over me in heartbreaking reality that even my heartbreak knew I’d never understand. Story after story revealed how distant the worlds of white Americans and black Americans had become. Especially in Christian spaces as this book describes.
The more I knew, the less I knew.
One phrase really struck me personally. I was almost half way through the book when Austin says “When my body stands out and I am tempted to forget my own beauty…”
While I could not feel it from her perspective as an African American woman, I could feel it as a woman in general. How years of cat calls and male friends mistreating me because of my femininity came rushing back. How much I needed my fellow females in my life to help be bear the burden of femininity just to feel normal and remember that I too was useful and beautiful and powerful outside of the physical attributes of my being. I got a glimpse of it. To my very soul it struck. How much worse is it to be female and black? I shuddered to wonder at the deep breaths she has to take daily. The constant forgiveness her faith asks of her in a world that can’t seem to figure out if they want her in it or not. The isolation. The fear. I cannot imagine it.
My only sadness is knowing that I will not fully know. Knowing that this is the perspective of my destructive whiteness to people of color. My culture has raped a landscape of ruin in the name of innovation over a world that holds so much more than whiteness within. I cannot be free of the wake it leaves behind me. A wake of death, exploitation, and cruelty. I know I did not make this wake, but it still follows me. A long shadow of horrors that cannot be erased.
Is this white guilt? Possibly. But what is so wrong with wishing things were different? Wishing cultures hadn’t clashed and warred for so long and built this tragic tale? Then I ask myself what good it does to wish? I cannot be undone. Not in this lifetime.
My wishes echo into nothing.