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Staff photo by Wyatt Massey / Austin Channing Brown speaks at The Camp House on Sept 27.
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Austin Channing Brown

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On the stage in front of more than 200 people Friday night, Austin Channing Brown spent an hour and a half alternating between underlining the need to acknowledge the dignity of black people and confronting whiteness in America.

The speaker and author of "I'm Still Here" challenged white people in the audience to go beyond just being friends with people of color and instead fight for justice for all because it is the right thing to do. At the same time, Brown encouraged people of color in the audience to care for themselves and not see the fight for equity as a solo journey.

Brown made the focus of her talk clear from the beginning: She was centering black women.

"I need you to practice joy and remember that you are a whole human being because for centuries that is what has been stolen from us," Brown said. " Joy is a privilege and I want you to indulge it without guilt."

Brown said the racial justice conversation in America is improving in that people are more willing to acknowledge the underlying racist belief in many social systems that white people are superior. But that is only half of the racism conversation America must have, she said.

"We will have a problem forever if all we do is address whiteness," Brown said. "We must also correct the lie of black inferiority."

Brown pointed to modern reactions to school integration in making her argument, noting how when black students become part of a majority-white school, parents often voice concerns that test scores will drop or that the black students will bring drugs to school. These ideas are based on the centuries-old idea that black people are inferior, Brown said.

"If we really believed in equality, integration would not be a big deal," she said.

Brown's presentation at The Camp House on Friday was organized by The Chattery, a local nonprofit focused on education. Shawanda Mason, creative director and co-founder of The Chattery, said bringing Brown to Chattanooga aligns with the nonprofit's mission to challenge and teach residents.

"What Austin is doing with her books, and her workshops, is enlightening people through her experiences," Mason said.

Brown's presentation included several personal stories alongside her broader critiques of racially-biased systems. She told the audience how as a child she learned why her mother named her Austin, a name more typical of white men. Her mother told her that anyone who read her name on an application — whether it was for school, housing or a job — would assume she was a white man and she would have a better chance of at least getting an interview, Brown said.

The revelation made an impression on her, even as a child. She learned there was something valuable about being a white man and something detrimental about being a black woman, Brown said.

Research has shown that African Americans and Asians who remove references to their race in their job applications are more likely to review calls for interviews than applicants who do not, according to a 2016 study. Previous research has shown similar results with people whose names are traditionally held by white people, although more modern research has shown the connection may not be as strong as previously thought.

The stress of maneuvering through a world where whiteness is the norm takes a toll on people of color, Brown said. People of color are left out of conversations and leadership positions at the same time they are disproportionately affected by things like the prison system, she said.

In the medical field, black women are between three to four times more likely to die from pregnancy complications, according to the Centers for Disease Control.

Dr. Shevonda Sherrow said Brown's talk connected with her because Brown did not shy away from discussing the lived realities of black people in America.

Racial justice is not dependent solely on the work of people of color, Brown said. All people should be fighting for equality.

From the reporter

I became a journalist to help people see people as people. But highlighting the human side of every policy decision, and how it is affecting your community, takes time as well as support from readers. If you believe in telling the stories of people in your community, please subscribe to the Times Free Press today. Contact me at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Find me on Twitter at @News4Mass.

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