I have led a number of conversations on white privilege. The conversations have a tendency to all go the same direction. We as facilitators often use the negative experiences of people of color to establish a foundation for observing white privilege in action. We start with experiences today and hope to connect them to a larger historical context.
I am not offering a critique (today). I am acknowledging this because I was blown away when a young white person in a workshop on white privilege said: “I’m kinda glad I’m white. I’m not sure I could handle being a person of color.”
But as I backtracked through the class, trying to hear what he heard, it all made sense. The only stories he heard about people of color were sad and painful and ugly and hard and filled with injustice. Nothing he heard was an exaggeration or untruthful. The stories were real. The problem wasn’t that we talked about pain. The problem was the only story he heard was one of pain.
It made me wonder how many white people leave conversations on white privilege silently thanking God they aren’t a person of color.
When the young man spoke, my mind was spinning, “Wait? What! Do you know how much I love being a black woman? Well, of course you don’t because I only told you about folks touching my hair, and being followed in the store. I only told you about how I am drowning in loans and how there will be no trust fund in my future. I only told you that my parents gave me the name Austin to try to curb racial and gender discrimination. It’s all true, but there is more. This is not the sum of my existence. I love being a black girl.”
I didn’t say all of this in the workshop. People of color responded by sharing how much they love their culture, and do not wear any of the stories as a mark of shame.
But in honor of Black History Month, I thought I’d return to this conversation and share why I love being a black girl.
You see, white folks tried to take our language and give us theirs but we developed a new one and our language continues to evolve over time seeping into American life. Constantly creating new words that become so popular, we are always staring at some new list determining which words must die. Kill ’em off if you want. We’ll keep developing new ones.
And we have this rich tradition of gospel and jazz and rock and roll and hip-hop. We are forever creating new categories of music to capture both the imaginations and the lived experiences of our community. We sing songs that have lasted generations. We recreate them when the lyrics remain true but the sound has changed. Give us an award or don’t, our musical genius often doesn’t wait for affirmation. It just plays the song.
I have felt the cast iron pots of our grandmothers and held the Bibles of my grandfathers. And I treasure these things because there was not much we owned when we were owned. But the ancestors held on to what they could. A few pictures. A recipe. A favorite doll. A handy tool. A special piece of jewelry. A home, perhaps the first home ever owned in the family.
White folks tried to steal our histories but we have recovered so much of it, pieced together. I know so many young genealogists who refuse to let the thief win. I am filled with stories of triumph over slavery, over lynching, over Jim Crow because our dignity was too strong to let our humanity be crushed.
Our contribution to American culture knows no bounds. But what I love most is how cultural icons breathed in my own home. Dancing to Ashford and Simpson around the living room, begging to move the needle to the next song. Though there are many great soul food restaurants, none compare to the smell of my grandmother’s dinner rolls wafting through the air, the sweet smell of history filling the small kitchen. We sat on the edge of our seats the night Michael moonwalked across the stage, then we hopped up and did it with him. We couldn’t afford to see Whitney in concert, but you better believe we knew every note to every song, even if we couldn’t reach it ourselves. The NBA possesses some great players, many of whom were good guys from around the way — taking girls to prom, participating in the school talent show, being cheered on by the brown faces around them. Yes, we do shape culture, but first we live it ourselves.
And we have a tumultuous love affair with our hair. I can still feel my father’s fingers against my scalp, braiding each perfectly parted row. The cold feeling of Blue Magic and the smell of hot curling irons. The experience of sitting in the beauty shop all day long. “Hiring” a girlfriend to braid our hair so that we could avoid being in the beauty shop all day long. Telling our girlfriends to quiet down because of the headache incurred from the tightly wound twists. Deciding which hair style speaks to us — natural or relaxer, braided or dreaded, twisted or knotted, cornrowed or waved, and, oh, the color options. Our hair believes in freedom, and she will make plain what she intends to do . . . and what she doesn’t.
I love blackness because its demanding. It demands the right to live as fully human. Demands the right to vote, to education, to access, to employment, to housing. It demands equal treatment under the law. It demands the right to life, and a life filled with dignity. It’s still demanding today. It demands creatively — sit-ins and die-ins, signs and T-shirts, marching and writing. We demand because our ancestors did. We demand because we believe in our own dignity. We demand for our children.
I could go on and on and on. I haven’t touched on the poetry of Langston, Maya and every southern grandmother urging her children to keep on keeping on. I haven’t told you about the literary writers who captured our experience and our wisdom. I haven’t told you about black churches with fiery preachers and soul-stirring choirs. I haven’t told you about the black cool of photographers and dancers, politicians and teachers, actors and the everyday folks we love. I haven’t told you about Barack and Michelle and Martin and Coretta or Ozzie and Ruby. There is so much beauty to share.
But my point is this: I love being a black girl.
Austin Channing Brown works speaking, training, facilitating dialogue or planning strategies in reconciliation. She is the multicultural ministry specialist at Willow Creek Community Church’s Chicago Campus. This first appeared on her blog, austinchanning.com.
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