Series 08: For the Love of Exploring Our Faith | Episode 04
Knowing Where You’ve Been To Get Where We’re Going: Austin Channing Brown
We continue to explore our faith in Eps 4 of this series with writer and speaker Austin Channing Brown. Austin is a practitioner who helps schools, nonprofits, and religious organizations confront racism and practice genuine inclusion. Her writing has appeared in outlets like Christianity Today, Relevant, Sojourners, and The Christian Century. Austin insists that to make significant strides, “We have to know where we’ve been—before we can figure out where it is we’re going.” Austin and Jen wrestle through a tough review of America’s history of racial division and discuss meaningful next steps toward repentance, equality, and healing. “We all can do something, and it’s our job to figure out what that something is, and let that lead to more somethings.” You won’t want to miss this one.
Narrator: Hi everybody, my name is Remy. Welcome to the For the Love Podcast, with your host Jen Hatmaker, my mom. She writes books and speaks to crowds. But she mostly loves talking to amazing people, every week, on this podcast. Thanks for listening. We hope you enjoy the show.
Jen: Hey everybody, Jen Hatmaker here. Welcome to the show, this is the For the Love podcast, and I am your very happy hostess, loving the space, loving you. Certainly loving my guests. We are in the middle of, what I think, is a really powerful series. It’s called For the Love of Exploring our Faith, and we have invited faith practitioners across the spectrum. I mean, you name it, we’ve got that genre represented. I just think it makes for a really diverse, and broad, and powerful series, and I’m learning so much, and I’m so grateful that I’m living at the same time as some of these amazing people.
Today’s guest is one of the first people I asked to be on this series, and her name is Austin Channing Brown, and she’s one of my favorite people that I follow. I consider her a mentor; somebody that I’m watching, and listening to, and learning from constantly. She’s a writer, she’s a speaker, she’s a practitioner who helps schools, and non-profits, and religious organizations, and churches practice genuine inclusion. That is her mission. Her writings appeared everywhere, Christianity Today, Relevant, everywhere. She’s got a new book coming out in May, that I want to be the focus of our conversation today in this episode, and her book is called I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness. I mean, boom.
Let me just put it right out there up front, I love this book, I wrote an endorsement for it, and I think this is a super important message, and she is a super wonderful messenger. I think her message is, it’s devastating, and it’s beautiful, and it is haunting, and it will move us. That’s what’s going to happen, it’s going to move us.
Austin sort of began her journey as a racial reconciler in college, through an experience that we’re going to talk about called Sankofa, which was a three day bus trip exploring black history sites throughout the south. It was like a pilgrimage. She’s going to tell us a little bit more about that, and what it meant to her, how hard it was, how it went sideways, and then ultimately sort of laid a path for her. Following her undergrad work she went on to get her masters in social justice from Marygrove College in Detroit, and she’s worked with some really phenomenal organizations; Big Brothers, Big Sisters, Door Network on the west side of Chicago, a really, really cool organization. She’s been on staff at Willow Creek Community Church developing strategies around multiculturalism, and then, most recently, she served as Resident Director and Multicultural Liaison for Calvin College in Grand Rapids.
She’s really great for the series, you’re going to love hearing from her. This is a good conversation, you guys. It’s really strong. It’s no holds barred, so we’re not messing around. I told her before we started recording “This is not a place to edit. Just come right at it. Come at it with your full force, and your full weight of knowledge, and expertise, and experience, and passion.” And she does it. I think you’re going to love her. If you don’t already follow her, you will after this. She is not just smart, wonderful, passionate, but she’s also really funny and delightful. I’m super excited to welcome Austin Channing to the show.
Welcome to the show. Thank you so much.
Austin: Hi, Jen. Oh my gosh, such a pleasure to be here.
Jen: Oh, man. You know, I was, I sat down with my team as we were fleshing out who we wanted for Exploring our Faith, and your name just zipped to the top. I mean, absolutely zipped as fast as it could be, and I’m like “Let’s get her. Hurry. Before she’s too busy.” You’re so busy. You’re raising a baby.
Austin: And they’re so demanding.
Jen: Oh, they are.
Austin: They want things all the time.
Jen: Well, you’re in the weeds. I mean, you’re absolutely in the weeds of parenting. I have big kids, they can pour their own cereal, and they like wipe their own bottoms.
Austin: I saw your Facebook update the other day about not making Valentine’s boxes anymore, and I was like “Oh, my God. I’m not even there yet.”
Jen: But, you’re also in some dreamy years. The dreamy baby, toddler years. They’re just, there’s something magic about those, too.
Austin: The snuggles are pretty amazing. And watching him learn everything. I watch him stare at his fingers as he opens his fist up and closes it back again, because it’s wondrous to him. I mean, that’s the good stuff.
Jen: You’re making my heart pound. It’s so, so, how old is he? How many months?
Austin: Six months.
Jen: Yeah. I love six months. Six months is right where I was like “Okay, I think this is going the work. I think this kid can stay. I think we can make a go of this.”
Austin: Oh my goodness.
He’s making noises, he’s smiling, and laughing.
Nobody told me, Jen, that they don’t do that right away.
Jen: I know. They’re so boring at first.
Austin: It was like “Wait, what? I’m doing all this work, and you’re not even going the smile? You’re not even going to look at me? Oh no.”
Jen: That’s awesome. We’re going to have to put some pictures of baby on the transcript because this is too much. It’s just too much.
So, listen. I gave kind of an overview of your history in our introduction, and sort of how you have stepped your way all the way into the space that you now lead, but before we really dive deep into your book, which you know I love, I have read it cover to cover, and I love every single page. I wonder if you could tell everybody listening specifically about the time leading up to your pretty profound experience. I want to say it correctly Sankofa?
