Austin Channing Brown wouldn’t have had much use for the Diversity Training workshops I attended during my corporate work years. Those sessions featured a lot of polite dialogue, along with plenty of numbers and dates demonstrating our company’s commitment to diversity. These were harmonious affairs, comforting and reassuring to anyone save an unrepentant bigot.
The author of this 2018 book writes about leading these sessions, during which she felt pressured by her employers to not offend the feelings of her white participants, to instead re-affirm their goodness. Dissatisfied with these experiences, Brown now advocates more honest talks, uncomfortable discussions about the continued dominance of white supremacist ideology in America, with a focus on actions rather than feelings.
Like Ibram X. Kendi’s How to Be an Antiracist and Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me, Brown’s book combines personal narrative and social analysis. Brown’s narrative style is more effective than Kendi’s, mostly because she chooses a thematic rather than chronological format. She doesn’t match the lyricism of Coates, but not many writers can.
Christianity plays an important role in Brown’s work, and this focus sets her apart from the other two authors. While acknowledging the church’s role as a champion oppressor, Brown believes in a Jesus who is a champion of the oppressed. Hers is a Black Jesus, and she cites the influence of James H. Cone’s liberation theology on her beliefs.
One of the most memorable portions of the book comes in the description of an interracial journey through the south during college. A visit to a museum which documented the history of lynching provoked righteous anger from black students, defensiveness from whites. Brown records only one statement from a white student: “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.” It was a declaration focused more on action than on feeling, and could serve as a theme for the book. Like Kendi, Brown cares little about what people feel or believe; how they act, and how those actions support or attack the ideology of white supremacy, is far more significant.