In this three part series we are walking through the racial awakening process that white Christians experience in the pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation. The detailed awakening process can be found in Daniel Hill’s book White Awake: An Honest Look at What It Means to Be White. In Part I of this series, we unpacked the first stage of the racial awakening process by looking at the first four phases of Exposure:


1. Encounter: Exposure to the history and ideas of race, white supremacy, and the narrative of racial difference on a systemic level
2. Denial: A fork in the road where one must decide to reject flawed narratives around race, white supremacy, and racial difference or take the brave next step 
3. Disorientation: A season marked by newfound blindness concerning race
4. Shame: The result of the internal chaos that accompanies exposure to new narratives and acknowledging the current racial issues in society

Adaptation

In this post, we’ll walk through Stage II, Adaptation. This stage focuses on going from internal processing to shaping and living out a new cultural identity through two phases; Self-Righteousness and Awakening.

Self-Righteousness

During the Self-Righteousness Phase, those walking through the awakening process begin to become egotistical as their in-group/out-group dynamics shift. In White Awake, Daniel Hill notes that everyone tends to assume a posture of self-righteousness. He uses the story of the prodigal sons in Luke 15 and the parable of the holier—than—thou tax collector in Luke 18 to illustrate how Jesus taught against our self-righteous tendencies. Desperate to protect their pride, white Christians now begin to identify with minorities and other white people who understand the new narrative they’ve learned. They start to reimagine their identity and begin to affiliate with a new in-group - “woke” individuals that believe they have overcome their biases and can now help others see the light. 

In his book How to Think, Alan Jacobs makes an interesting observation about in-group/out-group dynamics. Those outside a group seeking to become insiders devote all their efforts to finding commonalities with the in-group. Shared values  allow outsiders to form bonds with other group members and become insiders. Sadly, once an outsider becomes a part of the in-group a shared disdain for those outside the group is often the glue that holds the group together. Jacobs writes that this “is perhaps the most telling and troubling finding of all - their [the in-group’s] desire to punish the out-group is significantly stronger than their desire to support the in-group.” (p. 73) Meaning, insiders maintain commonality by focusing on punishing those deemed as outsiders. Daniel Hill argues self-righteousness is toxic in two other ways:

1. Self-righteousness undermines healthy identity development.

Self-righteousness undermines healthy identity development by causing one to view themselves too highly while considering those in the out-group inferior. A significant number of people on this journey begin to see two groups form: “Good” white people and “bad” white people. A good white person cares about racial justice, while a bad white person does not. The process of simply assigning people to the good or bad group is overly-simplistic and toxic to developing a healthy cultural identity.

2. Self-righteousness undermines our ability to dismantle the system of racism.

Self-righteousness turns the conversation from understanding unjust systems back to individual prejudices. If racism simply involved bad people making bad choices toward those ethnically different from them, it would be significantly easier to deal with.

To dismantle systems of racism, we need to understand how the concept of race shapes us and our society more broadly. Once racist systems are built, individual racists need not be present for the system to continue operating as intended. When people are simply“good”or “bad,” the focus shifts from the bigger structural problems to individual actions.
In the awakening process, those dealing with self-righteousness must practice repentance. It is only through reliance upon the grace of God through Christ and regular repentance that one can find healing. Daniel Hill shares his experience with this process:

“No, I repent all the time because I believe I’m surrounded by the sickness of racism. I see the sickness in the ideology of white supremacy and have no doubt that it has infected me. I see the sickness in the narrative of racial difference and have no doubt it has infected me. I see the sickness of systemic racism and have no doubt that I contribute to it in ways I’m not aware of. I’m surrounded by sickness, and I am sick. I am in need of the great Physician. It’s the only hope I have to be healthy”(p.139).

Awakening

In the Awakening phase, Hill identifies seven markers that confirm a white person’s growth on the path to healthy cultural identity development. Each marker is discussed in full in Chapter Nine of White Awake. Brief descriptions of each are provided below.

Marker 1: Becoming Theologically Awake

To be theologically awake is to know Jesus as Lord and Savior, to share the good news of his gospel, and participate in his plan of redemption for all of creation. “It is also to embrace the fact that a spiritual rebirth ushers in both the salvation of our souls and our participation in the redemption of this world,” writes Hill. “It is also to hold together activism and evangelism; protest and prayer; personal piety and social justice; intimacy with Jesus and proximity to the poor” (p. 144).