Austin: That’s it.
Jen: Sankofa. Can you talk a little bit about what was before that, and what was that? And how that affected you?
Austin: Yeah, so I had no idea what it was, even when I kind of got on the bus. I, in college, my freshman year, I had an amazing roommate, who’s biracial, and she was really struggling to sort of figure out what it meant to be a woman of color, because she had been raised in largely white area, and she was just like “What does it mean to be black?” She’s ethnically ambiguous, so you know she’s a woman of color, but you don’t know what.
She had heard about this trip that was sponsored by our college, and she was like “Austin, there’s really nobody else that I want to go with except you.” I think that had to do with me being her roommate, you know, not because I was some expert at that point. I just knew her, and I knew her story, and so she didn’t have to do a lot of explaining. She could just be on the bus, right, and start right there. How do you say no to that, Jen?
Jen: No, that’s your Saturday. That’s what you’re doing.
Austin: Sure. I’ll go, right? Of course, I’ll be there. There were a couple classes that we took before, so I discovered that what happened for most people is they had to submit an application, and had to talk about their interest in the trip, and why they cared about racial justice, what they hoped to gain on the trip, and then the folks leading it picked folks and paired them up, one black person, one white person.
Austin: But, because my girl was bi-racial, and had unique situation, she got to pick her person. I did not know any of this. Then, you go through classes, I think it was three sessions, where you talk about black history. I was like “Oh, this is some heavy stuff.” But, it introduced me to an amazing, amazing professor, who taught African American History at our college, and that was my first time really getting to know him, and meeting him. It was fun. I had never taken an African American History class before, so even though it was only three sessions, I was like “This is amazing.”
Austin: It was so good. Then came the day for us to get on the bus, and they don’t tell you where you’re going. You just get on the bus.
Austin: So we got on the bus, Jen, and we drove, and the story unfolds in the book, but it got a little volatile, things were said, feelings were hurt, but it changed everything for me.
Jen: Tell me a little bit more about that. I’ve read it, but not everybody has yet; they will soon, but talk about sort of what unfolded and what that unleashed.
Austin: Yeah. We went to a number of historic sites that all had to do with slavery, and/or the civil rights movement, so our first stop was on a plantation, and it did not go well. We did not learn a whole lot, except how slavery gets romanticized; that’s what we learned. Our bus trip fell apart, but we had to get back on the bus anyhow, and our next trip was to a museum that focused exclusively on lynchings, and so we walked through this space that was just picture, after picture, after picture, after pictures of lynchings. And then, when you got finished with the pictures, then there were postcards that said “Sorry we missed you at the barbecue last night.” And when you got finished with that, there were newspaper articles that said “Can’t wait for the community event tonight.” Then you hit a whole new set of pictures where it’s not just a black body hanging in the background, it’s a sea of white faces smiling and pointing at how great they did. It was just heavy.
Jen: So dark.
Austin: Oh, it was heavy. It really, I could never explain it, but it really felt like, for all the African Americans on that trip, we were staring at our own family members.
Jen: I believe you.
Austin: There was just nothing, I didn’t need to know names, I didn’t need to know the location, every one of those people belonged to me. We all got back on the bus, Jen…
Jen: That’s so devastating.
Austin: We all got back on the bus, and we had a hard time.
Austin: We had a hard time trying to talk about it, we had a hard time trying wrestle through what we had experienced, and at one point, a black woman got up on the front of the bus, she was a student, and she said “You know, I think white people are just evil. I think you’re just innately evil; it’s not your fault, it’s just the way that it is.”
Jen: Oh, bless it.
Austin: Right? “You just rape, and pillage, and steal, and it’s just the way it is.”
Jen: Let’s just devolve it, it’s unraveling.
Austin: As we all stare at her in wide eyed wonder.
Jen: Oh, mercy.
Austin: The fact that she was so calm is what made it really, I think we could have handled it if she had just been like “I can’t believe you guys did this. This is so awful. You’re just evil.” But she was like, very lucid, and very calm.
Jen: Yes. Wow.
Austin: It was bad. Yeah. We just kept going back and forth, and white students just threw out every defensive measure they could; “What about the Holocaust?” “My family wasn’t here yet.” “I didn’t have anything to do with this.” “I can’t fix this.” Just anything to not feel it. Then, one of my friends, and she is my friend to this day, she got up at the front of the bus, and she was a cute little white girl, and she said “You know, I can see all this pain, and I know that I can’t fix it. There is nothing I could say in this moment that would make what we’ve experienced better, but what I can do is work for the rest of my life to try to make sure our children don’t experience this.”
Jen: So powerful.
Austin: Right? And she said “Doing nothing is no longer an option for me.”
Jen: Okay. Okay. This whole experience is obviously profoundly unsettling, and moving, and it’s a catalyst, and it’s a disruptor, and you’re what? Are you 20?
Austin: I’m like, maybe 19. Yeah. Maybe 20. 19, 20. Yeah.
Jen: Something there, and of course you wouldn’t have known it on the spot, you’re just a young adult, but something in that experience locked in for you.
Austin: It did. Those words just resonated with me, so it wasn’t my first time realizing race. There wasn’t necessarily anything on this history trip that I didn’t already know intellectually, but it didn’t feel like my vocation to do something about it. When she said those words, my thought was “Me too.”
Austin: “Me too. Doing nothing is no longer an option for me, either.”
