Self-Portrait of a White Woman​

by Jen Brown

Why now, White people?
Why now, White woman?
Why now, Jen Brown?

Scrolling on my phone through the crowds of half-masked White friends and colleagues in full streets.

Passing White family portraits in my hall so many times a day in close quarantine quarters.

Vainly staring at my own zoom image for too many hours of meetings.

Past time
to spend more time
asking myself questions.

The more in focus and closer it gets, the more uncomfortable it gets for me to keep my eyes wide.

It was easier on me to feel part of the earnest ‘we,’ wagging fingers at a racist bogeyman or idea ‘out there.’ Self-righteous anger. Our eyes trained to a place of othering.

Too slowly and circuitously, our ‘we’ came to seeing and naming the racism and anti-Blackness  our own institutions and systems wrought. More self-righteous anger at the unveiling.

There are deeper truths in gazing at our collective self-portrait but still easier to not look for myself in the second row, third from the margin.

A harder moment is staring at my own framed self. In stillness. Almost under force of repetitive aching headlines and sorrrowed chants to not avert my eyes downward.

How was I raised? When I was old enough to make my own choices, which did I make? Whose voices are on my bookshelf spines? If I thought I was doing ‘the work’ at work, why was I running that meeting? Whose leadership did I support? What power am I afraid to share? What history do I continue? What do I do with my power to choose, power to ‘go home’? I could end a day of ‘working on equity’ but whose story of racism am I telling? Am I telling mine? Who have I held myself accountable to? What is my White son learning from me? Can I self-consciously look inward and out at my Whiteness benefitting me? What do I do with this privilege to look or to look away? What will I ask of myself next year, next ten?

I reflect on what’s mirrored before me. It’s embarrassing to be exposed by this self-portrait and discover about myself what others have experienced in me for my near half-century.

I have to look, to account, to ask forgiveness, to do more. Radical honesty calls for understanding that my feelings have nothing to do with the murderous impact of anti-Black racism.

Pictures capture split moments but not movement.

I stare back at my serious eyes knowing this discomfort is a practice and a reminder, not an end. This is not about a neat resolution or answers that I do not have. 

I must see the injustice and beauty in my world at the same time. This is about love and also knowing that being kind and loving doesn’t reimagine or rebuild a new justice.

The more I look, reflect, question what I had not questioned before,

The more I see that this self-portrait is still a work in progress.

Jen Brown is Director and Co-Founder of the Alliance for Research in Chicagoland Communities ( at Northwestern University. ARCC aims to catalyze and support community-academic research partnerships that lead to health and equity and our work is led by a community-academic participatory governance structure. We are thankful to Chicago Beyond for the ‘Why Am I Always Being Researched?’ guidebook. Jen was a 2019 Chicago United for Equity fellow. Find her at @JenBrownARCC on twitter.