Marker 2: Recognizing the Kingdom Battles of the Imago Dei

Theologically, the roots of racism are a direct attack on the image of God in man - the imago dei. The imago dei teaches that every person—regardless of race, gender, age, or ability—is an equal image-bearer of God and, as such, is worthy of dignity, value, and respect. In the kingdom of God, everyone is inherently valuable. In the kingdom of man, there are hierarchies ascribing various amounts of value to individuals and groups. To learn more about the image of God, check out Pastor John Onwuchekwa’s Imago Dei -The Crown of Creation.

Marker 3: No Longer Being Defensive about White Supremacy

The term white supremacy tends to make people defensive and inwardly cringe. Ephesians 6:10-12 reminds us that white supremacy, just like other forms of evil, is a system perpetuated by “powers of this dark world.” As people more deeply appreciate  the evil and destructive nature of this ideology, they’ll realize it’s not something to be defensive of, because nothing in it is worth defending.

Marker 4: Dismantling White Supremacy Before Seeking of Diversity

When white people and white institutions begin to recognize how homogeneous they truly are, their first action step is often to prioritize “diversity.” Though intentions may be good, pursuing diversity first “risk[s] prioritizing the secondary problem (lack of relationship) over the primary and most threatening problem (white supremacy)” (p.150).

Here are a few (slightly modified) questions Hill offers to help predominantly white churches and organizations process the decision to pursue racial diversity:

  • What do we hope will happen as a result of hiring and promoting people of color?
  • How will we create structures and systems for allowing these staff members to speak into any vestiges of white supremacy that they discover in the culture of our church/organization?
  • How can we empower staff of color to speak into vestiges of white supremacy if our congregants/staff are unaware of or unable to utter white supremacy?
  • How can we protect our staff of color from backlash when they begin to challenge the historical assumptions of our institution?

Marker 5: Measuring Growth by Asking “How Well Do I See?” Instead of “Am I Doing What I’m Supposed to Do?”

This marker requires a profound shift in thinking. At the heart of white culture are the values of individualism and meritocracy - both of which incline people to move immediately to action. To pursue long term change, individually and systematically, the scoreboard must change from doing to seeing.

Marker 6: Recognizing Privilege Faster and With Greater Precision

This marker can be summarized in two steps:

  1. Recognizing and acknowledging that privilege exists. In my story, I came to realize my own light complexion affords me privileges darker-skinned Latinos don’t receive.
  2. Overcoming blindness to privilege requires recognizing your own privilege and its continuous blinding effects. There are whole dimensions of reality white people don’t understand because of privilege, and they must fundamentally challenge the lenses through which they’ve learned to view the world.

Marker 7: Living in a State of Hopeful Lament

Lament throughout the Bible is a process of  crying out to God, asking for help, and responding in trust and praise. What makes living in a state of lament hopeful is the constant reminder that our reliance is on God, who is the only able to bring true justice and reconciliation.

 “Lament is a beautiful and needed resource because it has a unique way of remaining awake to sorrow without succumbing to it,” Hill writes. “Lament allows us to grieve injustice but not fall into despair. We can be awake to the pain of the world but still press forward in faith because of another beautiful word at the center of the gospel: hope”(p. 158).

To start learning how to lament with hope read and pray through Psalm 6:6, 71:12, and 86:12.

From Repentance to Practice

In the Adaptation stage, one must continue to grow and evaluate the state of their heart as well as their motives. It is only with this posture that living with a new cultural identity is possible. In the final installment of this series, we will walk through ten ways white Christians live their lives in pursuit of racial justice and reconciliation. In the Active Participation stage, we will see how a new cultural identity allows believers to better participate in Christ’s redeeming work of creation.

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James Hart

I lead our Resource Development Team and have been a part of the For the City Network since 2017. I have an M.Div in Missional Studies and a M.A.R in Intercultural Studies from Liberty University. I am married to my beautiful wife Angela and we have four kids. I am a native of San Antonio, TX, and now live in the inner-city of Austin, TX.