Jen: You tell us how vital it is to know historical content, to really, really know it. Not just ours, but others, and you warn against what you call “the dangers of unknowing and mis-knowing our histories,” which, I cannot tell you how much I identify with this, this speaks to my own personal mis-knowing of what I was taught, what I learned, what I even wanted to see, what I chose to let in. Can you kind of unpack that a little bit for us? Why is this so important?
Austin: Yeah. The word Sankofa, I’m going to botch this a little bit, but paraphrasing what it means, “looking back to move forward,” so the very essence of this trip, was that we have to know where we’ve been before we can figure out where it is we’re going. I believe that really strongly. There’s a lot of folks, not a lot, there are church folks who would really like the racial reconciliation, racial justice conversation to begin today, so we start from today and we build and we just forget about the past, and we just ignore that anything ever happened, and we just start today.
The truth is, you can’t fix what you don’t talk about, right? You can’t fix injustice if you’re not going to talk about what the injustice was.
Jen: It’s so obvious, except the pervasive conversation around, just what you said, the same sort of defensive, frantic, defenses that you were mentioning from those students on the bus, are the same ones that grown adults now say, grown white adults, but just packaged a little better; “Well, that’s not me. Not all white people. I wasn’t there, my people didn’t do this. I don’t feel that way. I have a black friend.”
Austin: Hello. Or black children, now.
Jen: It’s just so humiliating, and it requires, I mean, on the flip side of that word, so much humility and repentance, and just not many people are willing to give that reckoning. We’d just rather go “Well, what can we do today?” That’s just a comfort mechanism.
Austin: America’s history is just not filled with roses, you know?
Jen: No, and that’s your exact point, I mean, do a deep dive, really anywhere, and there’s atrocities, and human rights abuses, and racism, and you’re right. There’s nowhere else to start but there. You have to, or you’re not telling the truth.
Austin: You’re not telling the truth, and you’re not going to do anything significant. We could have coffee together, I guess, and start from ground zero, and that would be great. You’re a lovely person to have coffee with, I’m sure, Jen, but we’re not going to fix the education system, we’re not going to fix mass incarceration, we’re not going to make streets safer for kids, for all kids. We’re not going to fix health disparities, or wage disparities, or home ownership disparities.
You and I could have a real good cup of coffee, but that’s about it. I think we were made for more than that.
We dig into shame because it’s hard, and we dig into the lies we picked up as children, and are still carrying around in our bodies because it’s hard. Everything that we do as humans that is transformative is first, hard, and then freeing. I’m trying, I try really hard in my work to say “Yeah, it’s hard.” I want to be honest about how hard it is, I don’t want to sugar coat it, I don’t want to make it sound like it’s not hard, I want people who are signing up for hard. Who is signing up for hard? Because we need to be a tribe who does hard things, and the payout, though, is that we get to be free together. Now you and I don’t just have coffee together, you and I change the world together, and isn’t that what we want? I don’t even like coffee.
Jen: And it’s worth it. Yeah. It’s worth it. You’re 100% right. So, kind of pressing into that idea, about having to go back first, you’ve also said that we just have to refuse ahistorical assumptions about “those people.” Those people. And then refuse to give into fear. I like that because, truly, once we start knowing one another’s stories, knowing one another’s histories, that’s the beginning of empathy. That’s where empathy starts to grow, in that kind of soil.
Once empathy begins to crack through in a truly genuine way, and defensiveness and pride gives way to humility and truth telling, I mean, it’s like a whole new world opens up of possibility; not just communally, but between one another, but what’s possible for the future.
Austin: I think that’s what’s really hard to give voice to, Jen, and maybe only the spirit can, is the potential for beauty. The fact that we are satisfied with a coffee date is problematic.
Jen: Great point.
Austin: Why are we satisfied with that? Why don’t we want more? Why don’t we want the depth that comes from working together, from truly knowing one another, from understand one another’s histories? And from considering you are mine, and I am yours, right? Why the hesitation to experience that here, and now?
Jen: Yeah, I mean, that’s the root to pull up right there. That resistance to that is really something worth examining. I like how you say that is, it’s really spirit led, and spirit given, in so many ways, and that is absolutely the truth. I mean, the guidance of Jesus will walk our feet into these spaces, like it or not, and so I love this conversation within the church; I love it in the whole culture, in our whole nation, and I love it, also, within the church.
And speaking of that, one of my favorite things that you say, I love how you, as you’re speaking to fear, to that kind of fear that keeps us resistant and settling, you give it some biblical context by using Pharaoh in the Bible as an example. I love this because you can speak, and to the church crowd, you are using examples from our book, which, I love it. I wonder if you could talk about that example a little bit, and how you suss that out into teaching. It’s incredibly relevant to this discussion today
Austin: I love this passage of scripture. So, we Christians talk about Moses a lot.
Jen: We do. We love us some Moses.
Austin: We do. We like him a lot. And for very good reasons. But, when Moses was first born, there were some women who made his life possible, and we don’t spend a whole lot of time talking about these women.
Jen: That’s true.
Austin: I like this story because I think it parallels American history on a very regular basis. Not like it parallels American history today, but it paralleled it in slavery, and it paralleled it Jim Crow and it paralleled it with internment camps. It just-
Jen: You’re right, actually.
Austin: It just paralleled American history. It begins with Pharaoh not knowing who Joseph was, so he doesn’t know the history of these people, and he is like “What is happening with these Israelites? I don’t know who these people are, I don’t know where they came from. What is going on?” And he develops fear. And that fear becomes hate. And out of hate, he decides that he is just going to kill them. The way he’s going to do that is by having the midwives, who help them bear children, just kill the sons. And the midwives are like “No. I don’t think I’m going to do that.”
