In 2017, Pastor Daniel Hill wrote White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White. White Awake is equal parts memoir and blueprint, helping white Christians better identify racial blindspots, systems of racism, and opportunities to pursue racial justice and reconciliation. Daniel Hill served as a pastor with Willow Creek church for several years and is currently the senior pastor of River City Community Church in Chicago. It was through a conversation with a friend of South Asian/Indian descent that Daniel first had an encounter with race. As a result of this encounter, Daniel went on a journey to understand white identity. This book seeks to walk alongside white Christians as they develop a new cultural identity in the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation.

Our For the City team thought so highly of this book that we organized a book club about it to create healthy dialogue around the issue of racial justice. This also created an opportunity to discuss the benefits and challenges of the diversity present on our team. While we took many things away from this book, we benefited greatly from learning about the phases most white Christians go through in the racial awakening process. We’ve broken down this multi-phase process into three stages: Exposure, Adaptation, and Active Participation. This post focuses on Stage One; posts on stages two and three are forthcoming.

Stage One: Exposure

Exposure deals with the first four phases of the racial awakening process. These phases are primarily focused on the internal development of a new cultural identity through education, relationships, and narratives that look at our society’s shared history through a minority lens. The Exposure stage consists of four phases: Encounter, Denial, Disorientation, and Shame.

Encounter

The Encounter phase can also be understood as the understanding cultural identity phase. According to Hill, this phase is defined by a pair of questions: “Who am I?” and “How do I fit into the world?” (p. 25) A person responds to those questions through the lenses of culture, race, and class. While Western society is highly individualistic, individuals find their identity primarily through group associations.

Without understanding how cultural identity is created and sustained, it is difficult to appreciate how most white people think about race and racism. Because of their cultural identity, white Americans typically approach the concept of race through the lens of individual racism.

In the Encounter phase, a person is exposed to ideas of race on a systemic level. This includes exposure to racial history that broadens the scope of racism beyond chattel slavery and the civil rights movement. The Encounter phase is made up of four interlocking racial realities in America:

1. The social construct of race:  A social construct of race is a man-made, arbitrary idea that skin color determines different levels of superiority or inferiority. Understanding the motives and narratives that led to the creation of the social construct of race helps us identify and examine its implications on contemporary society.

2. The history of white superiority: When most white Americans discuss “white superiority,” they are talking about  individuals who hold prejudice and racial malice against people of color. This view fails to recognize white supremacy as a system that has rigged society to disproportionately favor whiteness to the detriment of people of color. It is during this phase that the individual begins to understand that white supremacy is significantly more pervasive than they previously understood and reaches far beyond the Ku Klux Klan and Nazism.

3. The narrative of racial difference: The narrative of racial difference was popularized by Bryan Stevenson’s book, Just Mercy. The term describes the false belief that black people are inferior to other racial groups. Racial difference was created to enable and maintain slavery. However,the Thirteenth Amendment didn’t lead to the dissolution of racial difference but its evolution. It’s the same narrative that leads to the denial of opportunities and unfair treatment of people of color and promotes violence against African Americans.

4. The narrative’s infection of social systems: The narrative of racial difference is so destructive because it “integrates the two racial realities... race is a social construct, and this construct was built around the history of white supremacy.” (p. 58) When this narrative of racial difference is left unchecked, it inflicts catastrophic damage upon every level of society (individuals, communities, and social systems). Examples of this damage include chattel slavery, vagrancy laws, the illegalization of interracial marriage, Jim Crow laws, lynchings, mass incarceration, and the academic achievement gap. 

Denial

Upon encountering race as a social construct, the history of white supremacy, the narrative of racial difference, and its effects on social systems, the most common response for white people is denial. This is due in large part to how each of these issues have been presented over a lifetime. Daniel Hill explains the difference between white and minority perspectives on history this way:

 “People of white European ancestry remember a history of discovery, open lands, manifest destiny, endless opportunities, and American exceptionalism. Yet communities of color, especially those with African and indigenous roots (Native and Mexican Americans), remember a history of stolen lands, broken treaties, slavery, boarding schools, segregation, cultural genocide, internment camps, and mass incarceration.” (p. 79)

The way people from around the world remember World War II demonstrates the “selectiveness” of American history. Americans understand the conflict as a war between the Axis and the Allies, during which Japan and Nazi Germany were the antagonists and Western Europe, America, and Russia were the protagonists. For Americans, the history of the war starts not with the invasion of Poland in 1939 but the attack on Pearl Harbor in December 1941.

