White Awake: An Honest Look at What it Means to be White by Daniel Hill (Review)

Who Should Read this Book: White folks – specifically Christians but really anyone – who want to honestly examine and wrestle with what it means to be white, how whiteness shapes us, and how we can become aware.

What’s the Big Takeaway: Our culture shapes how we see everything and western culture, for centuries, has normalized white culture to the point many of us simply assume it is the norm against which all other cultures are judged. An honest and serious reckoning with our cultural identity requires eyes to see and ears to hear how we have been influenced and an openness to how we can, as disciples of Jesus, begin to change for the better.

And a Quote (Or two…or three):First we must contend with the normalization of white culture . . . With white culture serving as the baselines, we then evaluate everyone else’s culture based on the norms we associate with white culture” (31)

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 can go back to ‘normal,’ if we choose” (38)

The theology passed on to us from white forefathers is considered to be the normal, default standard for theology. It is the assume cultural norm. Everyone else’s theology is defined in relation to whiteness” (33)

Daniel Hill begins this book by sharing an interaction he had at a friend’s wedding. This friend was Indian and the wedding ceremony was full of symbols and traditions from the groom’s Indian heritage. At one point during the reception, Hill commented to his friend that he loved the ceremony and then he said, “I wish I had a culture too.” His friend responded that Daniel did have a culture and that when white culture comes in contact with other cultures, white culture always wins.

Ouch.

Hill writes this book for white Christians to move through the process of seriously reckoning with our white identity. Throughout the book, Hill is uncomfortably honest. The above story is not the only one he shares of a time when he said or did something that could have been taken as offensive. He shares being deeply thankful for the kindness and forgiveness offered to him by teachers, mentors and friends over the years.

In the past few years, the last year specifically, a lot of white people have become aware of racism in America. What often happens is that we learn about the evils of racism that still exist and impact large segments of society and we immediately ask, “what should we do?” We are action oriented. We want to fix things. Hill relates this is how he was, and sometimes still is. While action plays a small part in Hill’s book, his primary call is for us to listen and learn.

When we white people think we are becoming enlightened, we swoop in to try to save the day. This feeds into our own white savior complex and is paternalistic. I read this book as part of a reading group with Bridgebuilders, an organization in Chicago. They bring groups into the city to listen, learn and serve. One of the members shared how many of the groups show up with a deep desire to serve. They want to “fix” the city. Bridgebuilders helps them see that there are already groups in the city doing good work. A small group of people from outside cannot fix the city, plus there are churches with thousands of people already doing good work. The emphasis is on listen and learn.

For Hill, the first step in this listening and learning is recognizing that we have a cultural identity. In this, he argues that “color blindness” is actually a blindspots for it “minimizes the racial-cultural heritage of a person and promotes a culturally neutral approach that sees people independent of their heritage” (41). As his friend said, when white culture meets other cultures, it wins. To think you are objective is merely not to notice your own biases. Likewise, to think you are colorblind is to not notice your own culture or to assume your culture is the default.

Hill, being a pastor, argues that colorblindness minimizes the role of cultural identity played in the New Testament, in Christ and in the early church. From Joseph and Esther through to Jesus and on into the Ethiopian eunuch, cultures are an important part of God’s creation. In the eschaton we see a picture not of everyone blended into one, but of a celebration of diversity – “the glory and honor of the nations will be brought into” the new Jerusalem (Revelation 21:24, 26).

With that said, Hill moves into the meat of the book which includes seven stages that mark the process of a white person seeking to understand cultural identity and move from blindness to sight. These seven stages, each with its own chapter, are encounter, denial, disorientation, shame, self-righteousness, awakening and active participation. Hill notes you do not necessarily move through each stage in order and can move back and forth from time to time.

Overall, this is a necessary and helpful book. I’ve read and heard black Christians say they are weary from trying to educate white people. Hill’s book is an effort to take this burden off our black brothers and sisters in Christ. If you are a white person wrestling with issues of race, wondering what you can or should do, Hill’s book is a great place to go.

That said, I could even imagine a critique where Hill’s book is taking eyes away from books of black Christians. Hill’s book should not be the only one you read, especially because you’d be depriving yourself of works by other great writers.  I’d probably recommend Jemar Tisby’s How to Fight Racism as a better place to start. Along with that, I highly recommend reading this book and books like it, in community. I got a lot more out of it by reading it in conversation with other people.

On that note, if you’re looking to move past reading and into listening more personally, check out the work Bridgebuilders does. They are a fantastic organization!

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