Jen: Right. “It’s not really what we do, you’ve misunderstood our job. “
Austin: “I think you are confused.” They’re so brilliant, because they actually use his own prejudice against him, so they say “You know, those women, they just give birth so fast, you know, we just, by the time we get there …” Pharaoh was like “Oh, okay.”
Austin: But, yeah. They literally are practicing civil disobedience, they are not honoring the law of the king.
Jen: That’s right, yep.
Austin: But, rather than give up, Jen, he decides “Alright, well, we’ll just make it an open policy.” So, rather than trying to do this thing silently and secretly, we’ll just make an open law that these kids need to go. And the law is to drown them, to throw them in the Nile. Yet another woman disobeys, and it’s the mother of Moses, and she was like “Nope, not going to do that.” So, she puts her son in a basket, that basket makes its way to a princess, Moses sister is following the basket, and when the princess opens the basket, she immediately knows what she is supposed to do, because the Bible says she knows it’s a Hebrew. And she says it out loud “This is a Hebrew child.” In that moment, she should tip over that boat. In that moment, she should do what the law requires, she should do what her father said, she should follow the law, and tip over the boat. But she doesn’t. She’s moved by compassion. When Miriam sees that, Miriam jumps out of the reeds, and comes up with a plan. She’s like “So, want me to go get somebody who could feed that baby for you?”
Jen: Totally. “I see you found a baby. I have an idea.”
Austin: “I have a thought. I know this woman who just happens to be nursing.”
Jen: Exactly. Right. That’s so good.
Austin: Right? And the princess says “Go.” What I love about this, and you know, the story continues, they save Moses’ life, but what I love about it, is that these are women from two completely different walks of life, so we have a princess who is living it up in the palace, and we have a slave child, and these two women get together and they form a plan for how to save a child, against the law. How to care for him, how to split the work of caring for him, and totally defy what they’re “supposed” to do.
Jen: For the good of history.
Austin: For the good of history.
Jen: Yeah. I love that. I’ve never heard anybody but you apply that story to our current context in that manner, and I just love it. It has a thousand points of connection.
Jen: One of the things I really love that you point out, is that it was in defiance of the law. It was the law of the land. Sometimes, now even, certainly in our recent history, and now, the law of the land gets a free pass. It gets a Christian, or a spiritual, endorsement-
Austin: That’s right. Simply because it is.
Jen: It’s a law, so I mean, how can it be bad? It’s a law. That’s, it’s just a law. And yet, so much law is born out of sin, and fear, and you’ve talked about that, in fact. You said, as society, and Christians specifically, we have the propensity to create enemies of people out of fear, and then what we do is we create policy around that fear. It’s the truest thing you ever said. I mean, all you have to do is take a five second honest assessment of the entire history of the United States to know that we have put evil laws in place-
Austin: Over, and over, and over again. That’s right.
Jen: We get so frequently accused of “Stop being so political.” It’s just that those policies affect human beings. I mean, this is real. This is not just, this isn’t partisan, it’s simply human.
Austin: Jen, when I apply Exodus, no, I’m about to pour gas on it. We’re talking about Exodus. We’re talking about the second book of the Bible. We’re not talking about, like, number two. The second book of the Bible opens with the elimination of slavery.
Jen: That’s right. Wow. That’s so true.
Austin: Don’t tell me we’re not supposed to be political, what in the world? What are you talking about?
Jen: No, it makes no biblical sense. It makes absolutely no biblical sense at all. It’s just, that is yet another silencing measure, just to keep everyone comfortable. To keep discomfort, intention, at bay. But, I like what you say because you suggest that what is even scarier than evil policy centered on white supremacy, is the policies no one dares to write down. Where our fear is dictating our social policies, our unwritten policies. The way that we’re just kind of operating, so by the letter of the law we cannot be found guilty, but this is the way that our systems are kept intact. I wonder if you could talk for a minute about those unwritten policies that undergird racism in our society, and in our churches?
Austin: A lot of churches, organizations, say that they are affirming, but don’t clearly articulate what that means.
Jen: That’s good.
Austin: Right? I don’t agree with policies that say LGBTQ people cannot be in a position of leadership, but my God, if that’s the truth, you should at least say so.
Jen: I agree. I completely agree. My gay friends will tell me all the time “That’s why we quit going to church.” Because the front door would say “You are so welcome here. Arms wide open. We love you. We over love you, for crying out loud.”
Jen: But, then, at some point, the rubber meets the road, which is “I wonder if I can teach a study. I wonder if I can sign up for this leadership course.”
Jen: “Can I help lead in worship?” And then, all of a sudden, the unwritten policy comes forth, and it’s crushing. I mean, it’s so devastating. I wouldn’t go to church, if I was gay, constantly waiting for the other shoe to drop when I found out “Oh, you’re not actually embraced.” That would, “we’ll take your tithe money, but not your gifts.” You know?
I’m with you. I hear what you’re saying. There’s unwritten policies that deeply affect people’s lives, and their souls, and their well-being. It’s good to talk about that. It’s good that we’re mentioning this out loud, because for those of us who benefit-
Austin: I need you to ask yourself why. Why can’t you say it out loud? If it’s what you honestly think, if it’s what you honestly believe, if you feel like you cannot defend it, then I have some more questions for you.
Jen: Great question. What are you trying to protect with your silence around that? Because if it’s your sincere conviction, well then, just let it fly.
Austin: Let’s name it.
Jen: Let the chips fall where they may. I think that’s a really interesting question that you’re asking, and it goes, it makes me think, with that silence, what are you going to benefit? What do you gain by not speaking just truthfully what you think, what you believe? Or what are you afraid of losing?
Austin: That’s right.
And it’s inherently not loving.
Jen: No, it’s not loving.