Americans further tailor the history of the war by omitting the parts that cast a negative light upon the nation. For example, the U.S. government forcefully incarcerated 120,000 Japanese Americans on the West Coast out of fear and racial prejudice produced by the Pearl Harbor attack. Though we were also at war with Germany at the same time, no German Americans were incarcerated or sent to internment camps. It wasn’t until 1988 that the American government admitted the camps were a direct result of prejudice, racism, and a failure of leadership. As a result, every survivor of the camp received reparations in the sum of $20,000. Hill describes his response to learning this history:

 “I found myself again wondering how I had learned about World War II in school yet had never heard of internment camps, national admissions of racism, or the corresponding reparations. How could something this major have happened within a century and go unmentioned in history class?” (p.75)

As a result of the Denial phase, Hill found himself wrestling with a series of questions that I commend to you:

  • If society treats people of color differently than white people, is my “color- blindness” just an excuse to compartmentalize and ignore the issue?
  • Is it possible my grandparents, whom I adore, are a part of this larger race problem?
  • What about my parents and myself? Are we a part of the problem?
  • Are “good” people like myself simply ignorant when it comes to race? Or worse, are we closet racists unwilling to acknowledge the problems in society and our own hearts?

In the midst of the Exposure and Denial phase inevitably comes what Navajo theologian Mark Charles calls white trauma, the “complicit impact centuries of traumatizing oppression towards people of color has had on white people” (p.72).
When faced with the realities of America’s racialized society, white trauma kicks in. At a societal level, this happens because it’s traumatic to imagine that a country that aspires to be a place of equity for all people has committed such atrocities against its own citizens. It’s at the point of white trauma that one reaches a fork in the road. On the one hand, a person can use their denial as a coping mechanism and walk away from the awakening process. This leads to fear and the realization that your reality is based on a lie. Alternatively, a person can accept the truth with humility and, with the posture of a learner, take a next step in their truth-seeking journey.

Disorientation

For the person who takes the brave step to pursue truth, the next phase is disorientation. This is a season marked by newfound blindness concerning race. Hill describes the four major causes of disorientation:

1. Lack of exposure: A lack of exposure is disorienting because white people lack authentic interactions and relationships with people of color. In books like The Big Sort, we see how American society is growing more segregated and isolated. People tend to live and work in enclaves that are ethnically and economically homogeneous. Historically, most segregation has been “de jure” segregation - segregation created and maintained through legislation. Today, most segregation is “de facto” segregation and perpetuated through self-selection. Though the motivation creating segregated lives is different, the result—homogenous experiences—remains the same.

2. Low racial stamina: As a result of limited exposure across racial lines, white people have minimal stamina to handle race-based stress. Hill suggests that  “one of the manifestations of privilege that comes with white skin in America is being sheltered from having to engage with “race-based stress”(p.90). Dr. Robin DiAngelo, an academic and writer on critical discourse, popularized the concept of low racial stamina in her 2018 book White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism.

3. Limited theological understanding: For a large segment of  the evangelical community, there is a deficient understanding of the holistic implications of the gospel. Evangelicals tend to emphasize proclaiming the good news (evangelism) but under-emphasize or completely discard the need to demonstrate the gospel within relationships, communities, and society. Theologically, evangelicals tend to emphasize right orthodoxy (right belief) but under-emphasize right orthopraxy (right practice).

4. Identity Crisis: In the pursuit of shaping a new cultural identity one will inevitably experience a crisis of identity. As white Christians learn to navigate the conflicting narratives of their Christian and American identities inner turmoil will arise.

“At the heart of the awakening journey is an ongoing crisis of identity...To be both a white Christian and a white American is to be caught between two warring factions. We may not like this, and we often struggle to acknowledge the depth of the conflict, but both of these identity sources remain at war as they vie for supremacy in our lives...Becoming a Christian who is also white should mean rejecting the ideology of white superiority. Our allegiance to Jesus should enable us to recognize that this ideology is antithetical to the Bible, as is any system, ideology, or narrative that attempts to position one group of people as superior.”(p.95-96)

Shame

The final phase of the Exposure stage is Shame. Shame happens as a result of the internal chaos that accompanies exposure to new narratives and acknowledging society’s current racial issues. Shame is an intense feeling of distress that leads to feelings of unworthiness. For white people, shame often leads to embarrassment caused by their ignorance of history, white supremacy, and the ways in which race shapes all of American society.

White Christians and white non-Christians process shame very differently. While non-Christians feel trapped by their shame and experience despair, white Christians can hope through lament. Daniel Hill describes biblical lament as “a liturgical response to the reality of suffering and engages God in the context of pain and trouble” (p.107). By going to God in lament, we can fight the paralysis of overwhelming shame. Through lament, Christians are freed from seeing issues of race and racism as problems to be solved, but realities to be mourned.

CONCLUSION

The Exposure stage is heavy, emotional, and burdensome. However,the cost is worth the pursuit of truth and reconciliation. In the midst of the Exposure stage, white Christians are able to gain new perspectives and grow in their ability to empathize with people of color. Most importantly, they get more of God. In Stage Two, Adaptation, we’ll talk about self-righteousness and awakening.


James Hart
James serves as the Resource Development Director and has been a part of For the City since 2017. James earned an M.Div in Missional Studies and an M.A.R in Intercultural Studies. He is married to his wife Angela and they have four kids. He is a native of San Antonio, TX, and now lives in the inner-city of Austin, TX.