White Awake: An Honest Look At What It Means To Be White
InterVarsity Press, 2017
–Review by Landrum P. Leavell III, ThD.
This is a powerful, transparent, and needed book to inform anyone actually involved in or looking to join the conversation, practice, and hard work of racial reconciliation as it pertains to the local church. This book is not for the platitudinous or the pontificating. It speaks to real-world, on-the-street, in-the-seat relationships and realities.
My own studied opinion is that there is merely a paltry percentage of churches today that is truly interested in and/or investing in the tough work of racial reconciliation in the local church. (Maybe there is the once-a-year multi-congregation service for Thanksgiving or something, usually held at the majority culture’s church.) But for the most part, the conversation is left to the activists and pundits outside the ecclesiastical fence.
The vast majority of American Christianity continues to be insulated, for the most part segregated, and shows little interest getting serious about what is hard, intentional, messy, and often frustrating work. I met Daniel Hill at one of Len Sweet’s Orcas Advances fifteen years or so ago. He served at Willow Creek Community Church and was about to embark on the journey he describes in this book. His stepping out was a move of both fortitude and faith, commitment and conviction.
As Brenda Salter McNeil states in her foreward: “One of the primary issues we must face, especially in this socio-political climate, is the need for white people to do the hard work of wrestling with what it really means to be white.” (1) Frankly, in the everyday world of most in the majority culture, there is little interest in or impetus for any form of wrestling. Admittedly, Hill acknowledges that the word “privilege” can be a loaded word. But he appeals to the definition of Rev. Julian DeShazier, a pastor in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago and also known as the successful hip-hop artist J. Kwest: “the ability to walk away.” Hill notes that this is “one of the essential truths we as white people need to remember (or become aware of, if it’s new) as we contend with the normalization of whiteness. When the journey begins to feel like any combination of scary, confusing, disorienting, or even painful, we have a privilege that people of color do not: we can walk away; we go back to ‘normal,’ if we choose.” (38)
Hill uses the terms “racial awareness” and “racial awakening” and begins the book by explaining and exploring cultural identity. One of the many lessons he learned during his initial attempts to start a culturally diverse ministry with a group that would be intentional around the pursuit of cultural diversity was that he was flying blind. And he was approaching a crossroads, unsure what the alternative directions were. Early and subsequent conversations showed the questions, objections, and sticking points remain remarkably similar, while also pointing to the need for biblical motivation and acknowledgment of cultural blind spots. “The ideology of Christian colorblindness is fortified by theological truths that are unfortunately misapplied to cultural identity.” (41) [Look at the “alls”—all have sinned, all need redemption, all equal at the foot of the cross] Yet the role cultural identity plays in the story of many scriptural heroes, including Jesus, is minimized by the colorblindness ideology. [I first heard (and was infected by) Leonard discuss (read rant!) colorblindness years ago as a problem—we don’t need to be colorblind, we need to be and see “color-rich.” Amen.]
Daniel takes us with him on his journey (makes me think of Pat Green’s song: “The road goes on forever, and the party never ends!”). We encounter race daily since the day we were born. Hill builds the book on seven stages that mark the cultural identity process of a white person seeking transformation from blindness to sight: encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening, and active participation. One can enter and reenter certain stages at multiple points along the way. “But the one stage that remains foundational throughout the process is the encounter. We must learn to see critical encounters with race; if we don’t, the rest of the process collapses.” (49) [What should these encounters ignite in us, and what may we come to see?]
There is a very helpful section on four interlocking racial realities in America that are necessary to see in order to understand our own cultural identity: the social construct of race, the history of white supremacy, the narrative of racial difference, the infected social systems.
At one point in the early days of River City Church, as he was at a point of hanging his head in shame and embarrassment following a conversation in a ten-week small group exploring issues of race and justice, one of his elders said, “I appreciate you apologizing, but we don’t need your apologies. What we need is your resilience. It’s okay that you’re feeling weak, disoriented, and unclear as what to do. What’s not okay is that you quit because of those feelings. I need you to be resilient and to stick in the game and to walk alongside us who have no choice but to move forward.” (99)
I can’t underestimate how much Hill’s transparency means to the import and impact of this book. He is an ongoing learner, doesn’t speak from the top of the mountain. He tells us what he knew and how much he didn’t know. As I’ve both observed and learned, there’s no “there,” no point to which we will ascend, can kick back, and disengage. Passive complicity, disengagement, and ignore-ance are all part of satanic strategy. The process is long, frustrating, messy, imprecise, and will only last a lifetime.
Bottom line? Get this one. Needed read. Could wreck your life and ministry. And get you “relocated.” No guts, no glory. I tweeted my way through it.
* There are discussion questions at the end of the book for each chapter. These would be a great way to begin or continue and expand your own journey of racial awareness and awakening.