I want to ask about this, too, I want to move into your book. Your book I’m Still Here, and it’s so good. You really did a beautiful job on it. It’s so true, and it’s so honest. Parts of it are just so heartbreaking.
Austin: I so appreciate you taking the time to read it.
Jen: Oh, it was so good. And you’re such a good writer, you’re such a gifted communicator, so you’re able to take what is a complicated discussion, and your complicated lived reality, your experiences, and you parlay it into a really accessible book that–it packs a punch. I mean, you don’t mess around. You go right at it directly, which I appreciate. I think that’s really important. We don’t actually have time to skirt anymore. As you mention in the book, your first encounter with a racialized America came at age seven, when you realized why your parents named you Austin; which is interesting because it sounds like you might be a white fraternity bro.
Austin: Totally. That is what people expect if they have not seen me, and they’re like “And now presenting …” they’re like “Oh.” All the faces are like “Oh.”
Jen: Obviously, that was the beginning of it for you, and it continued as you grew up in a sort of white majority environment, schools, works, church. I mean, you sort of had to do some super intentional work to love, and own, your own blackness and who you are, and who you were made to be, which obviously fueled your future and you’re life’s work. Can you talk about that seven year old who was learning about her name, and how that sort of formed you?
Austin: Yeah. I think the story of a lot of black people, again, not all, but a lot of black folks, is recognizing race right away. I was in classrooms where I realized that all the white girls’ hair was different from my hair.
Jen: Oh, yes.
Austin: You know, like “Oh, that’s interesting.” Even forming racial assumptions that aren’t real, but I’m trying to figure it out because I recognize difference, so I go to a white girl’s sleepover, and she’s got cats everywhere, and I’m like “Huh, why do white people love cats so much? That’s different. This is why my mommy tells me never to eat at the white people’s house, because cats are everywhere.” Right? It’s not being unaware of race, it’s just that that race hasn’t been assigned a meaning yet. And that moment, when race has been assigned meaning, is the jarring moment.
For me, I knew that my name must have been a boy’s name, because people called it out all the time. Literally, I would be sitting in class, and the teacher would be like “Austin.” And back in those days, when girls and guys sat on opposite sides of the room, you know, and I’d have to do jumping jacks to be seen. Like “Hello, over here. Girl’s side.” I was very used to that, but at some point it dawned on me, right there in that library, that there had to be more to people’s reaction than me just being a girl. Why is this throwing people so much?
In this particular instance, giving the librarian my card, and her asking me at least three times whether or not I’m sure of my own name. I thought “What is happening?” I did, I marched over to my mother, and she said “Austin, we knew that if we gave you the name, that people would assume you were a white man.” And I remember her distinctly saying “We just had to get you to the interview.”
Jen: Bless it.
Austin: “We knew, once you get to the interview you’ll blow everyone out of the water, you’re so capable, you’re so smart, you’re so, so, so, so, so, but we had to get you to the interview.”
Jen: Your mom knew.
Jen: That’s a lot to take on in third grade. That is heavy.
Austin: It was like “Huh. Okay.” I couldn’t articulate what, as a seven year old, I figured out about the world, except the general word “unjust.” I learned so many things in her one statement. I learned that there is this thing called discrimination, and I learned that there’s a reason someone, that whiteness had a certain level of privilege. I learned that I’m amazing, and that my parents think that once I show up, you know, that I could nail anything. You know what I mean? She tried really hard to marry a hard thing and a good thing together for me, in that moment. I think the learning just continued to play out as I continued to understand what race means in America. But that was the first genuine “Huh.” about the world for me.
Jen: I was just interviewing, for the podcast, Nicole Walters, and she is a brilliant entrepreneur, and she’s built this multi-million dollar company, and she worked in Fortune 500 companies, she’s black, and her parents are immigrants from Ghana, and her name that she grew up with–she was born in DC–but the name that they gave her was Nana, which is a Ghanaian name, and it signifies princess, and matriarch. It’s very strong. It’s a very powerful name from Ghana. She went by that her whole childhood, adolescence, in college. She’s super brilliant. Her credentials are undisputed. Obviously. She starts interviewing out of college with her amazing work, and nobody will call her back with her name. She changed her name to Nicole, and immediately, I mean immediately, the phone started ringing off the hook.
Jen: You know, that’s just a minute ago. That’s right now. That’s today’s culture. Nobody can say to us “We are in a post racial society.” That is just willfully obtuse. It is willfully obtuse. That’s what I want to get in a fight over. I want to get in a fight over it.
Austin: You know, I almost just, I’m glad that there are folks that are still willing to get into a fight over it because there’s a whole lot of black women who are like “I’m not getting into a fight with you about this.”
Jen: It’s so true. I’m still rage-y. I’m like the scrappy white girl that’s like “Meet me out back.”
Austin: Right, taking off your southern earrings.
Jen: Taking off my feathers. I’m not even here to play. I’ve got nothing to lose. The point is, this is right now. It’s not in our either recent history or distant history. It’s now. It’s still. We have work to do. This is not optional. This is not optional work, if we want to build a beautiful, flourishing community, which I think is what we want. That’s one thing I stumble on all the time, which is in an effort by white culture to preserve their own power, and status, and privilege– they’re actually short circuiting their own selves. When our brothers and sisters of color, of all color, really, when they’re oppressed in any way, when they are marginalized, when they are disadvantaged, when they have to work twice as hard for half as much, we’re all losing. I mean, seriously. Our culture is losing, definitely our church is losing. That is, those voices are silenced, or diminished, as you mentioned, in our churches.
We are the ones getting screwed, honestly. That could be such a flourishing of society, such an unleashing of gift, and talent, and innovation, and partnership, and yet, we’re content to settle with something as boring as power. It’s our loss.
Austin: Power is so sexy.
Jen: It’s just so sexy.
Austin: It’s so sexy. It brings so much. It brings money, and it brings book contracts, and it brings fame, and it brings, you know, it just brings so much.
Jen: Power is sexy, and it promises a lot. To some degree, it can deliver. I mean, that’s what you just said. To some degree, it can deliver, but I think the costs, and the losses, are worse, and they’re a little bit more invisible.
Jen: And, I think the collective possibility, when we are equally honored, equally recognized, equally elevated, equally paid. We don’t even know that possibility. We’ve never even seen it.
Austin: That’s right.
Jen: We literally have never experienced it.
Austin: That’s right. You know, in smaller ways, Jen, often times we assume that it’s happening. I have a girlfriend, like I said, lots of people who are vocalists in the church world, and I have a girlfriend in particular who was singing for a conference, and she was calling one of the other speakers for the conference, and she was like “Oh, my gosh. I’m having trouble getting there, to the airport. I just am trying to figure out who can pick me up, and who can drop me off, or if I should just leave my car for the nights that I’m gone. I just don’t know what to do.” The other speaker, so this is a black woman vocalist talking, the white woman, who’s the speaker, says “Oh, well why don’t you just have your driver come get you?”
Jen: Oh, yeah. Oh, gosh.
Austin: My girlfriend was like “What?”
Jen: Record scratch. Totally.
Austin: The white speaker said “Yeah, isn’t that in your contract to have a driver get you to and from?” And she was like “Uh, no.”
Jen: This is a great point you’re making. A really, really great point.
Austin: Right? But the speaker didn’t know. She genuinely had no idea that their contracts were not equitable.
Jen: It’s assuming we all have the same thing.
Austin: That’s right.
Jen: Did you read that? Where Jessica was asking Octavia “What are you getting paid?” It was so significantly less, that she said “We will not work until we are getting paid the same.”
Austin: That’s what I’m talking about.
Jen: It was powerful.
Austin: That is solidarity.
Jen: It is solidarity.
Austin: Isn’t that so much better than you and I going to get coffee, Jen?
Jen: It’s better. It is better.
Austin: Right? So much better. You and I are going to walk into a room, and we’re going to use our power together, and we’re going to raise what women are worth, are valued at, and I am going to help you make sure that you are valued in this industry to the degree that you should be. Isn’t that so much more exciting than some coffee?
Jen: It is. It’s absolutely worth whatever we all have to push through, anger, defensiveness, unforgiveness, shame.
Austin: Let it go. Let it go.
Jen: It’s worth it.
Austin: There’s something better on the other side.
Jen: The work is worth it. Think about it, what a beautiful culture, if that were the norm. Golly.
Jen: What potential would just be unleashed in the world? It makes me excited to think about it. You’ve got some strong words for white middle class Evangelicals, and I’m here for it. I like it. It’s interesting, because I’m in the bullseye, right, of privilege. Absolutely bullseye. I mean, I have blond hair, for crying out loud. Well, it’s not real, I dye it. I dye my hair blond, it’s gray.
Austin: I don’t know if that’s more or less privilege.
Jen: Exactly. My privilege allows me to get my hair dyed. I’m just so deeply aware of how much favor comes my way, just because of what I look like, and who I am, and it’s a lot. It’s a lot, frankly. I’m just so, I want you to know that I’m listening. I’m listening so hard to what you’re saying, and I’m paying attention to my role in it as a person who’s got a fair amount of influence in my own sphere of power, and disproportionate favor, which is not tied to merit, it’s just tied to whiteness.
You talk about how Evangelicalism, specifically white Evangelicalism, has participated in what you call “An era of rising racial hostility.” Can you talk about what you’re seeing here?
Austin: I read in history books about church bombings. I read in history books about assassinations of black leaders. I read in history books, right, I never, ever, ever really, really thought that in my lifetime a white supremacist would walk into a black church and kill people. I thought that was the stuff of history books, Jen. I didn’t believe in a post racial America, but I didn’t know we were still capable of that.
Jen: That’s right.
Austin: Was it just last summer that a white supremacist drove into a group of people and killed someone?
Jen: Yep. It sure was.
Austin: And really, should have killed more, I mean, when you really think about that.
Jen: Yeah, it was just last summer.
Austin: Yeah, Jen … The fact that, of all places, the church has not been completely, and totally, and utterly outraged, and started multiple campaigns for racial justice, and healing, and understanding … What?
Austin: What? That’s the large, that’s supposed to be the obvious stuff, Jen. Right? Don’t we always say “Race just isn’t the KKK, those aren’t the only racists.” Right? Don’t we say that because that’s supposed to be the extreme? That’s supposed to be a clear sign that something is definitely wrong here.
Jen: I know it. It’s crushing.
Austin: There has been no mobilization. We had, what, a couple marches? In the particular cities where those things happened. And then what? The church went about its business? Did anybody hire people of color because of that? Did anybody start new programming because of that? Where was the national church campaign that said “This is unacceptable. Let’s start teaching black history. Let’s start teaching about white supremacy. Let’s start teaching.” Right?
I just say that to say, yes, there are things that are happening right now, the way we talk about immigration, the way we talk about Black Lives Matter, the way we talk about kneeling and protests, there are writhing racial hostilities that are absolutely happening right now, but I don’t want to discount the fact that they have been happening.
Jen: Yeah, that’s right. That’s true.
Austin: In our recent history. You know what I mean? That’s what I want to try and get at, is that white Evangelical Christians have been a part of rising racial hostilities. Right? Not just a part of them now, but have been a part of them.
Jen: You know, it’s interesting, as a leader who has some influence, and I am generally disposed to speak my mind, as you know, when I kind of look back over the public reaction to things that I have said…
Austin: Have you noticed there’s been a public reaction to you?
Jen: There’s a bit. The only–it’s almost equal–I think the thing that people, the Christian community specifically, resists the most, is my defense of the LGBTQ community, but I’m telling you, people are not one sliver, not a sliver, behind it, in intensity, in anger, in fury, and in rejection, is my defense of Black Lives Matter. I mean, absolutely, it’s just furious. Those are the only two categories that even come remotely close to matching. And that tells me something, because the majority of my followers are white Christians. That sort of discussion taps into such, I mean, really, unbridled fury, tells us we are part of the problem.
Austin: I know it does.
Jen: This church is not a healing force. The church is not a healing force.
Austin: And too often the church is recreating those old narratives, right? It’s repeating that history that never happened. Right?
Jen: We’ve got some work to do, sis, and you know we’ve got a path in front of us, but I think the way forward is together, like you mentioned, in solidarity, and in courage, and in sharing platforms, and in elevating one another. That excites me. That energizes me, because I think “Where do I go? Where do I fit? What’s my space here?”
Austin: Oh, my goodness, can I please respond to that, Jen?
Jen: I would love it.
Austin: We could talk about you, but that’s a question that I get a lot, that’s why I wanted to come back to it, because white people who recognize that they’ve been lied to their whole lives, and whose world views are shifting, and who are learning about history, and who have black children, you know what I mean? Who are, in some ways, being forced to look at these issues far more deeper than the sound bite, they come up to me, and they say “Austin, what do I do? What do I do now?” I know there’s going to be a lot of people who are really angry at my book because I don’t tell them what to do now, and the reason that I don’t, Jen, this is what I say every single time somebody asks me this question, “I have no idea what the hell you should do, but you should do something.”
Jen: That’s good. That’s good. You can’t speak for them, you can’t carve their path.
Austin: Right? This is a path you have to find, and it will depend on your social location, it will depend on your giftedness, it will depend on your spiritual gifts, it will depend on what you’re doing right now, it will depend on your hobbies. What I would tell you to do, is going to be very different from what I would tell a police officer to do. Very different from what I would tell a pastor to do. Very different from what I would tell other authors to do. All of those things are so different, but you can do something, and it’s your job to figure out what the something is, and to let that something lead to more, and more somethings.
Jen: So good. That is so good. And it matters. It really does. I’m thinking about the person listening, kind of at step one, who’s thinking “Oh, gosh, will it even make a difference? If I take these first steps will it even matter?” It will. That’s the thing. It does. Sometimes the first bit of transformation ends up being in your own heart, so maybe that’s an internal shift that just takes a while. Because it does. I don’t get to be 43 years old, and then turn on a dime; there’s so much unlearning to do, and relearning, so much dismantling, and rebuilding, it’s long. It’s slow. And it’s bumbly. And it’s fumbly. And all along the way I’ll say the wrong thing, I’ll do the wrong thing, I’ll assume the wrong thing, so you kind of just fail forward.
Austin: And you’ll be corrected, right?
Jen: And you’ll be corrected, which I’m grateful for, but you are correct.
Austin: There are so many people who aren’t grateful for the correction. I just want to, listen, I just want to shake people and be like if there is someone who is still correcting you, it means they still have hope for you. Don’t give up, don’t throw in the towel, you know? When I stop talking to you, it’s because I have lost hope in you. Jen, if I never talk to you again, you need to know that it’s because I’ve been like “Jen is not as serious as I thought she was. I thought she was on board.”
Jen: I like that. I think there is not a way for a white person to stay connected to this work without constantly revisiting their own personal humility. Just the sense of what I am in this space, I’m not the one with the voice, I’m not the speaker, we’re accustomed to being. You know, I get to walk into a room and be the one that gets to talk.
Austin: You know what? Humility, in so many ways, is the opposite of white supremacy.
Jen: That is. It’s the polar opposite. They’re enemies, actually, of each other.
Austin: They can’t both exist.
Jen: They cannot. So hanging on, with both hands, through tears, with that humility, but saying “I’m here as a learner and a listener.” It will change everything. Once our hearts are changed, once our souls are changed, once our social understanding has been changed, our historical understanding, then anything is possible.
Austin: And don’t you feel freer? I’ve never been white, so I’ve never had to question anything that I’m saying, but I see white folks who are in that place of anger and frustration, like you say the phrase “Black Lives Matter” and there’s this outpouring of anger, and animosity, and frustration, and I’ve been on the receiving end of that, you know, I’ve been a speaker, and some tall white guy gets up and uses all of his six foot whatever to lean over me, and tell me about how wrong I am.
Jen: Yeah, gosh.
Austin: That, compared to what you and I are doing right now, because you have humility, you know what I mean? The difference between someone who is stuck, and who is holding on to all that crap, and someone who is letting it go, is night and day.
Jen: Yeah. You’re right. And it’s important. It matters. And people watch that. It bears a credible witness for Jesus. Also, who else is watching are our kids, and their friends, and the next generation is paying attention, so we get one shot at this. I mean, really, we get one shot at our moment as sort of the leaders in our generation to do this well, and to do it right. To do it the way that Jesus would have us to do it.
Austin: And there are too many white people who believe that the work is done, and therefore, by default, teach the next generation that what we’re doing right now is okay.
Jen: You’re right. I want to tell you this before we wrap up, you are a very powerful, and important leader, in this space. I don’t know if you wanted this, I don’t know if you don’t want it, but I’m so grateful that you said yes to this work, and to this leadership, and I know that it’s hard. This is exhausting, frustrating work, and to some degree we’re not going to see its full fruits in our lifetime. We’re not. We’re hopefully going to pass off a healthier, more whole culture to our kids, but in our lifetime I don’t think we’re going to see the end of it. But, you’re still doing it, and you’re showing up, and you’re telling the truth, and it matters, Austin, and it’s really profound to watch. I count you as one of my favorite, and most trusted and treasured leaders. I read everything you write, I listen to everything you say, and I believe you, and I’m following you. I’m grateful for what I know it costs you. I know that it does. And some of those are seen, and some of those costs are unseen, but I know they’re all there, so just, I thank you for your service to Jesus, and to the church, and to our kids, and to each other, and I’m really proud of what you do, and I respect it so much.
Listen, I’m going to ask you just one more question as we wrap it up, and would love to hear, and I don’t even know if I’ve prepped you for this, so just whoever comes to mind. I’m wondering if you will leave us with either a quote from a leader who you love, a spiritual leader, who you love, or it could be a scripture, that sort of epitomizes your life’s work. Something that kind of inspires you to just keep going.
Austin: Oh, man. The first person that comes to mind is Ida Wells, because she wrote about lynchings during a time when the narrative around what was happening with lynchings was not true, and she made it her life’s work to insert some truth into what was happening, in ways that today would be considered bold writing.
Austin: In one of her writings called Southern Horrors, I’m going to get this quote a little bit wrong, but she said something to the degree that “The black people are more sinned against than they are sinning, and someone needs to say so, and it has fallen upon me to do so.”
Jen: Whoa. That’s so powerful.
Austin: Right? I got that a little backwards, but I really feel like, particularly in this Christian conversation, and I don’t know that she meant specifically Christians, but because she used the word sinning, for me, that immediately awakens something in me, and I think there are so many conversations that essentially boil down to black folks are sinning, black folks are bad, black folks are pathological, black folks are wrong, right? It’s not that we’re perfect, right? My job is not to say “No, actually, black people are perfect beings.” My job is to point out how black folks have been sinned against more than they’ve been sinning. It’s her words, and her work, that propels me forward. Yeah.
Jen: I have goosebumps. That is strong. I’m going to link, I’ll link up to her work, as well.
Austin: Yeah, that would be fantastic.
Austin: Yeah. I’m on the Twitter @AustinChanning, same thing with IG @AustinChanning. On Facebook it’s my full name, which is Austin Channing Brown, and this year, I really hope that we’ll be doing some fun stuff, Jen. I’ve got this book coming out, I’ve got a little video series that I’m working on, so I hope people can actually watch me have conversations about race, hint, hint, hint. There might be a special guest, who I’m really excited to talk about.
Jen: Somebody might be in the series with you. I don’t know, I’m just saying it’s probably going to be a really great episode.
Austin: I think there are going to be some fabulous earrings. Yeah. I think there will be a lot of things unfolding, but the big thing, for sure, is going to be this book, which comes out in May. I’m Still Here.
Jen: It’s so soon. Everybody listening, I’m going to have every bit of this linked on my website, all of Austin’s social channels, the book which you want to pre-reorder this minute, and all the other spaces. You’ll be so glad.
Okay, sister, hey, thank you for being on today.
Austin: My pleasure.
Jen: What a great hour. It just passed in a minute for me.
Austin: It really did.
Jen: Just in a minute. Okay, so next time, we’ll be at your house, filming something for your space. I love it. Let’s just keep trading.
Austin: The baby will be present.
Jen: Oh, my gosh. If you think I’m not going to hold your baby, you need to go ahead and settle in your spirit that I’m going to love that baby so hard the whole time I’m there.
Austin: If you don’t, I am going to get on your Facebook page and tell everyone that you don’t love babies as much as you say you do.
Jen: Oh, my gosh. I cannot even wait. I can’t wait. All right. Thanks for being on today.
Austin: So good, Jen.
Jen: Love that girl. Love her, love her. Smart, funny, delightful, important leader. I hope you liked that conversation. I understand that some of our conversations in this series are just going to rub, they’re going the create tension, and that’s just great. That is wonderful. I’m happy to hear it. I’m glad for that. I think this is a provocative series, and it’s good, because faith should be. Some questions are just hard. And some spaces are difficult and challenging, like racial equality, and reconciliation. I thank you for sticking with us through it, saying I’m just committed to staying in the tension, and holding on to it, and listening and learning, even when it rubs. I’m grateful to Austin for the gifts that she brings to bear on this earth.
You guys, keep coming back. I’m telling you, this series is all over the spectrum, so if you haven’t yet heard a faith leader, sort of in the space that you occupy, or that you’re interested in, just keep coming back. We’ve got activists, and we have contemplatives, and we have rebels, and we have Evangelicals. It’s all sort of in the mix, here. I hope by the end of it we’ll have a really broad, and beautiful, example of what the body of Christ looks like.
Thanks for being here, I will absolutely see you next week. I’m so grateful, as always, to bring you this show, to bring you these amazing people to put good conversations in front of us. I’m thankful that you listen. Also, thank you for subscribing, thank you for rating, and reviewing the podcast. That’s just so good for podcasts, you guys, so anytime you take two minutes to do that, that matters to all of us out here. We appreciate you so much, and love having you here, and I’ll see you next week.
Narrator: That’s it for today’s show. Hope you enjoyed this chat. Be sure to subscribe to my mom’s podcast and give it a “thumbs up” rating if you like it. From the whole Hatmaker family, hope you have a great week and see you next time!